Natural Resources and Women in India

Simi Mehta and Anshula Mehta

Building upon decades of international diplomatic relations and scientific research, the United Nations adopted the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” in 2015. Most prominently, it highlighted 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) to be achieved in the span of 15 years to achieve a holistic global development.

Focusing on two of the most well-known SDGs: Gender Equality (SDG 5) and Climate Action (SDG 13), a webinar organized by Gender Impact Studies Center, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Delhi Post News and Gendev Centre for Research and Innovation, Gurugram on Natural Resources and Women in India: Challenges, Impact and the Way Forward amid COVID-19 Pandemic.

Natural Resources and Women in India: Challenges, Impact and the Way Forward amid COVID-19 Pandemic

She focused on two broad areas- firstly, the need to tackle gender-blind policies and programmes globally, and attune them to the nuances of sociocultural dynamics. Secondly, the urgency to understand the relational perspectives in access and control over natural resource management to achieve the former.

Drawing upon the apparently distinct experiences of environment for both the genders, she stresses upon the various avenues where power play is at work, impeding social progress. The daily activities for both sexes lay in stark contrast due to the normative social bindings they face. 

Traditionally, research has fallaciously been a victim of a homogenous construction of gender. The demographics such as social class, caste, religion and ethnicity, have significantly impacted their starkly differentiated access and actions. This, as a result, further complicates the power relations amongst women as viewed from different social lenses.

Another important component, previously missing from the discourse was the bearing capitalist reforms have over this gender-environmental microcosm. The seminal neoliberal reforms of the 1990s have resulted in a concerted move towards the capitalisation of nature as well as dispossession of resources to the poor. In addition to the existing categories, the neoliberal wave has been a preeminent factor in shaping the economic dynamics of the sociocultural paradigm.

While pointing out emerging constructs, she highlighted, “there had been an increased attention to women in all walks of life with the development of the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s. The era was defined by a focus on the wood fuel crisis and the rural women’s association with it. The degradation of environment was viewed as impairing the rural and indigenous lives, especially impacting women.

With the damage, came increased time and drudgery for accessing resources, pushing forward a narrative painting women as victims in a rural climate. The successive decade saw a rising participation of women in frontal roles in environment advocacy movements, globally as well as nationally. A quintessential example is the Chipko Andolan which gained recognition in the UN Conference on environment in 1972.”

Nationally, the scope towards environmentalism broadened with anti-nuclear movements as well as a better understanding of gendered environmental dynamics. Women’s leadership was an added benefit in shifting the view of women as victims to “privileged knowers” due to their special relationship with nature.

Subsequent years saw an increased integration of women advisors and participation of female labour force in critical ways. However, the programmes adopted a narrow, instrumentalist approach in seeking merely efficiency improvement, rather than a more in-depth reformation of the existing systems.

Some others fell prey to tokenism and ended up under-utilising women’s knowledge. These, although aimed at environment regeneration, in lieu of more engaging activities, adopted topical measures like tree plantation, nursery, afforestation, energy development. Moreover, in incorporating female participation, these programmes only added (futile) burden on these women without challenging current division of labour.

After being neglected in academia for the better part of the 20th Century, theories of “Women and development” emerged in the 1970-80s. These examined incorporation of women in climate action and environmentalism without challenging the pre-existing sociocultural paradigm. The succeeding theories on “gender and development” provided a more holistic, relational view of the underlying societal, cultural and economic variables in the climate question. These inquired and challenged the conundrum of “man vs nature” as well as his mastery over it.

Ecofeminism, has played central point in critiquing the destruction of nature as well as the perspective towards women’s bodies. Disregarding environment would mean disregarding women as there is plenty to truth to the prominence of women in environmental concerns as both helpers and victims. Ecofeminism itself has its distributaries specialising in several marginalised communities, political viewpoints as well as societal structures. She quoted various ecofeminists such as Prof Bina Agarwal, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva.

Contemporarily, Ms Kulkarni has identified gender gaps in four prominent ways. The first includes a difference in access to resources such as water, livestock, fodder and fuel. Next, women’s knowledge has lesser valuation in their communities as well as from a financial standpoint. Moreover, women suffer from a disproportionately large share in an unequal division of labour. This translates into a lower participation in governance and political institutions with ease. With restricted access to resources come limited opportunities, leading to a repression on women’s agency with deep impacts on an individual as well as social, legal, cultural and economic levels.

A comparative study highlighted by Ms Kulkarni shows casteism where SC/STs and other minority groups had claim over a much smaller magnitude of land and they are equipped with poor to negligible irrigation facilities. It presented how minority communities had marginal land holdings along with a disproportionately lower access to irrigation.

To find the gendered impact within these communities is difficult owing to no disaggregated data. With women being responsible for 70% of global food production, there seems to be a recent trend in “feminisation of agriculture”. Agriculture famously accounts for over two-thirds of the Indian female labour force as opposed to barely half its male counterpart.

Yet, women’s employment in agriculture is seen to decline from 31% (2011-12) to 22% (2015-16). Hence, despite accounting for a large part of the agricultural labour force, a significant quantity remains unemployed – their work comprises of unpaid farm labour and other nourishment or caring activities.

Moreover, according to the operational holders’ data (2015-16) as per the quinquennial Agricultural Census, 85% of landowners in India are men. Not only do women comprise a gawking minority in land ownership, all of them are small and marginal holders. This has roots in an inherent aversion towards credit extension towards women resulting in a generally poor asset ownership.

For existing owners, there is very little access to newer technologies for more efficient production as well as insurance for the protection of their assets in use. This has led to abysmal employment as well as land ownership opportunities in agriculture, forest management and other environmental ventures.

Naturally, to bring forth the necessary change, it is crucial to shed light on the struggles these women face as well as the knowledge and skills they bear, indicating their importance in environmental discourse. More schemes and programmes should focus on uplifting women economically, not merely as a mechanism to alleviate institutional violence. This aspect of gender responsive budgeting needs to expand beyond violence and safety but to inclusivity of access to resources.

While microfinance groups and local lenders are a tremendous help, they also expose women to financial precarity. The government needs to regulate and assist in financial as well as material redistribution of resources. It is especially important with technocratic institutions’ ‘liberal’ capital lending.

The neoliberal model is an essentially extractive model of development in its chemical-intensive approach to the capitalisation of nature and dispossessing the poor. By rectifying these institutions, the government can pave way for an increased bureaucratic representation of women in micro, meso and macro agricultural, forest and/or water institutions.

Till a democratic participation – as suggested by Prof Agarwal as a ‘ladder of participation’ – can be achieved, there is need to boost it via quota. Owing to the migration of men to urban areas and increased farmer suicides, women labourers have been increasingly trapped into unpaid labour. These have far-reaching social consequences in increased school dropouts, scanter attention and provisions for daughters as well as a surge in gendered crimes.

Re-envisioning NREGA along with other employment schemes can aid in reallocation of work, decreasing unpaid labour as well as access to opportunities to marginalised groups. Policies founded in the harsh realities of these individuals, rather than ambitious but ambiguous goals, can much more effectively come to fruition. Having identified these issues, it is critical to understand the intersectional nuances of these social relations. It is by a sincere, combined effort towards this that we can truly hope to achieve sustainable development.

Acknowledgments: Renuka Bhat is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and a recent BSc Economics graduate from NMIMS’ School of Economics, Mumbai

YouTube Video for Natural Resources and Women in India

Picture Courtesy: DD News


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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