Thiruvananthapuram: While sitting at the waiting lounge of the railway station here recently, a middle-aged woman conservancy staff was seen dragging a bundle of waste, collected from the toilet, in a huge carry bag.
“I don’t know why these people (women travellers) are dumping napkins in the toilet and clogging it! We are cursed to clean it!” the gloves-clad woman said to herself angrily and walked away.
This was not an isolated scene in a railway station in Kerala, but overflowing garbage bins and clogged toilet bowls with used sanitary napkins and those manually segregating it are apparently witnessed in the majority of public places, including schools and hospitals across India.
For the first time in the country, the Left government in Kerala is getting ready to address the issue of the accumulation of enormous quantities of biodegradable waste generated by napkins in the environment and reduce it by offering a sustainable alternative- menstrual cups.
The Pinarayi Vijayan-led government will soon kickstart a revolutionary drive at the grassroots level to promote menstrual cups among women and has set aside Rs 10 crore for the same.
An environment-friendly, sustainable and cost-effective alternative for sanitary napkins, the menstrual cups alias M-Cups are reusable containers to collect period fluid.
Finance Minister K N Balagopal, in his February 3 budget speech, had announced the state government intends to promote the M-Cups instead of sanitary napkins.
“Awareness programmes and campaigns will be conducted at the government level in schools, colleges and workplaces. An amount of Rs 10 crore is earmarked for this,” he had said.
Talking to PTI, Balagopal said it would be a large-scale initiative in the areas of environmental protection and menstrual hygiene management. “Kerala may be the first state in the country which comes up with such a massive campaign to promote sustainable alternatives for non-biodegradable sanitary napkins,” he said.
Over 100 tons of non-biodegradable waste is generated through the usage of sanitary napkins by just 5,000 women for five years, he said, quoting figures. Several pro-women groups, activists, environmentalists and women legislators had been pressing the government to implement some healthy and affordable alternatives for menstrual hygiene management.
“As per the figures, thousands of tons of non-biodegradable waste are generated in Kerala yearly. Some recent studies pointed to possible health issues also due to the constant use of pads. The cost of buying napkins also seems to be high,” he pointed out.
Thus, the government came up with a sustainable, eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative for menstrual hygiene and decided to promote M-cups, he said.
Considering the number of women belonging to the age group of 13-45 years, it could be assumed that 80 lakh to one crore ladies are using sanitary napkins in the state. “Then, how many tons of napkin waste will be generated annually in the state. It poses environmental as well as health hazards,” he added.
A mass campaign, with the coordination of health, social welfare and environment departments and panchayats, is planned for the menstrual cup drive giving special focus on schools.
Balagopal admitted it would not be easy to remove the “mental block” of women to switch to a completely different menstrual hygiene product, but expressed hope the campaign would help remove it at least to some extent.
There were a handful of civic bodies in the southern state which had already carried out awareness campaigns by distributing M-Cups among a selected number of women on an experimental basis as the disposal of napkins posed a serious concern in their locality.
Among them, the “Thinkal” project implemented by Alappuzha Municipality in 2019 was considered as one of the first such M-Cup awareness drives in the country implemented at the government level.
Under the drive, nearly 5,000 menstrual cups had been distributed by the Hindustan Lifecare Limited (HLL), a central PSU, with the support of health practitioners, experienced users and community development society.
Kumbalangi in Ernakulam district and Muhamma in Alappuzha became ‘sanitary napkin-free’ villages recently by distributing M-Cups and cloth pads as part of panchayat-level sustainable menstruation campaigns.
Thiruthiparambu hamlet in Thrissur and Palakuzha panchayat in Ernakulam also had announced similar campaigns.
Anitha Thampi, Technical and Operations Director, HLL Lifecare Ltd, said the “Thinkal” project in Alappuzha was a huge success as its acceptance rate was 91.5 per cent among those women who started using M-Cups, as per a study.
There was some reluctance and reservations initially, but those who started using it whole-heartedly accepted this sustainable alternative, she said. “By allocating Rs 10 crore for the awareness and promotion of menstrual cups, the Kerala government has done a historical thing. I think it may be the first such initiative in the world by any government to allocate funds for a menstrual hygiene product,” she told PTI.
M-Cups would be a game-changer in the lives of women and would surely play a key role in environmental protection, she said.
“As per our figures, there is a diversion of 100 ton sanitary napkins if 5,000 women use menstrual cups for five years. We assure a five year lifespan for our M-Cups. Considering the napkin cost, these 5000 beneficiaries together can save upto Rs 10 lakh during the period,” she added.
However, experienced users pointed out that a grassroot level awareness is needed for the success of the M-Cup campaign.
Geethu, an aviation trainer who has been using M-Cup for some years, said several factors, right from cultural myths to the mental block to experiment a completely strange product, should be busted to ensure its acceptance among common women.
“There might be a reluctance among ordinary women to accept an insertion product. It may also be difficult for many of them to accept that a menstrual hygiene product can be reused,” she told PTI.
Echoing her views, K S Damodaran, councillor of Muhamma ward, said many women were unwilling to switch to menstrual cups when the panchayat had distributed it with the support of a Bengaluru-based NGO by the end of 2019.
“It was really a good initiative and we found that these alternative products were both economic and environment-friendly. Several women accepted it whole-heartedly but some were very adamant to change their traditional habit,” he said.
Meanwhile, Manju M M, a school teacher and a mother of two girls, is hopeful that the government campaign, focussing on schools and colleges, will surely help achieve the desired result.
“It is comparatively easier to instill fresh thoughts in the minds of youngsters than bringing change in the mindset of adults. So, the catch-them-young policy will surely work in the case of M-Cups also,” she told PTI.
The teacher-homemaker is also elated that she can save at least Rs 2000 in their family budget if sanitary napkins are replaced with reusable menstrual cups.