Issue 10

Menstrual Health in Rural India

The nationwide lockdown that was declared in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, had a number of social and economic consequences. India faced a massive crisis of reverse migration of labour from urban to rural areas, rise in unemployment and a massive economic slowdown. Amidst this, another setback that became visible only much later was the rapid deterioration of menstrual hygiene, especially in rural and peri-urban regions of the country. Articles published in the first few months of 2021 highlight  how the pandemic has influenced menstrual hygiene, particularly with regards to reduced accessibility and affordability of hygiene products and hence an increase in health problems associated with it. 

The main issue that these articles describe is lack of access to sanitary pads. Government schemes that provide sanitary pads were disrupted at different points along the supply chain, ranging from the unavailability of pads to the closure of schools, which earlier acted as distribution points for these products . Other sources of sanitary pads, namely ASHA and Anganwadi workers, also faced similar shortages  and hence were unable to distribute them as they usually did. Finally, the loss of employment especially in the informal sector left many families with very limited, if any, income to make ends meet , which resulted in sanitary pads becoming a “luxury item” that were abandoned in favour of “essentials”

The  mainstream discourse in India, claims that the main hindrance to menstrual hygiene in India is either the unavailability or the unaffordability of sanitary products by  women in rural areas. This assumption is based on a study conducted by Plan India in 2010 which states that only 12% of all women in India use sanitary pads and the remaining 88% use unsanitary means of managing menstruation. However, not only are these numbers highly contested by multiple studies that have followed, but the assumption that any method apart from the use of sanitary pads is unhygienic is also deeply flawed. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data finds that 58% of women use hygienic means of managing menstruation, and a large proportion of these depend on the use of cloth. 

While the need to improve affordability and availability definitely does exist, this is far from being the main barrier to menstrual hygiene in the country. Rather, there are multiple pressing challenges that are far more prevalent and damaging. To begin with, most women do not have access to clean toilets and changing spaces, which is one of the most common reasons for infections to fester. In addition to the lack of infrastructure, social taboos also indirectly contribute to the spread of infection. For cloth to be a hygienic method of managing menstruation, it requires frequent washing and drying in sunlight. However, due to the taboo associated with these clothes being visible to others, many women are either not allowed to or are themselves ashamed to dry them in the open. Instead, they resort to drying them in small hidden spaces that tend to be damp and dark, which rapidly increases the chances of infection due to bacteria build up. 

Government schemes too are based on the assumption that menstrual hygiene can only be ensured through the provision of sanitary pads. Central government schemes such as a the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme and the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), while in theory aim to promote menstrual hygiene as a whole, in practice only promote interventions that “increase awareness of access to sanitary pads”. State government schemes also follow the same trajectory, either by distributing pads or providing funds to buy pads. However, these programs are quite inadequate as data shows that women only receive 5 or 6 pads every month, which is simply not enough as 12 to 20 pads are required to manage a single menstrual cycle. 

The state’s emphasis on sanitary pads above all other forms of menstrual hygiene, without the ability to provide enough, is not only economically expensive and environmentally unsustainable but also weans women away from traditional methods such as cloth without providing a viable alternative. Further, the solution is also ineffective as it does not address larger issues such as lack of infrastructure or restrictive social stigmas, both of which are systemic problems in ensuring menstrual hygiene in India. Any solution that hopes to be effective must take into account and attempt to combat these issues in order to improve menstrual hygiene as a whole should be made. 

While acknowledging the flaws in the social system that we operate within, namely the taboos and stigmas that drive people, it is also equally imperative that one acknowledges and leverages the strengths of the same social system to improve the existing conditions. This could be done in a number of ways. For instance, there are festivals in multiple different cultures across the country that celebrate the start of menstruation for a girl child, such as Mithuna Sankranti in Orissa or Ritushuddhi in Karnataka. Instead of depending solely on logic or scientific rationale to combat existing taboos that view menstruation as shameful or unimportant, drawing on existing cultural traditions that celebrate the process would be an effective method as it is rooted in people’s sentiments and beliefs. 

This process of addressing wider issues of physical infrastructure as well as cultural mindsets rather than limiting the scope of menstrual hygiene to simply promoting the use of sanitary pads can also be extremely beneficial to the environment. If women are provided with clean and private changing spaces and the acceptance to wash and dry their menstrual products, cloth pads can become a safe, hygienic, inexpensive and sustainable method of managing menstruation. 

