Environmental activism in India is largely intersectional in the manner in which it interacts with various issues pertaining to sustainability, conservation and environmental degradation. The Chipko movement is considered the first of its kind to fuel a new environmental consciousness that prompted the conversation surrounding the unequal distribution of natural resources and sustainable development in a newly independent India. Over 40 years after the Chipko movement started, historian Ramchandra Guha wrote that in India, environmental activism arose out of the imperative of human survival. To him, this was an “environmentalism of the poor”, he argued that the present patterns of resource use disadvantaged local communities and devastated the natural environment. Furthermore, in much of the historical writing on imperialism, ecology and politics, women are hardly spoken of despite their considerable vulnerability to policies that dictate the distribution of natural resources, in turn affecting their livelihoods. In this context, the Chipko movement stood at the root of the ecofeminism approach and the involvement of women in environmental activism all over the world.
In response to the gender bias in environmental history and policy, two approaches took prominence among activists and policy-makers; the “Women, Environment and Development (WED) approach and Ecofeminism.” The WED approach emphasizes that women have a special relationship with nature owing to their daily interactions with it, as a result of the gendered division of labour. Similarly, ecofeminism too views women to be close to nature in a spiritual and conceptual sense. Françoise d’Eaubonne coined the term in reference to the ideological links between the climate crisis and gender while also highlighting the role that patriarchal societies play in the oppression of both nature and women. In particular, ecofeminism in India also has underlying interlinkages with issues of caste and class. Moreover, it is intriguing to note that Indhira Gandhi was the first politician to add debates surrounding the environment to her national political agenda, which later paved the way for the Ministry of Environment and Forests to be established in 1985. While her approach to environmental issues was largely problematized due to her perceptions of poverty and pollution, she is one of the first politicians to address these issues in an independent India’s political arena.
Ecofeminism as an approach took two major turns, namely, radical and cultural ecofeminism. The latter focuses on how ecological problems tend to affect women more than men and on the premise that women have a more sustainable relationship with nature, which is reciprocal rather than exploitative. This approach then argues that women contribute to the preservation of nature rather than just exploit its resources. Dr Vandana Shiva has been a strong advocate for this approach. Dr Shiva’s Navdanya movement is an earth-centric, women-centric and farmer-led movement that focuses on the conservation of traditional varieties of seeds, organic farming practices and the rights of farmers. She claims that an “ethic of care” towards the environment informs the relationship between women and nature, not simply as a socially developed intimacy, but a biologically necessary one. Furthermore, she argues that the green revolution in India was not only destroying the vast variety of rice grains that have been preserved by women throughout history but also perpetuates a new kind of violence against women.
Although the aforementioned approaches have pioneered debates pertaining to the relationship between gender and environment, they also perpetuate a certain narrative about the said relationship. For instance, A.E. Kings, in his article on intersectionality and ecofeminism, writes that while Dr Shiva draws from the Indian cosmology in understanding the relationship between nature and women, she fails to address the patriarchal structures within Hinduism or engage with the complex structures of social, political and religious relations under the influence of the caste system. In saying that women have a closer relationship with nature, cultural ecofeminism as an approach reinforces the gendered stereotypes rather than develop a mutually beneficial dialogue. Furthermore, Dr Shiva’s claims that the patriarchal structures of postcolonial capitalism of the West are solely responsible for the environmental degradation in India and the “Global South” disguise the marginalization and particularly institutionalised discrimination that women face within the structures of Indian society.
Ecofeminism then leads us to a paradox. On one hand, it seeks to alleviate the problem of gender bias in environmental policy and seeks to break out of a patriarchal structure that oppresses both nature and women. On the other hand, it leads to the perception that women are closer to nature by virtue of the gendered division of labour, reinforcing the violent assertion of gendered stereotypes that limit women to certain roles. That said, the question that persists is that of modern environmental activism in India given the increasing concern of climate change, and what this means to women.
In recent times, there have been numerous reports of the effects of climate change and its impact on women. The most recent of which were the stories of the fisherwomen of Kashmir and the impact of a looming water crisis on women farmers who produce about 60 to 80 per cent of our food and 90 per cent of our dairy products. Fish production and agricultural activities in this Himalayan region contribute to 2% per cent of the GDP and are the mainstay of the economy. The negative externalities of tourism, excessive fertilisation of vegetable crops on floating gardens that lead to algal blooms, and the spike in pollution due to the dumping of waste in both Dal lake and Wullar lake led to a decline in the compound growth rate of fish production in the region. Fisherwomen called Gadhi-wajni have traditionally been the oldest entrepreneurs in Kashmir, even through the events of modernisation. Notably, while state authorities like LAWDA (Lakes and water development authorities) and pollution control board spent large amounts of money to rectify the wrongs, they failed to bring scientists and expert onboard in the process of formulating policies on the matter. Moreover, it is rarely known if the plight of the fisherwomen community exclusively has ever even made it to the agenda table of the authorities while discussing conservation strategies for the water bodies.
It is also important to note the experiences of women such as Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi whose voices of dissent were stifled by what is perceived as the legitimate authority of the state. Disha Ravi is a Bangalore-based environmentalist who was arrested at her home, flown to Delhi, placed in the custody of Delhi police without a lawyer and charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy. Ravi’s alleged crimes are related to a “toolkit” document connected to India’s ongoing farmer protests, which police say is evidence of a coordinated international conspiracy against India. In a statement she released after her release, she deliberates her own privilege in comparison to those who are still in jail. She writes that while she was fortunate enough to access pro bono legal assistance, she worries for those who don’t have that privilege. She writes that “although their physical forms are trapped behind bars because of collective silence, their ideas continue to live on as will the united resistance of the people.”
Nodeep Kaur was one such activist who spent 46 days in custody. She is a Dalit labour rights activist from Punjab, who was arrested by Sonipat Police on January 12, on charges of attempt to murder, rioting, and assault to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty under the Indian Penal Code, among others. Since her release after receiving bail, she accused the police of custodial torture. Moreover, she also alleged that Kundli Station House Officer Ravi Kumar had said: “Dalits can’t rise so high in society that they become the voice of the people. Who gave you the right to speak for everyone?” It becomes clear that while ecofeminism may have paved a path for understanding the relationship between gender and environmentalism, it is imperative for us to acknowledge the nature of environmental issues as intersectional.
Sriramya Ghanta is a third-year undergraduate student, pursuing a major in political science and a minor in sociology and anthropology at Ashoka University.