"Menstruation is not a disease. Every woman goes through once a month."
"Think about your mother, sister, daughter and your wife. If they don't have access to napkins during menstruation, it could lead to urinary tract infections."
"In villages, women die due to poor hygiene and no one talks about it. It's high time, we all came together and did something about it in our own little way."
Rediff.com's Divya Nair finds out why Mangesh Jha, 29, is rightfully called the PadMan of Jharkhand.
We often hear stories of young Indians who come from small towns and make it big in the city.
We also read stories of those who leave the city, their high paying jobs to settle in the villages and make a living out of social entrepreneurship.
The story of Mangesh Jha from Jharkhand falls in none of the above.
He is neither an entrepreneur who has made it big or has plans to. Nor is he a victim of circumstance who was pushed to experience hardships.
Yet, in 2014, he left a cushy job as front desk officer at Radisson Blu, Ranchi to work for improving India’s villages.
Mangesh’s purpose in life is to “educate and solve problems” among a host of other ideas he has towards making India a better place.
Six months ago, he became a youth fellow at the IIM-Ranchi. He continues to spend his weekends travelling to new villages in and around Ranchi with a hope of turning things around.
What did he learn from working in these villages? Why is he called the PadMan of Jharkand?
Divya Nair/Rediff.com spoke to Mangesh Jha, 29, to find out more about his journey.
Mangesh's family belongs to a small village in Madhya Pradesh.
After completing his degree in hotel management from Institute of Hotel Management, Bhubaneshwar, Mangesh Jha secured a job at the front office in Oberoi Trident in Mumbai.
Having spent most of his growing up years in the village, Mangesh often found himself aloof from the joys of city life. "I saw how people wasted food in five star restaurants while millions of people in India's villages went to sleep hungry. Poverty was the cause and effect of problems in India's villages.”
Over the next few years, between 2008 and 2014, Mangesh would travel to Pune, Mumbai and then to Ranchi after switching jobs. But one thing remained constant – his desire to travel and help people.
“During the weekends, I’d take my bike and travel to new places, discover new people. During these travels and conversations, I have met all kinds of people and I realized that there is so much one can do to make our country better. Whenever I had the time and opportunity I would either teach something, help someone with documentation…anything that was helpful.”
Mangesh eventually quit his job in 2014 and signed up for the Ramkrishna Mission programme.
A year later, he also signed up for the Unnat Bharat Abhiyaan as part of which he’d travel to small villages in and around Ranchi. His job was to talk to villagers, understand their problems and file a detailed report offering solutions.
Identifying the problem
While inspecting a muesli farm in a village in Ranchi, Mangesh encountered a bizarre situation.
"I realised that women weren’t allowed to enter the farm or work there during their periods. Since these women were daily wage labourers and had families dependent on them I knew that they had financial problems. When I spoke to a few of them I realized that the real problem was much bigger. These women did not follow basic sanitation during menstruation. They were ignorant and were using ash and forest grass during their periods. They weren’t aware of sanitary napkins or cloth.”
Mangesh who was working in Rasabera village, stumbled upon data which shocked him further.
"I realized that poor hygiene during menstruation affects women in these villages in so many ways. They were exposing themselves to illnesses, weren’t allowed to work all of which affected their confidence and desire to dream and achieve big. In several villages girls would drop out of school once they attained puberty. Instead of educating them, they were being victimized for no fault of theirs.”
According to Mangesh, 60 per cent women in India do not use sanitary napkins in India. Of these 80 per cent belonged to Bihar and Jharkhand. India’s north eastern states have the largest number of women using sanitary napkins during menstruation.
After coming home, Mangesh shared the findings with his mother.
"She asked me, have you seen a sanitary pad? I said no. Truth was I never had to. When she showed it to me, I realised how helpful it was. My immediate thought was -- I should make this available to the women in the villages. When I went to the market I understood how costly it was.
"Each village would have hundreds of women. Also, how long could I sustain if I distributed these napkins free of cost. It wasn’t going to solve the problem in the long run. So, I went back to my mother to ask her suggestion. She told me that when she was young, she had used cloth napkins. I further researched for low cost sanitary napkins and sustainable material.”
With the help of his mother and some like-minded women, Mangesh collected fine pieces of muslin-like cloth. My mother and some women helped me stitch them to make absorbent pads.
Distributing the pads weren’t easy.
“I convinced the gram sabha leader about the importance of educating these women. They allowed me to speak to a group of them. Language was a problem. So I took help from the locals. I showed them some videos and illustrations so they could understand it visually.”