Further, to make its implementation more successful, environmentally sustainable solutions can be propagated without framing it as such. Cloth pads, for instance, are preferred by women in rural areas due to their low cost, comfort, and familiarity. Studies show that concern for the environment is not a major reason for women preferring cloth. Therefore, if it is propagated as a method of sanitary hygiene in a way that appeals to the users, without necessarily presenting it merely as a sustainable solution, the chances of its uptake increase significantly. 

It must be recognized that both the hindrance as well as the solution to improving menstrual health in India is not limited to access to and affordability of sanitary pads. The problem is a far more systemic one that calls for seeing menstrual health not as a women’s issue but as a public health issue. A solution that employs a multi-pronged approach involving financial, infrastructural, and cultural interventions that are mindful of current social structures can be economically and environmentally sustainable as well as produce better health outcomes. 

Ananya Rao is a fourth year student at Ashoka University studying anthropology, environment studies, and political science. In her free time you’ll find her either painting, writing, or exploring the outdoors

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 10

‘Mining’ Nothing but a Grave

As players in the crypto market hold their breaths waiting for a new regulatory bill to hit the benches of the Indian Parliament, a cloud of risk and doubt looms over its  FinTech space once again. Monetary authorities have now been debating the existence of a parallel decentralized economy for three years; the tangible outcome of which has been a draft of rigid laws and a detailed report strongly backing an outright ban of the trillion-dollar industry. Although our Finance Minister recently refuted the statement regarding this blanket prohibition, it is safe to say that stakeholders — at home and abroad — have had multiple premonitions of restrictive financial freedom for a long time now. What is surprising, however, is the degree of constraints and the severity of penalties developed to deter transgression. It seems that the government is not only planning to stop all forms of trading but is also stressing on disallowing any Indian entity from retaining crypto assets. If the draft holds, investors will be given a period of six months to liquidate their capital, post which any violations will be punishable by a jail period ranging from one to ten years and a fine triple the value of transactions. The outrage following this proposition has already led to more than one lakh individuals voicing their concern to lawmakers, and an even larger number joining the social media campaign of India Wants Bitcoin. Why then, are Indian financial bodies fixated on moving forward with such profound measures of control? 

According to the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) — responsible for taking a call on crypto’s future in India — the problem lies in the decentralized section of the entire framework. Ironically, this feature is exactly what defines cryptocurrency and sets it apart from the general fiat structure of an economy. Before moving forward, let’s address this idea of decentralization and distribution by comparing how money is accounted for in both systems. Our current financial configuration has a central bank — the RBI — responsible for issuing new currency and manipulating its value using gold and foreign reserves. It accounts for every note and transaction by keeping a track of how money is distributed among entities. While it’s unaware of the exact capital a specific individual has or what they have spent, all of this information is indirectly connected and relayed to the RBI by banks possessing the actual accounts. So, the tree representing how information is shared and structured has RBI as the nucleus and banking institutions as the primary nodes. Each bank is in-turn connected to millions of accounts acting as secondary branches. Thus, not only power but even knowledge is concentrated at the central level. Bitcoin completely revolutionized this setup when it was established in 2008 by introducing blockchain technology. Blockchain transformed the previous information tree into one that rendered each entity as a node connected to every other node in the system. This made it possible to distribute and share the ledger containing transactions among all members. The value of money in such a system was purely based on demand and supply principles, and any creation of money value was attributed to the volume of successful transactions rather than an authoritative decision by one node. 

Now it’s understandable that no central agency with regulatory powers over the Rupee will undermine its authority by permitting the reorganization of how money is perceived and valued among its citizens. However, in context of an increasingly globalised world, the State might want to reconsider its stance, since a complete ban hardly sends a positive message regarding the adaptability of contemporary ideas in India. 

Another interesting aspect of this entire debacle is that the restrictions on cryptocurrencies are perhaps their best advertisement. Saifedean Ammous, a Bitcoin economist, believes that if the government is adding constraints to what you can and cannot do, then maybe it is time to think about decentralizing power — “… I am sorry, if you’re telling me that I can’t send money from my bank account to buy the things that I want, then, that’s not really my money.” 

