Justice is Janus-faced
Much of the activism around the climate looks to the past, while the future is what we have to focus on, plus an interview with ElsaMarie d'Silva on women's rights and the environment
When we speak of justice often the immediate image we have in our minds is that of a court. This is where the guilty are punished for their crimes, the past examined for clues, and - ideally - restitution is done. This has additional resonance for us now, on the 38th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the largest industrial disaster to ever take place, leading to as many as 15,000 deaths over the years. As a new investigation shows, not only did Union Carbide escape accountability for its actions, Indian companies, including government ones, helped Union Carbide to continue selling its products for decades afterward.
The past, with all its injustices, is always with us, and in our quest for justice we labour mightily, often fruitlessly, to correct its outcomes.
Quite often justice is so long delayed that it is forgotten. The majority of the Indian population was born after the Bhopal gast tragedy. For most of our public, the incident is far away in time, overtaken by more recent atrocities.
This is true of places other than India. When I attended my Masters programme in the United States, in Syracuse, NY, we were taken to Onondaga Lake as part of our initiation. At the lake one of our teachers said, “This is the most polluted lake in North America. Don’t swim in it, don’t fish in it, and if if you catch anything, don’t eat it.”
The lake was, is, sacred to the Haudenosaunee, or as they are more popularly known, as the Iroquois Confederacy. This was a set of Native Americans that established a communal form of government, calling themselves “the people of the longhouse”, the “first democracy in the West”, sometime between the 14th-16th century, (the exact dating is contested). They were British allies, and after the British lost the American Revolutionary War of 1776, they ceded the territory of these allies (without their consultation or consent) to the newborn United States of America.
The new state, with its assumptions of being technologically superior, soon set up houses and factories along the lake. From the late 1800s and for more than century, companies dumped their pollution into the lake, giving it the unenviable sobriquet of the “most polluted lake in America”. Although there have been multiple attempts at cleaning the lake, the pollution still lives within its waters, crippling biodiversity in the region.
Such histories are unfortunately all too common when it comes to the world. The whole history of climate change, of the world pushing increasing levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we pushed through a form of industrial development powered by fossil fuels, is one such story. One of the key justice challenges is who pays for the damage, how is it to be distributed, and are the new nations - including India - who are now major polluters themselves, also to be held responsible?
At the recent concluded COP27, the sole success was the creation of the Loss and Damage Fund, but its contours are still unclear.
And yet, justice cannot be merely a look back into the past. Many of the polluters and their immediate victims are long dead, the thornier question is creating justice now, and justice in the future.
While we should not overlook the crimes and mistakes of the past, merely adjudicating them will not lead to a more liveable future.
In some ways this is a harder question, but possibly a more fruitful one. Can we imagine a world where we are all better off? Is there a way that the ecosystem gets a say in our decisionmaking? We may weep for the species being pushed to the brink of extinction, but what must we change to make sure that this does not recur?
Hindsight is always perfect. We can identify the mistakes. But imagining a world where we live more just lives requires courage. Inevitably we will make mistakes, we are human after all, but justice and injustice are also human concepts. For a long time they did not include large sections of people - women, for example - in many of our codes. Only recently has their been an idea to start including the ecosystem into justice systems (although some of this has been prefigured in indigenous traditions in some way or the other).
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, asked in his “Tryst with Destiny” speech a fundamental question: “The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”
It is a question that still resonates.
ElsaMarie D’Silva is the Founder of Red Dot Foundation (India) and President of Red Dot Foundation Global (USA). Its platform Safecity, crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces. Since Safecity started in Dec 2012, it has become the largest crowd map on the issue in India and abroad. She is a Women 7 Advisor under the German Presidency of G7. She co-founded the Gender Alliance which is a cross-network initiative bringing together feminists from various German networks including the German foreign office’s Global Dilpomacy Lab.
How do issues of the environment and women's safety intersect?
They intersect in many ways, for example in a massive flood situation in Bangladesh, many women drowned because they were never taught to swim. Plus the clothing women often wear, weigh them down. Constant drought may require women to walk further away from home to source food and water, making them vulnerable to all kinds of predators. Migration due to environmental factors too puts women at risk. Either they are left behind with the old and the very young or they are used as pawns in a conflict.
In many places women are never really seen as equal to men, so they are the first to bear the brunt of these kinds of disasters and resulting conflicts.
During the recent pandemic too, women had to take up more than their fair share of unpaid care and many were subjected to domestic violence.
Do you think that this gets the attention it needs?
This needs attention because violence against women and girls is a global pandemic impacting their physical, emotional and mental health. This violence manifests itself in many forms and is not fully understood by all including the women themselves.
In addition, there is a silence on the issue making it difficult for the victim/survivor to speak up. So there must be an intentional effort to talk about this problem.
We must institute and implement strong legislation and ensure enough resources are available to prevent and address it.
For example during the pandemic there were not enough resources for women who were victims of domestic violence - shelter homes were closed and the one stop crisis centres were few and far in between. Besides the statistics are horrifying.
One in three women on an average globally, experience some form of sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. In many countries every day or a few hours, women are raped and murdered. So we must talk about this issue and more importantly, unlock resources so that we can have strong systems to prevent it.
Currently, climate is on top of everyone's minds but we are looking at it mainly from the lens of one gender and totally ignoring the lived experiences of women.
How can we design robust policies and systems when women are left out of the discussion and their experiences are not considered?
Is there a difference between how women of marginalised communities experience these issues compared to others?
Yes, of course. Women of marginalised communities are even further at risk. They may not have access to help or other resources and they might be intentionally targeted because of their class, caste, religion, economic status or other attribute. An example in Mumbai is that women in Dharavi or other slums do not have access to water very easily. They have limited water supply, have to stand in a queue for long hours and at odd hours. Therefore they are limited in their ability to work as they have to structure their day around water access.
Who are the people or organisations that you know are working on these issues?
Red Dot Foundation works to make this issue visible and bridge the data gap that exists due to under-reporting of sexual and gender based violence. Our global award winning platform Safecity, documents personal incidents of sexual and gender based violence which is then collated and visualised as location based trends and patterns on a map. The idea is to ensure that every incident is acknowledged and made visible. The dataset is further available for individuals, communities and institutions to understand the problem at the local level and develop strategies to prevent, address and end the violence.
One of the hotspots we frequently see on our crowdmap is toilets. Safety or the lack of it around a toilet block is a recurring issue women face because the toilets are poorly maintained - no/poor lighting, often no doors orwindows and are hotspots for harassment and violence.
Women tend to limit how much water they drink so that they do not have to use the toilet frequently thus resulting in health problems.
CORO in Mumbai has a campaign called Right to Pee which works on providing equitable and safe toilets for women and girls in various wards in Mumbai. Kubernein Institute is a think do tank which brings in an inclusion lens to policy especially around climate change and environmental issues.
What do we need to do?
Violence against women and girls is a global problem unfortunately and not just restricted to India. I believe in India we have laws that protect women's rights, which is not the case in many countries where they still need to develop appropriate legislation. So as a starting point that is a plus for India. However we can do more to make these laws accessible to everyone so that women start speaking up and perpetrators are aware of the punishment. Also we can strengthen the justice system to complete the cases in a shorter period of time and both judiciary and police are sensitive when dealing with them. Our one stop crisis centres are a step in the right direction but we need more of them and they too have to be better advertised.
And we desperately need to include more women in the discussion to build better environmental responses.
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