The climate crisis is India’s feminist moment
Women are disproportionately impacted by India's climate crisis, and need to be part of the decisionmaking, and Ambika Vishwanath explains water and a feminist foreign policy
Women wash clothes and dishes next to a well in the village of Gurshary in the Bundelkhand region of India on April 30, 2009 (image by: Balazs Gardi)
There are few people as quotable as the dead German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He excelled at writing things that were both offensive and thought-provoking at the same time. In the introduction to his book, “Beyond Good and Evil”, he wrote, “What if wisdom is a woman, and thus all the strivings of philosophers have been in vain, because which man has ever understood a woman?”
Beyond the schoolboy misogyny of the statement lurks a difficult question, and one that is possibly best illustrated by the climate crisis in India. If we rephrase it ever so slightly, it forces us to look at the problem in a whole new way. “What if the climate crisis in India is disproportionately a crisis faced by women, and thus much of the strivings of our policymakers – overwhelmingly male – have been in vain, because they do not relate to the experience of women?”
The climate crisis is a water crisis, and water – in India – is very much women’s business, but it is business over which they have very limited say. In 2009, a paper titled, “Situational Analysis of Women Water Professionals in South Asia” looking at women professionals in water bureaucracies in South Asia, found that they were only 2-5% of the staff. None were in senior positions. The situation may have improved since then, but there is little research being done in this area.
Climate change is manifested most clearly through the disruption of weather patterns, i.e. longer periods of less rainfall, and shorter periods of intense rainfall. Basically, warmer air is able to hold more water, and as we cook the planet, the clouds can hold more water until it rains. Therefore, it takes longer to accumulate enough water to initiate rainfall, and when it does, it comes down in a flood. This means both more droughts and more floods.
For women in India, many of whom do not have access to clean drinking water in their houses, longer dry periods mean far more time getting (less) water for the household, which is a socially determined responsibility for them. This is true even beyond India, and South Asia. A 2017 study of the Yunnan province in China which experienced a drought from 2012-14, showed that although men and women both thought it was their responsibility to manage water, men largely looked for newer water sources, while women had to do the hard work of actually getting the water. In other words, their labour increased dramatically more than that of men.
Secondly, there is the impact on agriculture. About half, or more, of India’s farmers do not have irrigated land. They are dependent on rain-fed agriculture. As the rains are disrupted, it is this large section of the population that is made most vulnerable. And labour on Indian farms is overwhelmingly women’s labour. Unsurprisingly, they often do not own that land. The statistics are harsh, 73.2% of rural women workers are farmers, but own 12.8% land holdings.
Thirdly, there is the challenge of dealing with floods. As information becomes more and more accessible by mobile phones, it is striking that Indian men are 33% more likely to own a mobile phone than women. This means that they are far less likely to get information on their own, even if the state provides it in a timely fashion. It also means that they are effectively excluded from decision making since they are excluded from the information needed to make those decisions.
Lastly, our disaster response teams – quite often dominated by security forces, whether police, paramilitary, or the Army – are almost completely dominated by men. Given that in rural areas where social constraints are higher, women are discouraged from interacting with “strange men”, it leaves women further alienated from even being rescued.
From home and hearth, to employment, to disasters, women in India are bearing the brunt of the climate catastrophe, and – at the same time – are effectively excluded from being able to participate meaningfully in the decisions that are impacting their lives more and more. As Ambika Vishwanath explains in our interview this fortnight, these are issues that are specific to our socio-political reality. A feminism fit for purpose in the climate crisis has to be a feminism that is also shaped by poor countries, and it is where India needs to play a leading role.
Founder Director of the Kubernein Initiative, Ambika Vishwanath is a geopolitical analyst and water security specialist with over 13 years of experience in the field of governance and foreign policy. She has lead track two diplomacy efforts and consulted with several governments and international organizations in the MENA region, Europe and India, and helped shape their policies in the field of conflict resolution, water diplomacy and security.
The first Indian to be invited as a member of the prestigious Munich Young Leaders Network, she has been invited to consult with and speak at various events and conference across the MENA region, India and Europe, by The Hague Institute, Koerber Foundation, Central University of Jammu, TERI, Mumbai University and others. Ambika has been interviewed and published in newspapers and online media including The Third Pole, China Water Risk, The National, Project Syndicate, 9DashLine, Al Jazeera, Europäische Sicherheit, Stratfor, Atlantic Community, Hurriyet, Turkish Weekly, Daily News Egypt, Jordan Times, and Stockholm International Affairs Quarterly amongst others.
