Women And Environmental Conservation: Pioneers, Not Victims!

As World Environment Day (June 5th) approaches, let’s learn from these extraordinary women fighting for environmental conservation in India.

As World Environment Day (June 5th) approaches, let’s learn from these extraordinary women fighting for environmental conservation in India.

By Chicu Lokgariwar

Visualise a parched land, with the soil showing the giraffe-skin cracking of far too much thirst. A pitiless sun shines directly overhead, bleaching the bones of the beings that have not survived the summer. In the middle of this nightmarish landscape, a woman trudges for water balancing multiple pots on her head, accompanied by her little daughter.

Poignant image, isn’t it?

This is reality in rural Africa and Asia. Environmental degradation and lack of drinking water causes terrible misery. Household chores being synonymous with women’s work, they are the ones who are expected to keep their family alive, no matter the odds. But this is an image that has been abused globally.

This portrayal of women as victims needing benevolent outside succour hides the fact that they are primarily fighters. This is not to say that the role of women in environmental protection or activism is entirely neglected. But when women activists are spoken of, it is often in terms of primal defence. The villager fighting for water to feed her family, the sparrow protecting her young from a hawk – primal, blind, intuitive protests. This vision of women as natural stewards of the earth does them a disservice by portraying them as primitive as opposed to technologically evolved(PDF).

This image is wrong, of course. Women are astute enough to observe their environment, to calculate the effects of ‘business as usual’, to strategize how best to combat the resulting degradation and to safeguard their interests. Today some of the most influential environmentalists in the world, and certainly the most iconic, are women.

Women and environmental conservation: The pioneers

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962) was one of the earliest to focus attention on the effects of pollution and on our world, waking us up to the reality of environmental degradation. It catalysed the birth of several grassroots movements and through them, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.

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Later, Elinor Ostrom pointed out to us that depriving communities of the access to natural goods is not the most efficient way of managing our global inheritance. In her book Governing the Commons (1990) she gave the world a map to a more humane, just and sustainable way of managing this world of ours. She might have won a Nobel for this work, but in India, the robbing of tribals and forest dwellers of access to their livelihood, the forcible taking of land from agriculturalists for ‘the greater good’ continues.

The Narmada Andolan is the one that comes instantly to mind. The story began in 1979 when the Narmada Valley Development Project was sanctioned. At that time, a young woman was studying for a life of academia in far-off Mumbai. In 1985, when she was studying for her Ph.D, Medha heard disquieting rumours of a people that were being removed from their homes. She went there with one superpower that nobody else had at that time – the ability and willingness to listen to the tribals and speak with the government. This ability, and the quiet conviction that great wrong was being done, led her to organise a month-long march through the Narmada valley to the dam site. That peaceful march met with violence from the state. The bruises received then proved to be a blessing in disguise as the struggle gained global notice. Today this woman is Medha Patkar, recipient of several prestigious awards, and the instantly recognizable face of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Those people are there…How can the government deny that they exist?

Many people call Ms.Patkar a troublemaker and an attention-seeker, the default term for people who join a cause without the privilege of being born into it. It is true that Medha is recognizable because she is inextricably linked to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. But the point is that she is inextricably linked to the Andolan. For the last twenty-five years, her life has been the Narmada.

And today if she is the face of the Andolan, it is because it needs a face. The half-million people who are being displaced by the dam are both nameless and faceless. They are absent from government records. A young friend of mine who had gone to the valley as part of a survey team returned in tears. ‘Those people are there.” Malavika wept, “How can the government deny that they exist?” That team returned with hundreds of photographs of the invisible people, with their names and addresses. If not for Medha and others like her, tribals would always be invisible, uncounted, and non-existent.

Role of women in India towards environmental protection

However, not all workers choose to use their voice to change the world. Some have greatness thrust upon them. Today everyone in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand recognizes a certain chirpy little septuagenarian wearing a crisp saree and a scarf knotted around her head. It is an acknowledged fact that Radha Behen is the primary driving force behind the Uttarakhand Save the Rivers movement. Acknowledged, that is, by everyone except Radha Behen herself. Because Radha Behen would like nothing more than to live in her beautiful village overlooking the Greater Himalayas, supervise the education of the girls at the Laxmi Ashram and encourage social afforestation in the mountain villages.

A few years ago however, the Kosi River of Uttarakhand began to dry up. The Government decreed that water should be supplied for drinking rather than for irrigation and broke the guhls- the little water canals- and posted guards to block people’s access to water. While the government’s priorities seem to be fair at first glance, a deeper analysis proves it wrong. The water for ‘drinking’ was being supplied to the town of Almora, which had no incentive to manage water wisely. And so, the precious water was being used for flushing, washing cars, keeping restaurant driveways cool, and otherwise squandered away in the thoughtless manner common to urban areas.

Radha Behen would like nothing more than to live in her beautiful village overlooking the Greater Himalayas, supervise the education of the girls at the Laxmi Ashram and encourage social afforestation in the mountain villages.

The ‘farmers’ in this case are not the water guzzling, combine-harvester wielding commercial producers of Punjab. These are subsistence farmers growing a little paddy and rajma to feed their families. In most cases, these villagers have a food deficit and can only grow enough to feed themselves for 4-6 months a year. And now even this was being denied them. People were also being denied access to their water due to the construction of several hundred dams in Uttarakhand. Their land was being taken away from them, and blasting for the dams was toppling their houses. Who could these people turn to other than the woman who had taught them to resurrect their forests?

In 2007, Radha Behen, other activists and villagers embarked on a padayatra to the source of the Kosi. It was during this walk that they became aware of the scale of the threat to Uttarakhand’s rivers. Since then, the Uttarakhand Nadi Bachao Andolan has continued its bitter fight against a government that seems to think a nation is its GDP and not its people. Radha Behen has not only been at the forefront of every rally, walk and meeting, but she is also the one who guides its strategy and plans.

It is a stressful life she leads, with activism and her work promoting Gandhian ideals. While I have seen her tired, I have yet to see her lose either her temper or her sense of humour. And the more I reflect on the Nadi Bachao Andolan, the more I realise that she is right. Radha Behen and the other leaders of the Andolan provide the strategy and the impetus. But the real driving force is elsewhere.

It is in the hundreds of men and women who put their lives on hold and sit on dam sites daring the contractors to bulldoze them away. It is in the group of teenage girls who say, “ek doosre ki madad karani chahiye, na?” and travel long distances to lend support to a flagging struggle. And it is in an unlettered folk singer who modifies her songs to protest against the loss of her forests.

Top image courtesy Down to Earth video on the history of the Chipko movement


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