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“I Thought I Knew What A Natural Disaster Looks Like Until I Witnessed Cyclone Titli”

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This post is part of theYKA Climate Action Fellowship, a 10-week integrated bootcamp to work on stories that highlight the impact of climate change on India’s most marginalized. Click here to find out more and apply.

There is no Planet B”– school and college students said, during the global climate strike demonstration in Delhi in September 2019. Hundreds marched with banners and placards, wanting to make their voices heard and demanding action from the government against climate change. “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” came the chants. I was overwhelmed by their sheer grit. I, too, shared with them this feeling of angst over lack of inaction towards such a grave issue. And after what I had encountered about a year ago, even more so.

Flashback to October 2018. I was working with an NGO in Odisha at the time. Cyclone Titli had hit the eastern coast, and I was a part of the team that was sent to Ganjam district – one of the affected areas – to assess the damage caused by the cyclone.

What I witnessed was unprecedented. Uprooted tree trunks, fallen electricity poles, broken signboards and damaged roads were some of the first signs of destruction that I noticed. We didn’t, however, gauge the true intensity of the cyclone or the magnitude of the havoc it had wreaked until we entered the first of the habitations in the Tumba gram panchayat in Patrapur block of Ganjam district.

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The cyclone, inappropriately named Titli (meaning butterfly in Hindi), had totally demolished the houses. Walls were completely shattered, roofs were blown away, there was debris lying all around. As a child, I had witnessed the floods in Mumbai in 2006, having grown up in the city. I still remember how the city was brought to a standstill— no electricity, no water, no transport for many days. I thought I knew what a natural disaster looks like. But it was at Tumba— that I witnessed the destruction of such enormity. I think the true ramifications of what it means to be struck by a natural disaster really hit me at that moment.

It obviously wasn’t the end of it though. While I was still absorbing the shock of the unpleasant sight around me, we climbed up a hill and what we saw there was even worse. Everything had either been washed away by the water or blown away by the winds. There was neither food nor water, since the water tanks and pipelines were broken.

Image provided by the author.

Thankfully, some relief had arrived from the government in the form of tarpaulin sheets to cover the houses and some rice for each family. Women were cooking in groups by making bonfires since the chulhas (stoves) in the houses had also been washed away.

I remember feeling disconcerted and thinking about how people were managing their lives without any resources. Some of the more uphill villages, as one of my team members aptly said, was a “warzone”. Houses razed, fields destroyed, trees fallen; people were left with nothing at all.

Later, we also heard stories from locals about what transpired during that horrific night. Some young men described to us how they rescued and relocated children, elders and women to higher heights when they saw water gushing into the villages. People said they had never seen such wrath of the wind and water before this. It was the first time that this part of the state had experienced a cyclone.

According to sources, the death toll was 77 and an estimated 60 lakh people were affected due to the cyclone and its aftermath. It can only be speculated that Titli was induced by climate change. There is, however, no denying that climate change-induced natural disasters have been on a rise, and affecting vulnerable communities. The burden of the impacts of climate change falls squarely and unfairly on these communities. We can’t escape the irony that those living in peaceful co-existence with nature are the ones suffering the brunt of these calamities.

Image provided by the author.

As we were leaving the hilly tribal areas of the Tumba GP with heavy hearts, the sky was overcast and it had started drizzling. Some women, who were visibly scared, asked us if the cyclone would strike again. Although we assured them that it will not, the fear in their eyes bore testimony to the horrors that Titli had caused. The experience had shaken me up, and I felt helpless and cynical. It was unfair for people who had never even heard of climate change to go through such misery. I felt really small in the face of the massive ordeal and injustice that we have put them through. Wasn’t there anything I could do about it?

Fast-forward to the present. I am now working in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, which is known as the ‘cotton capital’ of the state. Here too, I see the impact of unpredictable weather events on vulnerable communities. Untimely rains and prolonged dry spells have now become commonplace. The risks in agriculture have increased manifold. And it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that climate change has only exacerbated this unpredictability.

The farmers of Yavatmal, the tribal communities of Ganjam and the children from the climate strike in Delhi are all victims of the grave mistakes that humans have been committing for generations. They are reminders of the fact that climate change is not just an environmental issue, it is also an issue about equity and justice. I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to think about this, and to do something in this direction. I’m trying to do my bit through the work I do. After all, there is no Planet B.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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
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