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Excerpted from “Staggering Forward” by Bharat Karnad, published by Penguin India.

Inflection points in national and international airs are routinely heralded, and each decade is perceived as more dangerous than the previous one. Invariably, there’s a person, a country, an event or a series of incidents or an emerging situation that is identi ed as the trigger for things going askew. e second decade of the new millennium has been marked, in this respect, by the rise of political strongmen in major countries across the globe—Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Shinzo Abe in Japan, Donald J. Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India. these are highly motivated leaders who by the force of their personalities and ambitions and sometimes quirky policy agendas have changed the international relations dynamic. their similarity means they are each alive to what drives the others, and this makes for wariness all round, as well as, perhaps, a strained sort of regional and international peace. But it is peace all the same.

In the two vital democracies, India and the US, moreover, there are the walrus-moustachioed individuals coming into their own as influence-wielders. If Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the powerful right-wing social service organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), represents Hindu triumphalism and is the acknowledged éminence grise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Narendra Modi, John Bolton, no friend of India, the new US national security advisor (NSA) who replaced the steady General H.R. McMaster, will likely put teeth into President Trump’s truculent ‘America First’ policy and increase the dilemma for Delhi.1 Inclined to wage wars of denuclearization and regime change against Iran and North Korea, Bolton will encourage Trump’s worst tendencies and set the world up for a hair-raising ride to the nuclear abyss, because it is unlikely Putin and Xi will sit idly by and see Washington take out these states that are potentially levers to stall America’s regional designs.2 India will have to negotiate this international milieu, already rendered unpredictable and di cult by Trump’s ‘rash’ foreign policy ‘instincts’, and face the hazards of US policy fuelled by his pet peeves.3  That Modi has developed a rapport with Trump augurs well. But it also means that the White House will expect New Delhi to fall in with its policies without demurring and contribute to furthering US objectives, which expectation if belied can lead to Trump turning on India. Meanwhile, at home, Bhagwat and the RSS have hurrahed Modi along as he seeks recognition for India as the ‘jagat guru’ (world guru) and pushes the Indian state towards a palpably Hindu identity, heightening tensions in society along caste and religious lines and affecting the Indian polity—a problem Modi has publicly avoided addressing.4

Global power politics is a serious game requiring countries that matter to think and act big. Given its many attributes, India belongs in this group but has not been in the running for want of an inspiring leader with a clear national vision, the ability to get things done and the will to put India on the path to accelerated economic growth and prosperity and to great power. But the pursuit of great power requires a lean and effective apparatus of state that is able to efficiently implement policies and deliver on programmes in double-quick time and enable the ease of doing business. It also needs talent for conceiving and implementing agile realpolitik-minded foreign and military policies and obtaining an appropriate mix of war-fighting and credible strategic deterrent capabilities for the purpose, along with the knack for using hard power effectively as a tool of diplomacy.5

Narendra Damodardas Modi was elected with a thumping majority in 2014 in part because the people believed he would make the country progress on all these fronts. But he was sidetracked; his government got mired in the Hindu fringe politics of cow worship, beef-eating, ‘love jihad’ and the Ayodhya Ram Temple instead, and failed to initiate any kind of system transformation. Contrary to expectations, Modi also retained the rickety administrative structure—centred on generalist civil servants working in silos, immersed in the minutiae of cross-cutting laws, rules, regulations and procedures—that has hindered the nation’s progress. It is no wonder that so little was achieved during Modi’s first term, moving the stalwart diplomat K.S. Bajpai to lament the fact that ‘the country [seems] unaware of the deficiencies of mechanisms it has devised to serve its needs’.6

What is particularly surprising considering his big talk is how, in the external realm, Modi has stayed with the small stakes game anchored in short policy horizons that the previous governments had locked the country into. Continuing to lean overmuch on the United States, and keying on Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir rather than on the primary threat from China, is the sort of foreign policy a lesser state would follow for marginal gains. As a result, India has belied hopes, piled on disappointments, messed up on economic and strategic opportunities and underperformed in every sphere of national and international activity.7 e world, therefore, while not having given up on India just yet, has moved on from the ‘India story’ which, along with the ‘China story’, was all the rage on either side of the new millennium.8 While China has advanced by leaps under the strategically driven Xi and an enabling system, with its economy generating wealth at a rate that sees it racing to replace the US at the top of the heap, India has meandered, its global impact far less than the sum of its small successes.

this trend was expected to slow down, if not actually reverse, with Modi’s advent. His qualities as a self-made man, a showman and a strongman all rolled into one inspired confidence that he would get things done. India, it was widely believed, would be taken by the scruff of its neck as it were and frog-marched into economic plenty and the great power club. Too long victimized by a tardy nanny state spawned by pseudo-socialist ideology and politics and a di dent foreign policy, the Indian people desperately desired change. With his clean reputation, proven track record as chief minister of Gujarat and his formidable leadership qualities on display, Modi seemed the right t for the prime minister’s job, and just the man to turn the country around after the decade-long rule by the meek and mumbling Manmohan Singh.

In the Modi era, there is drive and bustle all right—corruption is at a lower ebb, at least in the higher reaches of government (counterpointed, however, by stories of ‘crony Gujarati capitalists’), some structural changes have been engineered in the economic sphere, new ideas to improve the lot of the people are being tried out and the focus on technology to provide development solutions is a departure from the norm. e government seems more responsive and the mechanisms to deliver public services and bene ts to the masses have improved. Coupled with the high hopes he held out for a new India, this part is what initially created the sizzle. But in the context of his many slogans heralding a new dawn for the country—‘Minimum government, maximum governance’, ‘Government has no business to be in business’—the radical makeover of the apparatus of state and economy along with a system redesign and overhaul, which Modi had hinted at, never came to pass. this is the reason for the puzzle.

Where the situation has changed for the worse is on the domestic scene. Social peace has a tincture of violence against Muslims and Dalits in it, with Hindu extremist groups interpreting the fact of Modi and the BJP in power as licence to create mayhem, fray the social fabric and exacerbate societal fault lines. Modi has tried to douse communal passions, but only half-heartedly, because the ruling party benefits electorally from religious polarization of the heterogeneous Indian society that is immune to other means of political mobilization. This is so because the majority Hindu community is divided into too many sects and diverse traditions to form a coherent political whole.

Excerpted from “Staggering Forward” by Bharat Karnad, published by Penguin India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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