Perspectives on Climate Change, Society and Gender in India

Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri

Climate change vulnerability is a multi-layered and multi-faceted phenomenon. “It’s a justice issue determined by both biophysical and socio-economic factors. It needs to be framed as an ethical and political issue, and not just a purely environmental one,” says Prof Sucharita Sen, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Sen was speaking at #PlanetTalks, a webinar series jointly organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute, India Water Portal and TERI School of Advanced Studies. Her talk dealt with the various perspectives on climate change, society, and gender in India.

She highlighted how natural disasters are not that natural. They are products of historically determined social processes. Calling them ‘natural disasters’ artificially naturalises the harm they cause. Even climate change-induced disasters are caused by human acts of omission and commission and are not just an act of nature.

The state plays an important role and inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations are the root causes of vulnerabilities that turn natural hazards into a disaster.

“Factors influencing climate change are similar to those that give rise to the incidence of diseases turning into a pandemic. Some scientists think that climate change, with its increase in sudden and extreme weather events, is influencing the evolution of organisms to lead to an apparent increase in many infectious diseases. The global economic regime renders a pandemic or epidemic outbreak as a global and not simply a local phenomenon,” says Sen.

“Climate change impacts are felt differently by the rich and poor and this will continue to increase in future generations. The policies designed to manage climate change have severe unequal consequences and excludes the poor and powerless,” says Sen.

“The implications of anthropogenic climate change are visible in rising temperature and sea levels, melting of glaciers, floods, droughts, hurricanes, ocean acidification etc. But what is not often visible and hence ignored is the negative impact on vulnerable groups in society,” says Sen.

Climate change leads to differential vulnerabilities for women and men

Prof Sen presents a micro-view based on the gender narratives from her study in the watershed of Gang Stan glacier, Menthosa glacier and Brahmaputra basin to arrive at more nuanced insights on gender divides in terms of workspace.

  • Societal relationships intertwined with spatial (resource) context

Sen uses the term ‘genderspace’ to capture complexities in gender relations and obliquely to the way historically patriarchy has been shaped in a particular area.

The Indo-Gangetic plain, which has historically been a fertile land has very low male selective out-migration. Also, here men have more control over the land. Gendered vulnerabilities are a manifestation of adverse gender relations. The vulnerabilities vary in nature and type. 

The Brahmaputra basin valley region is marked by adverse gender relations compared to its upper stretches or the hill region. The hill region has a much higher ratio of female work participation rates and share of women among cultivators as compared to the valley region of the Brahmaputra basin. She also points out the adverse ratio of male to female literacy rates in the valley region as compared to the hill region.

People who stayed close to the Brahmaputra river were the poorest of the poor and are faced with uncertainties related to flood, erosion and shifting of river courses with no property rights. Those who were settled farther from the river had more defined property rights, were settled agriculturists whose lands were fed by the river and were less vulnerable.

  • Livelihood decisions are based on profitability and not on climatic considerations

The majority of people are living on the threshold and thus livelihood decisions are based on profitability and not climatic considerations.

Citing an example of Himachal Pradesh, a cold area with a homogenous society, she explains that potatoes and peas which are diversified crops used for commercial purposes were cultivated more in the region compared to kidney beans and barley which are very resilient to climatic changes and yield lesser returns.

She highlights that people are engaged in agricultural practises driven by profitability and other elements like road connectivity, infrastructure, and development even if it is risky rather than taking various climatic factors like snowfall, rainfall, temperature into consideration.

  • Perception is central to adaptation and willingness to adapt but they often do not match the scientific idea

Sen cites an example of the annual river discharge of Miyar Nala, Udaipur which indicates that the maximum, minimum and average discharge of the river has decreased in the past 10 years. However, from her study of five villages, it is evident that no change was perceived in water availability for irrigation from diversion channels.

  • Climate change is only one of the factors that influence adaptation

It is often not clear whether adaptation is a response to climate change or to livelihood risks. The perception and hence adaptation to extreme events is separable though, but these events temporarily alter the long-term trend of climatic change. She cites an example where all small, medium, large scale farmers when asked the reason for changing their cropping trend from peas to cauliflower in a hilly region indicated land degradation as the major factor for this shift in comparison to climatic variability.

  • Perceptions of climate change in the same micro-locations are differentiated by gender and other social context as also economic groups and occupations

Even in the micro-context, it’s the people living in the area who decide their perception. In the hilly region of Himachal Pradesh, the perception of long term climatic change in regard to parameters like temperature, rainfall, snowfall and short term climatic changes like seasonal flooding and landslide is more muted among women than men. In the Brahmaputra basin, floods were differently perceived by the landed peasants and Mishing tribes who lived along the river and saw floods as a welcome change as they depended on fishing.

  • Agency important for climate-resilient behaviours
  • Gender roles and agencies during a disaster are blurred, but heighten pre and post disasters
  • Cases of adaptation to climate are numerous but this is not the case with climate change

Making a distinction between climate and climate change, Sen points out that people rarely see the changes in livelihood strategies as driven by climate change. Summarising a field survey done in 2015 she underlines that among 240 people surveyed only 6 were able to point out changes in climatic parameters (such as rainfall, snowfall, temperature, incidences of climate fluctuations, extreme climatic events like landslides, slope failures), their nature and response to its risk and it’s individual or community adaptation.

  • Institutional (informal, community level) responses to livelihood risks are fairly strong in the Himalayan region and rare in Assam

This is because of low levels of inequality and cohesive society in the Himalayan region while in Assam class, caste and ethnic hierarchies are heightened.

There is a need to understand vulnerabilities to climate change together with the various interlinked contextual conditions (e.g. social – caste, ethnicity, religion, gender, political, economic and geographical/location).

“Simplistic discourses from the global north that portray women as poorer and more vulnerable to natural hazards and from the global south that portray women as closer to nature and more environmentally conscious are misleading. They reinforce differences between women and men and consider those as unchangeable,” says Sen. There is a need to look at gender and climate change adaptation through an intersectionality lens.

The article was originally published on IndiaWaterPortal.

YouTube Video for Perspectives on Climate Change, Society and Gender in India

Acknowledgement: Nishi Verma is research programs assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

Picture Credit: Ensia