            Nonetheless, it would be unfair to say that the policies are entirely short-sighted.  They do make an excellent case for diverting our attention towards the underlying technology of blockchain. The IMC’s report lays out a series of arguments in favor of embracing the cryptographic data structure, but only in projects other than cryptocurrencies. This proposition is designed as a solution to the issue of citizens demanding trading rights to Bitcoin and Ethereum. However, suggesting alternative products with the same mechanical properties under the hood, is hardly a solution. Especially when India has over six million crypto investors holding a figure north of Rs. 10,000 crore in valuation. In essence, the government’s point is well taken — we do need to start looking at blockchain-based applications, which without a doubt remain vast unmined fields. Nevertheless, it’s a bit ignorant to force stakeholders to liquidate their positions and in return offer them a blockchain-based KYC to make up for any losses. 

An argument often triggered by this last statement is that the government has publicly announced an Indian crypto substitute for Bitcoin and Ethereum, which should work as a perfect middle ground for all parties involved. Unfortunately, this is not only a misconception but also a wasteful endeavor had it actually been true. Expanding on the former concern, the IMC has laid out plans for constructing a currency powered by blockchain known as the Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). However, this is only an imperfect substitute since it is centralized and tied to the value of the Rupee. One could even think of it as a digital Rupee that is tradable, secure, and inexpensive to transfer around, thus bagging few of the appealing features of Bitcoin. Nevertheless, it continues to serve as only another regulated version of money, governed by the same laws and restrictions as a paper note. 

Secondly, having an Indian cryptocurrency while banning the rest isn’t all that feasible. Especially since replacing Bitcoin and Ethereum is almost impossible given the former’s market cap and the latter’s scalability. Start-ups around the world have already started building Decentralized Apps on top of Ethereum’s backend, which will soon take over the tech market by a storm. Even social media platforms are experimenting with decentralization to promote a more privacy-oriented future and reduce censorship concerns. So at a time when the next Twitter or YouTube might be driven by Ethereum or any other crypto for that matter, India cannot be left struggling to fix bugs in their own blockchain architecture. Moreover, there is no guarantee that regulatory bodies will even be able to restrict the trading of Bitcoin or Ethereum. US officials have already concluded that controlling access to an open-source network application requires enormous control over the Internet itself. So the bill might just result in an even more restrictive digital space in India. Besides, an outright ban of profitable opportunities will only motivate people to find newer loopholes and open up black markets; none of which will positively impact the country’s own crypto. 

The government seems to be approaching this issue with a binary vision as of now. However, the options are broader than just ‘ban’ and ‘not ban’. There is a need for deeper discussions and experimentation with FinTech. It is imperative, however, to acknowledge that the clock is ticking and if an environment of doubt is allowed to persist, the theory of Human Capital Flight will kick in. Not only will millennial investors start contributing to the FDIs of countries that allow crypto markets, but our extremely talented entrepreneurs will also be on the first flight out in fear of the dreaded regulations. Weighing the scales, it seems that the argument of cryptocurrencies and blockchains being the next big thing since the Internet does fall on the heavier side. And so taking a backseat at this stage of development can only set us up for future disappointments.

Picture Credits: @WorldSpectrum, Pixabay

Tanish Bafna is a ‘prospective’ (translates to undecided and widely confused) Economics and CS undergraduate at Ashoka University. He is deeply interested in almost anything that lies at either ends of these fields including Blockchain, Game Theory and the Economics of Technology. In his free time, you can find him curled up at previously unvisited spaces on campus or his neighbourhood doing absolutely nothing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 10

Politics of Postering – What the Walls Say in Tamil Nadu

In this country, street art and public political messaging are a common phenomenon. The ubiquitous student union announcements, boldly written on walls; the company advertisements along railway lines; or even protest art that temporarily flares up, to be wiped out alongside the protest  – everywhere we turn our walls display something. In Tamil Nadu, cinema posters and political parties have taken over the walls. The parties, big and small, national, regional, local, they all publicise their presence and their leadership with messaging on walls. Today, there are only traces, removed for the most part in preparation for the elections. But they are a part of the state’s culture – colourful, bold, and anywhere the eye turns. What is most interesting about this practice is that no one party holds a monopoly over this perennial campaign – if it is a campaign at all. This article is only the beginning of the exploration into this world. 

