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Open Letter To PM Modi: Will You Protect The Right To Education For ‘Sabka Vikas’?

By Samina Bano, Public Policy Entrepreneur & RTE Crusader:

Dear Prime Minister Narendra Modi,

First of all, many congratulations on winning the assembly elections with full majority and continuing to be the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world. I truly appreciate your call to win the trust of minorities and disadvantaged communities in your address to the newly elected NDA members, provided it is indeed practiced in action and not merely words.

Voicing The Voiceless

Being a Muslim woman with a mobility challenge, I represent three most marginalized sections of the society–woman, minority, and disabled. Any person with such conditions in India is mostly living on the edges and has no voice. Fortunately, I found mine while escaping such a fate through access to good quality education that I chanced upon. With that voice I write to you so that you can hear us all, including women, minorities, people with disabilities, Dalits, the poor, and all possible vulnerable groups.

A Meeting That Changed My Impressions

Let me first recount the experience of my first meeting with you that is etched in my memory in ways that you would surely like to know. With an Engineering degree in Computer Science, an MBA from IIM Bangalore, and a US-based job, I decided to use all my skills to give back to my country, the country that I deeply love. I came back to India, particularly to Uttar Pradesh, in 2013. A year later, in January 2014, a few months before the assembly election, I had the opportunity to meet you in Gandhinagar while you were still the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Having grown up with the terrifying stories of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, where I had lost my own relatives, your name brought several uncomfortable emotions into our minds. Turning 18 in 2002 wasn’t the best growing up experience I had. As we, a group of almost 12 people, all Hindu men except for me and a Muslim guy, were led to your office, I was expecting to be entering rooms inside rooms to finally reach your chamber as I had seen in other Chief Minister’s offices. Just as we entered the first room, I was looking down searching for another doorway but was startled to see everyone taking their seats. Without looking up I retorted, “Guys we have to go further inside, get up”.  While saying that I looked up and there you were, just a couple of meters from me. I wasn’t prepared to encounter you so suddenly and up close. I was stunned, frozen, and was shivering from the shock of meeting a person whom we had dreaded all along. Words refused to leave my tongue without quivering as I greeted you.

I took my seat right in front of you as earlier decided in the group. I was to introduce myself first but I struggled to sound fearless and confident in my first few sentences as I tried hard to stop my tongue from trembling and heart from pounding in panic. Regaining my composure, I spoke about my work in social inclusion in education that you heard with patience, asked questions about, and also suggested that I meet the Principal Secretary of Gujarat. Your office not only arranged my meeting with the Principal Secretary Mr. S J Haider but also a visit to the state-of-the-art Science Centre demonstrating GPS tagging of roads, schools, hospitals, and others. That was truly impressive to the engineer in me.

After you heard us speaking for almost an hour, you spoke patiently for 30 minutes like a statesmen covering every point we had raised with facts and logic. I remember your assurance of safety and equal opportunity to minorities and the disadvantaged if you became Prime Minister. I can’t say that I wasn’t impressed with your calm and composed demeanor and well informed responses to our queries that sounded honest. That was quite contrary to my earlier impression of yours. For once I believed that you probably were not the same as we had perceived you to be. That probably you indeed believed in taking the country forward with inclusive development. What caught my attention even more was that when I got another fleeting chance to meet you in Delhi after a month, you remembered me well and asked after my experience of Science Center visit in Gujarat.

A BJP supporter seen wearing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mask during his rally ahead of the sixth phase of Lok Sabha elections on May 10, 2019 in Rohtak, India. Photo by Manoj Dhaka/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

You may no longer remember that meeting, but it did leave a lasting impression in my mind. Maybe you were indeed going to invest in “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” as you became Prime Minister, I had thought then. I recounted this experience of meeting you with several people, expressing my optimistic hopes of you.

However, in the last five years, I was left disappointed with multiple cases of lynching (the first one right in my home state of Uttar Pradesh) cow politics, unprecedented hatred, growing unemployment, censoring the media, caste-based violence, and the suppression of dissent.

Yet, I am still holding on to my hope.

Reclaiming ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’

What I am most shocked to read from the draft National Education Policy was that the government is considering abolishing Section 12.1.C of the Right to Education Act. It details the one scheme that promotes the inclusion of minorities, Dalits, and the poor in classrooms, giving them potentially the most effective opportunity to find their place in the society as equal citizens. I have worked six years in Uttar Pradesh to activate and implement this policy in collaboration with the state government after fighting elite private players and legal battles to enable 1,40,000 children from economically weaker section and disadvantaged communities from across 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh to access schools. These children would have otherwise not only been left out of school but engaged in child labor at the tender age of five or six. It shouldn’t be surprising to you that almost 60-70% of the children impacted come from minority and Dalit communities. This scheme has the potential to impact 20 million children in the next 10 years and is easily one of the largest public private partnership programs in the world promoting social justice.

At Govt Adarsh Sen. Sec. School Mundital

Abolishing such a powerful and inclusive scheme is a major lapse in governance. It is nothing less than blasphemy in a democracy. Those powerful private schools that have been benefiting from inequality and exclusion are the only victors. There’s numerous empirical evidence proving the efficacy of this scheme that benefits not only poor children in accessing good quality education but also the rich kids in becoming more generous, compassionate, and empathetic.

The effort it took us to reform RTE 12.1.C-related policies in Uttar Pradesh after a persistent advocacy effort and legal battle in the Supreme Court was highly undermined when the Karnataka government recently brought up the same prohibitive and regressive policy taking away the luxury of ‘choice from poor parents. When UP started progressing, it was quite disappointing to witness states like Karnataka and Chhattisgarh weakening the institution of RTE.

You don’t throw the baby out with the bathtub. I would strongly urge your government to strengthen this scheme by amending the policy to add more clarity, penal provision for non-compliance, strong governance mechanisms, choice to parents, and timely reimbursements to schools. It will be testament to your promise of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas, and now Sabka Vishwas. Please do not kill that which already existam when there is a need for creating much more in order to truly realize an inclusive and flourishing democracy where everyone has equal rights, equal opportunities, and a dignified life. We would be happy to support government in every capacity we can.

2019 Is A New Beginning For You

I want to remember you as the impressive statesman I met in Gandhinagar five years ago. We are willing to let go of the past if you promise us an inclusive future, where all of us have a place in the country and all of us share in the growth story of the country. I still have high hopes from my Prime Minister and I am sure I will be heard.

Samina Bano is an Ashoka-Fellow & Acumen-Fellow working in State of Uttar Pradesh. Samina is the Founder & CEO of RightWalk Foundation working on a provision in Right to Education Act that enables poor children to study in private schools to promote social inclusion.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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