She is part of the inaugural cohort of the China-India Visiting Scholars (CIVS) Fellowship, 2020 – 2021, Ashoka University and also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Agora Institute, Germany.
Q. How did Kubernein come about?
In 2018 my co-founder, Priyanka Bhide, and I were wondering what to do next. No place fit all the things we were interested in (urban water management, gender, climate, India connected to the world), or if they did, they did not have the flexibility or the work-life balance we thought was necessary, so Kubernein was created as the place we could not find to work at, in a way. Its name derives from the Greek word for governance, or steering, and that is what we wanted to input on. So it is a small for-profit consulting firm working with other organisations with similar interests.
We are a small team with a specific interest in urban water risk as well as gender and foreign policy. That is not the sum of our interests, just an important part of our work. People have suggested getting involved on artificial intelligence or India-Pakistan, and although these issues are important, there are already plenty of people working on them. We would rather be a partner with organisations which would allow us to focus on things we specialise on, to help make their work more holistic, solve the smaller pieces of the big puzzle.
Q. Is water part of that?
Definitely, and something I have come to after my work in the Middle East and Europe. The issue of interconnectivity that we emphasize takes on special meaning here in India. So, for example, we tend to focus on the availability of water – a tap in each house, as the current government has promised. This may guarantee access (and for communities that have been deprived, that is a big thing), but it may not lead to sustainability. This means that women who have had to trek for an hour and a half every day to get water, get water at home, but then it stops coming at some point in the future, so they are back where they were.
In politics the salience of access and availability in a country with limited infrastructure like India have great meaning, but unless these interventions are better thought out – to ensure rational use, waste processing, circularity – they are sub-optimal solutions. This is hard for governments to do, and things like rational use, and limiting over-exploitation, has to have community buy-in to work well. This is the type of input we are trying to provide when we advise policymakers or work with think tanks like the Centre for Policy Research and others. In the end it is up to the policymakers to make the decisions, and some of it will be inevitably lost in the politics.
We try not to push regulation, because there is already so much there, and that does not really help. You can’t tell citizens who have long been deprived of water to use less of it when they get access. Nor is the issue of urban industry wasting water (80% of urban water goes to industrial units) a matter of regulation, but of actual implementation. You have to convince people. Like the vans that go about in small towns with the Swachch Bharat tune, you drill the idea into people’s minds over the long-term and it leads to behavioural change. That is better than a law you cannot enforce. Of course, if you need to end littering or waste, slogans and songs can only do so much, you must also provide dust bins and waste management budgets, so it needs deep consultation and involvement of multiple stakeholders to make even one successful intervention take hold deeply.
Q. How does a feminist foreign policy fit into all of this? What is it?
This was an idea first articulated by the Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström in 2014. She saw this as a way of bringing in genuinely alternative perspectives (she found it contentious that Sweden was backing peace proposals while, at the same time, being one of the largest arms exporters in the past). Other countries have followed this lead, and it is starting to become something of a global norm. But it risks being a norm articulated by European and North American countries that is rooted in their socio-economic conditions.
Last year Libya announced that it, too, would follow a feminist foreign policy, but we still don’t know what that means, and Libya cannot simply follow European ways of doing things. Its conditions are too different. There is also the danger of having women in the room, but no power in the room. For example, early after independence the women in the Indian Foreign Service were traditionally given the “softer portfolios” like culture, instead of security. That has changed over time, and we should understand what India’s experience has been, what needs to be done, and whether it is a more relevant example than, say, Sweden, for some developing countries.
Q. How did you get involved in this?
Honestly, I have no idea, it wasn’t planned. After I finished my 12th in India, I gave a number of competitive exams and found the SATs for the US very easy. I had initially thought to do journalism, but ended up doing a wider liberal arts programme that allowed me to focus on political science and international relations. I then studied and worked in Turkey and Egypt on conflict resolution and conflict management – courses that were not really being taught in India at that time – and I received some great advice from my professors.