In the first batch, they distributed about 100 napkins to women. But Mangesh faced another problem.
“Most of these villagers are tribals. And tribals are very respectful to you. So when you tell them something, they will immediately nod their heads. The next day, they will go back to doing what they were doing originally.”
The next thing was to find someone who could motivate them to change their habits. “I believe in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. There is only one thing you can ever do to solve someone’s problems. You don’t solve it for them, you teach them the skill to solve it. So, I slowly started finding one person who was either moderately educated or willing to spend a few extra hours towards this cause. I’d train this person to stitch napkins, so she can teach or help others in her village.”
"Menstruation is not a disease. Every woman goes through once a month. Think about your mother, sister, daughter and your wife. If they don't have access to napkins during menstruation, it could lead to urinary tract infections. In villages, women die due to poor hygiene and no one talks about it. It's high time, we all come together and did something about it in our own little way. The government in each state needs to take stock of the issue and work solutions."
Four years later, as of 2018, Mangesh has managed to persuade nearly 600 families to use cloth-based sanitary napkins during menstruation.
Turns out sanitation during menstruation is just one of the many causes Mangesh is involved with.
He even has a message for Modi and the current government:
"I have realised that there are so many schemes announced for the benefit of farmers, women and less privileged sections of our society. But how many of these are being availed of? Take the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Hundreds of toilets are being built in remote villagers in Jharkhand and Bihar. When I visited some of these villages, I realised that the toilets are there and even if people want to use it, they have to face hardships. These common toilets are not accessible during the night, especially for women. They find it unsafe to walk the distance to use it, so they prefer open defecation. In states like Jharkand where water scarcity is a problem and rain water harvesting is not a solution, maintaining the toilets is a challenge. What is the point of simply building toilets, if people are not able to use it?”
Similar is the case with Digital India campaign, Mangesh points.
“If you visit any of the block offices in villages, you’ll see that the staff there hardly use a computer. They are happy using pen and paper to file documents. No wonder then that the files are not updated and digitized. There is an urgent need to make government staff aware of the benefits of going digital and it should start with the villages. If we are not going to think rural, these initiatives will only look and feel good on paper.”
Another problem Mangesh realised is a lack of education. "Most villagers don’t know that a certain scheme is available which can benefit them until someone tells them. And these are daily wage labourers. Even if they find out, they are reluctant to take a day off, travel to the city and register to avail the benefits. They don’t want to lose their daily wages. So I talk to these villagers and try my best to convince them. I help them fill up the forms, complete the documentation.”
Mangesh also makes a point against divisive politics.
“When I was living in Ranchi, a young kid went to play in the ground in the afternoon. His mother saw him and immediately called him back home. I thought she was upset because there was an impending exam that he had to study for. But I was wrong. The lady told her son not to play with those boys because they belonged to a certain section of society. She was worried that he’d turn up ‘irresponsible’ like them.”
According to him, this is how seeds of hatred are sown in society.
“If children are taught to differentiate between people based on caste and colour, they’ll grow up with anger and hatred without questioning anything. And that’s what happened recently in Maharashtra and has been happening in several other states since centuries. One day it will lead to riots. And young politicians will take advantage of the situation for their own merits. Rightful education and awareness should start at home.”
No, Mangesh doesn’t intend to join politics.
“A lot of people ask me if my aim is to join politics. My answer is No. I don’t take any financial help from anyone. If someone wants to help me, I ask them to share sanitary napkins.
"When I visit the villages, I give it to the women. I work with the locals. I earn Rs 30,000 from my fellowship programme and I am content with it. I send Rs 15,000 home, keep some to pay off rent and fuel. The remaining I spend on the villagers.”
Support from family
Mangesh is very grateful to his parents for supporting his quest.
“My dad suffered a stroke and is on his bed now. But they have never once asked me to quit doing what I am doing and look for another job. Nor do they ask me to send more money. They are proud of what I am doing.
"Whenever someone laughs or ridicules me, my mother tells them: You should be happy that my son is doing what some of you are not capable of.”
Appeal to readers
"I am asking you to quit your job or spend your savings on doing good. All I am suggesting is spend at least one day a week towards a social cause. It could be as simple as educating someone less privileged, teaching a new skill or helping someone solve a problem.”
"If you can’t spend a day, at least share your food with someone who is hungry. Be kind and try to find out why someone was driven to beg or a poor condition. And if there is anything at all you can do to make his/her life better, do it.”
“It is true and amazing what one person can do. So imagine if everyone took up a cause and contributed in some way to solve problems…"