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Wealth Inequality In China: Measured At Home And At School

After the topic of bulk sanitary napkins went viral online, the broader issue of the gap between rich and poor has come out of the shadows across the communist nation, including the availability of laptops for students.

The topic of sanitary napkins has somehow gone viral in China
The topic of sanitary napkins has somehow gone viral in China

-Editorial-

BEIJING — In the past few days, the topic of sanitary napkins has somehow gone viral in China. It all started with a screenshot posted of an online shopping platform displaying cheap, bulk sanitary napkins for female hygiene. Before the discussion was unleashed, few in China had ever heard the concept: "period poverty." For many, it even seems incomprehensible – isn't a pack of basic sanitary products just the price of a cup of tea? How can anyone not be able to afford it?

Yet, the reality is that in China, a considerable number of girls and women can only afford such sanitary products when packed in bulk – 21.99 RMB ($3.25) for 100 pieces. They have neither a brand nor fancy packaging or even an official licensing code. But even worse off are the women who can't afford any sanitary products.

In China, 600 million people still live with an average monthly income of less than 1,000 RMB ($148). This startling fact from Chinse Premier Li Keqiang at the national Two Sessions conference early this year sparked a lot of heated discussion at that time. The topic of "bulk sanitary napkins' outlines the real picture of living conditions behind the statistics and allows people to see the silent, struggling side of poor people within a massive nation. China, in other words, must face the question of the wealth gap in society.

This is not the entire face of China.

Income disparity separates people from each other like a wall. Even though the internet has reached out in such a way to shrink the whole world into a kind of village, the hidden wall of wealth remains hard to break down. If one takes into account the lack of care for females in Chinese tradition, it's imaginable that the cruel existence of injustice is even more likely to be ignored.

Chinese people can easily feel encouraged by the fact that average per capita income exceeds $10,000, and that 400 million Chinese people have risen to the middle class, with forecasts for that number to rise beyond 500 million in the next few years. Thanks to China's booming economy in recent years, more people's lives have become more prosperous, in both urban and rural areas.

For people living in big cities, the abundance of products and their purchasing power cannot be compared with the poverty of the past. When they choose sanitary products, what matters to them most are brands and quality. The debate over "period poverty" reminds us, however, that this is not the entire face of China. Images of "bulk sanitary napkins' suddenly smashed through the hidden wall in an unexpected way and reminded people that another side of China exists.

China must face the question of the wealth gap in society — Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Another instance of that wall coming into view was when COVID-19 forced all schools to go online. Even while parents in urban areas were complaining that this was bad for their children's eyes and lead to tensions with everyone at home, in rural areas there was a very different worry: Less than 10% of their children have access to a computer, according to a survey conducted by the China Development Research Foundation.

If the support given by parents are also counted as educational resources, then the rural students are deprived even further, given the fact that there are more than 60 million so-called "left behind children" where one or both of their parents have gone to work in the cities leaving them in the care of their grandparents or extended families.

When we talk about our yearning for a better future for China, we can't stay indifferent to these silent groups of people. It should lead toward solutions, through tax cuts, government assistance or charity relief, even if a certain gap between the poor and the rich as well as class estrangement are inevitable even in a healthy society. Understanding, tolerance, assistance and protection for the bottom of society are sure ways to help minimize friction.

In October, the Central Committee of China's Communist Party will lay out the the country's 14th Five-Year Plan, a national economic blueprint launched for the first time in 1953. The world's second largest economy and its 1.4 billion citizens will embark on a new journey, now starting from a moderately prosperous point. The "bulk sanitary napkins' help us to see more clearly that there are differences, better perceive ourselves and look for rational ways to find solutions.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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