In India I worked with the Hunger Project with the Panchayati Raj ministry on training women elected to reserved seats and it was a fascinating experience, and I had the most amazing woman as a boss. I think that served to convince me that it was these complex, interconnected issues that I wanted to work on.
Q. Is there something that you think we do not pay enough attention to?
I think in India we are too used to seeing water only through the issue of water security (getting access to it) or as a transboundary issue. We do not understand the fullness of what water means. It is not just about using it, but how it is central to issues of food, health, dignity, and economic risk. For example, when Chennai went through acute water shortage a couple of years ago, its automobile industry had to be shut down. Tamil Nadu accounts for 40% of India’s automobile industry, so this was a really big thing, but we don’t seem to understand it as a multi-faceted issue.
Everything from biodiversity, the environment, the beauty industry to disaster management is interconnected with water management, and we need to think of it in that way to deal with our challenges.
Mumbai's sanitation workers protest and fight for fair wages and employment conditions from the BMC : As environmental concerns for Indian cities are set to rapidly increase, urban solid waste management requires urgent and significant reform. However, the BMC’s incorporation of what it calls the ‘Hyderabad Pattern’ in solid waste management, allowing it to hand out sanitation work contracts to NGOs and cooperative societies, has actually resulted in more precarity for sanitation workers – the men and women who worked on the ground remained the same, but under the new schemes, they were designated as volunteers rather than workers. Volunteers were paid “honorariums” and not legally entitled to minimum wages despite their duties remaining the same, driving up their debt (ranging from Rs 1 lakh to 30 lakh) with informal moneylenders. Despite the Supreme Court directing the BMC in 2003 to grant permanent jobs to contract-based sanitation workers, the BMC’s stance has only gotten more severe in the last 15 years, particularly against the union workers who had sought legal recourse – including some of the union workers being arrested this year on account of “absconding” from police hearings based on chargesheets that they were never informed about.
As Excess Rain Destroys Kharif Harvest, Debt-Ridden UP Farmers Await Loss Compensation : Climate excesses that brought havoc to the Kharif harvest have further amplified the anger and disappointment of UP farmers with the Yogi Adityanath government. As farmers in western and Terai regions of Uttar Pradesh are counting on the Rabi crop to recover the losses they suffered owing to the destruction of the previous season’s crops such as grains, mustard seeds, flowers and vegetables, the state government has not so far been able to complete the “survey” of the crop loss caused by incessant rains and subsequent floods — which almost completely destroyed the Kharif crops (especially paddy, bajra, mustard, chilly, etc) in the region.
What Happened in CoP26 : The Centre for Science and Environment reviews a fatal flaw in the Glasgow Climate Pact in that it dismisses climate justice as a concept important only for “some” and that it fails to understand that climate justice is the prerequisite for an effective and ambitious global agreement. “Has the Glasgow Climate Pact succeeded in going far enough to keep the world below a 1.5°C temperature rise – necessary to ensure that our world can avoid the worst and catastrophic impacts of a changing climate? The answer is a resounding ‘no’,” says CSE director general Sunita Narain. She adds: “The Glasgow Climate Pact’s only achievement – if you can call it that – is that it acknowledges and reiterates the need for financial support for adaptation – but it does nothing more than this.” Here is CSE’s CoP26 report card analysing what happened in context of various dimensions that were to be addressed at Glasgow.
TN: Farmers Oppose DMK nod for Petrochem Plant Proposal in Nagapattinam it Opposed in 2020 : Tamil Nadu farmer organisations and the state Opposition have called for immediate withdrawal of the MSME Trade and Investment Promotion Bureau’s (MTIPB) October 26 request for proposal on the preparation of detailed project report (DPR) for a petrochemical cluster in Nagapattinam district of Cauvery Delta. The plant, a nine million metric tonne per annum (MMTPA) refinery by the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL) and the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), is set to come up in the delta region that was declared a protected special agriculture zone in 2020 after protests against hydrocarbon extraction and its impact on farmers. A one MMTPA plant with a feeder facility is already functional at Narimanam village of Nagapattinam – the expansion is set to increase to nine MMTPA with the acquisition of more land, building infrastructure and investment. Further, with the precedent already set of intentionally converting cultivable land into barren land for the sake of the current plant, the risk of severe land and air pollution as well as groundwater contamination, is also looming over the region.