From larger-than-life banners, to small party symbols painted on walls along roads, these political references are a part of the states’ everyday life. It’s impossible to go anywhere without noticing a political symbol, a word of glowing praise emblazoned onto a wall, or the smiling face of a political leader. Most pass these reflections of the state’s diverse political milieu without much thought. Yet wherever you turn, you’re sure to see them. 

Something very striking on some walls is the appearance of two arrows almost bracketing the initials of a political party, with the addition of a year and the word ‘reserved’. This year marks the next election, and every party stakes a claim to a certain area, to a set of walls preceding this election. This wall, once marked off, is the hold of a single party until the next elections with a selection of posters stuck there. On the other hand, a large patch of wall could be white-washed and on it, in the colours of the party are painted the title or name of a particular local political figure. This is often followed by the names of this leader’s closest followers in the region. It should also be noted reservation of space is a fluid process, and not a necessary first step. However, the prominence and number of posters and painted slogans depends on the parties’ prominence in the local region. 

Of the various methods used to display their existence in an area, I would divide these into ‘poster-culture’, ‘paint-culture’ and ‘banner-culture’. 

Poster culture allows for greater political freedom in the individual it features, though the person it highlights (let’s call them the protagonist) is more often than not one of the more prominent faces in the party – a legislature member or a party leader. At the same time, these posters allow one to trace the political legitimacy of the person featured – smaller faces that appear towards the top of the poster, usually deceased leaders. Sometimes, with younger or less prominent functionaries in order to demonstrate their rising fortunes, they are placed immediately below the party leader, as the protagonist. There may also be groups of people in the poster, with the size and space left around it displaying the individuals’ importance – this is usually in cases of a party putting out good wishes. The text of the poster reveals the allegiance as well as what the protagonist’s titles in the party are. It is interesting to see what the posters say as well, the many titles it ascribes to the political representative or party leader – a continuation perhaps, of the culture of courts and temple proclamations of kings. 

Paint culture on the other hand is for a more local audience. Hired painters first pencil out their letters and accompanying symbols, before painting them in. Every leader is addressed by a different title, which is the focus of these messages. Horizontally aligned, as opposed to portrait alignment posters, and brightly displayed in party colours, these are meant to popularize the leader rather than provide a message. These magnify the title and subsume all other details, so that one is focused on the title of the one being praised, accompanied sometimes by party symbols.

As for banner culture, these banners are temporary. Legally they have been banned, but they do appear on occasion when the chief minister or another individual designated a ‘vip’. This is dependent, unlike posters and paint, on the party in power.  Median banners that sit in the middle of a road, or cut-outs that loom large over it. These are for special occasions, to demonstrate loyalty by the affiliated party members of the region. Special posters may often be used as well, alongside, or instead of banners in places. 

For poster and paint culture, while the party in power in a particular area may have a proliferation of their art, other parties with local representation may choose to represent themselves nearby as well. It is not out of place to see the blue elephant of the BSP, an Uttar Pradesh party, opposite the ruling party, the ADMK’s local MLA’s name painted on the wall. It is most interesting to note however, that the national party, the BJP, focuses its efforts on drawing lotuses on walls, with the most minimal of textual messaging. On the occasion of the visit of the Prime Minister or other higher party dignitaries, there are posters that may appear, sponsored by local groups. But these disappear within days. 

 The DMK’s ‘rising sun’ symbol, with an individual’s initials on the top left of both signs, which interestingly appeals to voters in English 

These are all always in the local, dominant language: Tamil. English words that are used are written in the Tamil script. However, over the last few years some English has appeared here and there. 

 In essence the posters and banners are celebratory and public. The art is in praise of an individual. While a fleeting glance will just reveal the name of a political leader, looking closer at this poster culture can reveal a lot about the local politics, embedded into these messages. This article has touched the surface. While the politics of the state is a study in itself, these posters are in a way a unifying political action – every party with a presence has their own way of expressing themselves in wall art or posters, and the way they chose to do it gives us a chance to examine party politics in a nutshell.

Nandan Sankriti Kaushik is a second-year History student at Ashoka University. 

All images have been taken by the author. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).