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World Environment Day: Moving From The Lockdown To A More Sustainable Future

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As parts of the world emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, many argue there is a “crisis of social imagination”, as we straddle between two historic periods: B.C and A.C, before and after coronavirus. The lockdown has been temporarily good for nature, like reduction in air pollution, with the Himalayas visible in some parts of India after 30 years.

Yet, commentators fluctuate between sustainable utopias and cynical despair with regards to long-term environmental implications. Whilst there are numerous proposals for how governments and cities can build back a sustainable future, this World Environment Day, we ask, what can citizens and young people do?

Lockdown has significantly changed our behavioural patterns: whether it be travelling, eating, shopping or time we spend in nature. Putting aside macro-level debates on sustainable recoveries, this article proposes four practical steps that citizens can take:

  1. Rethinking journeys and cycling the extra mile
  2. Consuming locally, responsibly and prudently
  3. Investing time in nature
  4. Demanding a sustainable future from our leaders

Rethinking Journeys And Cycling The Extra Mile

Lockdown has put a standstill to our journeys, whether it be work or leisure. A sustainable world necessitates reflecting on the essentiality of these commutes. Tourism, for instance, can substantially determine emissions patterns at the individual level. For many middle-class Indians, fewer and shorter-distance holidays can be one way of reducing carbon footprints.

The most significant journey to make is work travel. Can some of your work be done from home? Is it possible for you to go into the office fewer days per week? Service sector workers and employers are recognising that a substantial share of business travel is non-essential. Employees need to convince their workplaces that new ways of working are feasible post-lockdown.

Many young entrepreneurs in India are welcoming the change with 53% being optimistic about working from home and 51% primarily motivated to work from home few days a week to reduce commuting time.

Representational image.

In cases where it is essential to go back to work, we need to adopt sustainable modes of transport. Coronavirus’ health implications could lead to the demise of public transport, as people opt to use cars. This could considerably deteriorate air quality, affecting our health and the planet.

In this vein, the World Health Organisation has advocated walking and cycling. Cities around the world are banning or taxing cars in central areas and introducing cycling lanes and footpaths instead. For example, Bogota, Colombia created 76km temporary cycling lanes to increase mobility and reduce transmission risk. As C40 Cities argues, cycling can be an “affordable lower-risk mobility” option given the pandemic.

These arguments are especially true for young Indians who have a mobile and active lifestyle. Cycling may be unreasonable for long distances, but can you ditch the car to walk or cycle short distances, like local shopping, meeting neighbourhood friends or going to workplaces in the vicinity? Walking and cycling is not only good for the environment, it can also improve physical and mental health, especially given the sedentary lifestyles during lockdown. Cities such as Chennai were already contemplating cycling introductions prior to the virus – citizens should urge local leaders to realise these plans.

Consuming Locally, Responsibly, And Prudently

As a result of coronavirus, many are shopping locally and consuming items with less packaging (to reduce transmission risk). All of these lifestyle changes are good for the planet and should be continued post lockdown. Supporting local traders can boost the local economy whilst reducing our overall carbon footprints.

Local traders and farmers are often engaged in more sustainable practices and utilise less packaging which contributes to waste. As per Unilever and the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging alone represents an $80-$120 billion loss to the global economy, this is before the hidden emissions costs and biodiversity loss is added, like when plastic ends up in the ocean. In fact, 90% of plastic polluting our oceans, comes from only ten rivers, with Indus and Ganges ranking second and sixth amongst the world’s dirtiest rivers. Given the pandemic is disproportionately affecting farmers, consuming locally can be environmentally-friendly whilst supporting livelihoods of the most vulnerable in society.

Ganges Water Pollution Polluted holy Ganga with human waste, industrial leftovers, domestic sewage and religious rituals from towns cities poses threat to health environment. Kolkata India May 2019

The financial prudence that coronavirus has necessitated, sadly due to shortages and economic hardship, has reinforced a new concept of essentiality. Reducing overall consumption, whilst devastatingly hurting the poorest, has introduced a much-needed break to the “use and throw” culture which has dominated urban middle-class lifestyles. Being homebound, has given a chance to consumers to reduce food waste by eating out less, and be more energy efficient, like turning off non-critical appliances. Not only has this reduced unnecessary energy consumption, it is also reducing our electricity, gas and water bills at a time when many are strapped for cash.

Investing In Biodiversity

The theme for World Environment Day 2020 is “time for nature”, calling for urgent action to protect biodiversity. The lockdown measures have reconnected many of us to nature, especially those living in cities, who are longing for green spaces in concrete jungles. There is a newfound appreciation for local wildlife and plant species and community parks. Many have taken up to gardening, tree planting and exercising outdoors.

Sadly, most Indian cities do not meet international guidelines of having 25-35% of areas earmarked for recreational, open and green spaces. In the short-term, these spaces will become even more essential as governments recommend socialising outdoors to prevent virus transmission. Thus, this is an opportune time for us to rally behind community projects advocating for nature conservation and reforesting urban areas. Citizens across India have been involved in tree planting initiatives and involved in grassroots campaigns to save trees, as in Mumbai which has one of the world’s worst ratios of open spaces to people. Sustained activism and funding is required to jettison these movements, and gain support of community leaders and city planners.

Demand Change

The coronavirus has demonstrated the government’s ability to take drastic and immediate action in crises. Governments need to similarly respond to avert the climate crisis. Whilst the pandemic was sudden and associated measures unprecedented, the failure to respond to ongoing biodiversity loss and the global climate crisis, is one of the biggest public policy failings of our lifetime.

World Environment Day is an opportune time to call for action and highlight the climate emergency. Local governments can promote lifestyle changes discussed above by investing in pedestrianisation, creating cycling lanes, providing subsidies for bikes, investing more in green space, protecting biodiversity hotspots and supporting local farmers who are financially worst hit during this crisis.

They can take this opportunity to retrofit public infrastructure to make buildings more energy-efficient whilst creating jobs. Other initiatives include promoting sustainable and nutritious food by letting local farmers operate in government buildings, which can reduce overall travel and transmission risk, whilst reducing food waste. Nationally, seizing the moment means capitalising on green jobs, like financing the renewable energy sector and only bailing out firms, like airlines, which are committed to an environmentally sustainable future.

As we emerge from lockdown, our sustainable lifestyle changes can act as a catalyst for change. This Environment Day, let us demand change and most importantly, be the change we want to see in the world we will inherit. Urgent action to protect the environment is required for the future we want.

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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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