An indigenous community in Meghalaya offers lessons in climate resilience : The indigenous food system of the Khasi community in Nongtraw village in Meghalaya offers lessons in climate resilience and sustainable food systems, says a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation report. The traditional food production system is supported by jhum (shifting cultivation), home gardens, forest and water bodies and shies away from the use of synthetic chemicals. It is based on community-led landscape management practices, regulated by local governance. However, factors such as the emergence of cash crop production (broom grass and oil palm), the impact of India’s public distribution system on the local subsistence system and over-reliance on market-based products are weakening the food system’s resilience.
Fewer Fishing Days, Lower Catch, Poor Welfare Access Leave India's Fishers Poorer : This is the first in a three-part investigative series detailing how several crises have left India’s small-scale fishers (who make up 67% of those in the trade), impoverished and indebted - these include cyclonic storms and other adverse weather conditions, and a crisis of livelihood rooted in multiple factors: decline in fishing days and catch, inaccessible central and state welfare schemes, and a policy that favours capital-intensive, production-driven, export-oriented growth. The first part of this series focuses on the financial stresses of fishing as subsistence work, including the impact of a steady and deep decline in the catch itself, exacerbated climate change-related weather disruptions as well as overfishing by large mechanised fleets.
Chennai Floods: Who Is Responsible For The Mess? : The streets, residential areas and roads of Chennai flooded once again as heavy rainfall lashed the metropolitan in November, and water stagnation continued in several parts of the city for at least four days after the downpour halted. Despite Rs 16,000 crore being spent on stormwater drains and related infrastructure over the last 15 years, nothing has changed to save the city and its residents from inundation. Experts point to rapid urbanisation, not simply climate change, as having caused Chennai to lose its natural drainage system. Several studies have found the water bodies across the city have shrunk in size due to encroachments. The long list of encroachers includes different departments of the state government, making the government a perpetual defaulter. Lack of planning in stormwater drain construction and corrupt practices are also described as adding to the woes of the city’s residents.
Small Hydro Power Projects Are Seen As Green. In The Western Ghats, Local Communities Disagree : As India pushes for more renewables in its energy mix to meet its global climate-change pledges, one of these options, small hydropower projects, was once heralded as benign and beneficial, despite a dearth of studies on their impacts on local communities and ecology. For example, the Western Ghats – which influence the south-west monsoon, feed three of India’s seven biggest rivers, supply water to much of the Indian peninsula, and are home to about a fourth of the country's population – have had hundreds of small hydropower projects installed in its forests over the past two decades. These projects increased human-elephant conflict, led to the loss of thousands of trees, disrupted riverine life and the lives of local communities – and the electricity generated is sold to urban communities and forests outside the forest. As renewable energy becomes the focus for India’s energy sector, Article 14’s report highlights the gaps in understanding the social and environmental impact of infrastructure projects – projects that need to be designed around the needs of local communities.
National climate institutions complement targets and policies : National climate institutions are a missing element in climate mitigation discussions, as well as there being very little literature focused on how states organise themselves internally to address climate change. Institutions are relevant for solving three climate governance challenges: coordination across policy domains and interests, mediating conflict and building consensus, and strategy development. However, countries do not have a free hand in designing climate institutions; institutions are shaped by national context into distinct varieties of climate governance. Considering that the study of domestic climate institutions is still in an extremely nascent stage compared to the study of targets and policies, a new research article by the Centre for Policy Research suggests how countries can sequence the formation of climate institutions given the constraints of national politics and existing national political institutions.
The Complex Weather Phenomena Behind Tamil Nadu's Intense Northeast Monsoon : Just in the first week of this year’s northeast monsoon, Tamil Nadu received excess rain of 41% – ‘excess’ meaning the quantum of rain thus far has been 141%. The role of climate change in intensifying the monsoons doesn’t mean the carbon dioxide in the air directly makes the rains worse. The mechanisms of action are typically more indirect; for example, as the air warms, it becomes able to hold more moisture. So, when storms form, they are laden with a greater amount of water vapour. More complicated phenomena are also at work, often at great scales of space and time. As a case in point, a brief prepared by Climate Trends quotes meteorologists to say that the northeast monsoon is so intense this year because of the coming together of three key oceanic parameters: the Indian Ocean Dipole, the Madden-Julian oscillation and La Niña.