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Climate change: India's women say 'save our future'

Dec 03, 2009

As climate scientists do their maths and bureaucrats around the world, representing powerful national and corporate interests, negotiate the treaty, those who will ultimately pay the highest price for climate change are also the most invisible and the most powerless, writes Pamela Philipose, director, Women’s Feature Service.

The link between vanishing coconut groves and shrinking fish catches or the disappearance of rainbow-winged dragonflies and declining harvests may appear tenuous, improbable, even a flight of fantasy. But these are observations from the ground and help us piece together that elemental jigsaw called climate change.

As climate scientists do their maths to defend their positions on climate change and bureaucrats around the world, representing powerful national and corporate interests, pore over the fine print of international negotiations, those who will ultimately pay the highest price for climate change are also the most invisible, the most voiceless, the least informed – in sum, the most powerless.

If there was one reality that emerged from a historic series of six public hearings conducted by civil society organisations and spearheaded by Oxfam India, from across various geographical zones in India, it was this: The burden of climate change falls disproportionately on the poor – and it is poor women who are the worst impacted. These voices may seem a long way from the decision-making centres of the world, but they need to be heard if the world has to respond to one of the biggest crises confronting it and do so in a sane and humane manner.

Whether those affected by climate change lived in the Almora hills, or on the sandy spread where Nagapattinam meets the Indian Ocean; whether they came from the flood plains of Muzaffarpur or from the parched lands of Guna; whether they were Gond tribals living in shrinking forest land, Bakarwals from Jammu and Kashmir's slopes, or slum dwellers inhabiting the marshy stretches off the Mahim Creek of Mumbai, unpredictable weather has changed their lives irredeemably.

Fault lines

The overall impact of climate change, while it may vary along the fault lines of location, caste and gender, is in fact strikingly similar. It has made the search for livelihoods tougher, created greater food insecurity, caused sharp declines in the quality of life, and triggered mass migrations.

It has caused people to sell personal assets and savings built up painstakingly over generations and added to growing inequalities and disparities. It has created serious health crises of various kinds in regions where health care delivery is almost non-existent. It has made the daily grind of getting water and keeping home fires burning an even more fatiguing and vexatious task for rural women everywhere and has pulled children, especially girls, out of schools. These are not presumptions – there is data to back them.

The Human Development Report (HDR) of 2007/2008 reported that research of the 1990s found that even minute changes in rainfall timing could adversely affect agricultural yields for the poorest quartile of respondents in India by a third, while hardly affecting profitability for the richest quartile.

The HDR also highlighted micro-level studies which had revealed that Indian women born during floods in the 1970s were 19 per cent less likely to have attended primary school.

So clearly the vagaries of climate change have the potential to make life a high-risk venture for those whose capacity to manage these risks, in terms of both personal choice and personal income is minimal.

The cumulative result of these risks is the creation of lives so fragile that they are even less capable of facing the challenges of extreme weather. The country then is staring at future climate shock so immense in scope that it could severely and directly affect the right to life of at least two-thirds of its population.

Yet, if there is little public discussion about it, there's even less policy making on it. While India busies itself guarding its front patch from encroachments by the so-called climate fundamentalists, it has devoted little attention to the climate crisis looming over the lives of its citizens populating the backyard.

It is against this background that we should read the many insights thrown up by both experts and ordinary people at the six public hearings on climate change which reflected the grassroots situation in the flood plains, coastal areas, hills, arid zones and the urban context.

The consensus emerging out of them was clear: Climate change could no longer be left to chance. It demanded focused and deliberate policy-making and action.

Environmental governance must inform government action, which should be founded on a National Action Plan on Climate Change that takes into account the down-to-earth situation and the inputs of all the stakeholders.

It was also felt that women, since they are among the worst affected and because they are crucial for the well-being of the family - one speaker at the Patna public hearing spoke for many when he observed: "When women are affected the whole household is affected” – should be given a central role in the country's response. Innumerable examples abound about women handling the climate crisis in their own ways.

Chipko's legacy

For instance, the women of Reni village in Chamoli district who took on the forest mafia through their Chipko movement in the mid-70s, or the Bhil tribal women of Madhya Pradesh's Sondwa Block, who are today patrolling their forests to defeat the designs of those intent on denuding them.

With able-bodied men searching for livelihood opportunities in the cities, more women than ever are left to do low paying agricultural jobs, including activity earlier prohibited to them, like ploughing.

Yet, they are not given the status and benefits of farmers. Given this, it was felt that women's voices must feed into policies on climate change, agriculture, food sovereignty and the management of forest and water resources.

Women have so far battled the impact of climate change on their own. Therefore, it was argued, the time had come for the whole country to build on this legacy, both scientifically and strategically.

There was also a felt need for aggregating local knowledge and recent breakthroughs in agricultural and environmental R&D, and using the insights so gained for better management of natural resources. The sharing of information as efficiently as possible emerged as an urgent and pressing requirement, whether it was in the form of advance bulletins on weather patterns or timely data on market trends.

Climate change is a huge challenge for India. It should force us to revisit traditional practices and re-imagine radical new solutions. Above all it should remind us of the web of life: Break one thread and you could endanger the whole of it.

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