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From Paper To Disposable Plates: The Changing Faces Of Waste Management In Rural India

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While working for a world bank supported project, one of my prime responsibilities was to deliver training programs for rural communities on environmental awareness, focusing majorly on the issues of water conservation and waste management. The participants of the program were mostly farmers, daily wage labourers, village market shopkeepers and general public. Although they listened to the lecture very patiently and agreed to almost all the points that I used to tell them, one of the biggest questions I used to face at the end of every program was “what should we do to our waste other than dumping it on some isolated land or ultimately burning it?”

Prima facie the question may look easy but being aware of the pathetic condition of rural waste management infrastructure, it was very difficult for me to answer. Most of the times people, ignorant of the consequences, are left with no option but to burn the waste or dump it near local water bodies or barren lands.

Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has been a great success in terms of creating environmental awareness. Studies have shown that SBM has changed the perception of people towards the value of environment, especially the younger generation has been motivated to a greater extent to become the torchbearers of a Clean, Green and Healthy India. But, the institutional and infrastructural facilities for waste management are still miserable in rural areas. This article makes an assessment of the waste management infrastructure in rural India, its access to the rural communities and finds answer to the question “whether these facilities are sufficient enough to fulfil the demands of the ever-increasing waste in rural areas”.

Rural Waste: Changing Paradigm

Growing up in a rural community has been an opportunity to observe the difference between the quality and quantity of the waste that was generated two decades ago and the waste that is generated now. The type of waste has changed broadly from agricultural and domestic to plastic and polythene wastes and the quantity of the waste has increased many folds, leading to a surge in heaps of waste in rural areas. Rise is the FMCG sector and its intrusion in the local markets is one reason for the increased consumerism and in absence of waste dumping sites and waste collection bins, stockpile of sachets, wrappers, polythene bags can be seen all around. Easily available and durable plastic bottles, glasses, and plates have replaced traditional and biodegradable “patravali” also called “pattal”. Local water bodies and drains of village markets are filled with these plastic wastes.

The amount of waste generated by a community is an indicator of the economic prosperity and increased consumerism of the people, but in the course of economic prosperity we tend to become oblivious to the threats posed by the accumulation of waste all around us. During my stay in the rural and sub-urban areas, I observed that there has been a phenomenal change in the type of eatables available in rural markets. Specifically in Bihar, a few years ago, village markets were selling jhaal-muri, pakora, chana-chiura, and various other freshly prepared and unpacked food items that were mainly served in paper plates or in pattal which are easily bio-degradable in nature. Now they have been replaced by boiled/fried eggs, chow mein, veg rolls, egg rolls, etc., which are served in disposable plastic plates. This change in the marketed products is because of less efforts required, easy to serve, easily available raw material and most importantly, increased profit.

Domestic waste in villages, which used to be mostly agricultural or kitchen waste was never considered as waste, rather as a resource. Agri-waste and food leftovers were used to feed livestock and as fuel for cooking food etc. In the recent times the quality and quantity of the waste has changed drastically. Diapers and sanitary pads are the new entrants in this segment, which along with plastic carry bags, packaging materials including biodegradable kitchen waste are dumped in the backyards without any segregation of waste.

This change in the pattern of product-use and waste generation has not been addressed at the pace it was needed to. Infrastructure facilities seem to be insufficient and inefficient to tackle the situation and the Panchayati raj system has collectively failed to fulfil the needs and demands of the changing rural communities.

SBM (Gramin) sets well-defined roles for Gram Panchayats to act for management of rural waste. Provision of waste collection and segregation  has been enshrined in the document along with the appointment of sanitation workers and sanitation supervisors, but alas, nothing has changed in almost all parts of the nation except in a few. Gram Panchayat being the immediate administrative body of the village must develop its capacity to address the problem of rising waste in rural areas.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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

Bidisha was selected in’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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