By Taru Bahl, Womens Feature Service
Gaindi Bullamma from Andhra Pradesh’s tribal area strode confidently across the stage to share her experience at a public hearing in New Delhi. Hers is a story of courage for she and others in her community have successfully fought – not human adversaries but the effects of something as unfathomable, incomprehensible and frightening as climate change.
Experiencing differences in monsoon patterns and altered direction of winds over the last decade has left families like Gaindi’s penniless. Their main sources of livelihood – fishing and agriculture – have seen a dramatic dip in production. The rainy season, which used to be from May-end till October, can no longer be taken for granted. Sometimes there are heavy rains in July, unlike earlier and the span of winter seems to have shrunk, with the season commencing only in mid-January and ending in late-February. As a result, insects, garden lizards, dragonflies and vultures are not to be found anymore and nuts and fruits no longer grow in abundance. Their pigeon coops, livestock and backyard poultry, which used to thrive once, are now increasingly affected by disease.
Gaindi, along with hundreds of women from the Dalit, Muslim and Adivasi communities – the poorest and most marginalised sections of society – descended on the Capital recently to be part of a unique Climate Change Tribunal. Through the medium of public hearings that brought together NGOs, civil society organisations, activists, grassroots workers, and members of the media, a platform was provided for impacted women to share their stories through testimonials, which were then debated upon by expert panelists.
By holding hearings in different zones of the country, a rich and diverse set of experiences have been collated on how changing climatic patterns have affected women’s daily lives. Partnering with organisations like Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, Christian Aid and Laya, Oxfam India has held six regional hearings in Patna, Rishikesh, Mumbai, Puducherry, Bhubaneshwar and Jaipur with the final one culminating in a national-level hearing at Delhi. The themes included drought, flood and cyclone prone areas, they covered arid and coastal regions, Himalayan heights, flood plains, forest zones and urban landscapes.
The exercise has helped bring together a rich pool of human stories, which will be used to influence decision makers on the urgency of finding alternatives and solutions that are pro-poor and gender sensitive. Promoting the voices of the poor and ensuring that they get a fair deal will be an uphill task at the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, where technology, carbon credits and issues faced by affluent nations are bound to dominate the discussions.
However, Oxfam, which spearheaded this mammoth project has successfully formed a task force of thousands of affected women. According to Nisha Agrawal, Chief Executive Officer, Oxfam India, “India is observing drastic changes in climatic patterns and is struggling to cope with its adverse effects. This year alone, there have been natural calamities like Cyclone Aila, drought in many states and devastating floods in southern India. All these catastrophes were an effect of climate change and have taken thousands of human lives and destroyed huge amounts of natural and manmade property.”
Said Pam Rajput, eminent women’s rights activist and member of the tribunal, “Findings and voices from these platforms, which have closely looked at three aspects of climate change – agriculture, forest and water – will be taken to the international conference. It is heartening to see that seeing India take this route (public hearings) other countries are following suit.” She added that climate change is not uniform in its impact and the experience of men and women is dissimilar, simply because women’s lives in the rural hinterland are still intertwined with water, earth and jungle.
Forest degradation and drought have meant that women have to walk longer distances to get water for washing and bathing. They are increasingly seeking agricultural work and in the process getting exposed to pesticides that makes them vulnerable to asthma, skin infection, tuberculosis, malaria and chikungunya. Traditional occupations are fast disappearing and in its place is the genesis of a new form of wage labour. Domestic equations are changing and all this is leading to huge psychological stress and pressure, mostly on women since they have to also bear and rear children and perform all their other supporting roles.
Women from Jharkhand agreed that power was a necessity and that the state was being tipped to be a power hub with reserves of energy and bioenergy. But if this had to be at the cost of depleting forest cover, how would local ‘adivasis’ (tribals) survive, since most of them are dependent on forests? Observed Rambatti, who belongs to the primitive Gond tribe, “In one single stroke the Gonds’ identity is gone as they shed their landowner tag and don the garb of ‘labourers’ and daily wage earners, picking up any job that comes their way.”
Devki Kaupal of Kaushambi in zilla Almora, Uttarakhand, said that 20 years ago the region had water and were green with forest growth. Now it is parched and dry. Forming themselves into groups, about 300 women took it upon themselves to propagate messages that could help prevent further erosion of forestland. They decided not to chop trees for firewood and ensured that contractors and forest officers did not steal timber. It meant tougher survival issues but they understood that preserving forests meant preserving their own lives and dignity.
India is dependent on agriculture and agriculture is dependent on monsoons. If in 20-30 days a place witnesses rainfall of 90-120 days it will impact crops and lifestyle patterns. The Bundelkhand region in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh has been suffering drought for ten years. According to Anna Soren, a woman farmer from Bundelkhand, “Here, even the winds have changed direction and there is a sudden rise in winter temperature leading to over ripening of crops.” According to her, this affects the quality of produce and incomes. In 2006, when temperature increased by two to three degrees there was overall decrease in food and crop production of 15-20 per cent and there were fewer seeds.
Women are now demanding alternative and viable solutions from the government. They want their voices to feed into policies on agriculture, food sovereignty and joint forest management. They want scientists to develop R&D that can inform them on appropriate crop varieties that synergise technical knowledge and local wisdom. They feel they are placed strategically to implement innovations in adaptive agriculture since most women are engaged in farming in rural India and would benefit from capacity building, knowledge and training.
Said Mehrunnisa, a teacher in a government school in Janakpuri, Delhi, “Using public hearing to bring about a sense of collective justice on issues related to social and sustainable development, social justice and violations of rights are not propagandist or a grievance redressal mechanism.” Indeed, there is strength in collective sharing, a catharsis sets in while talking of one’s personal tragedies, of surmounting huge odds with very simple and effective solutions.
The bonding among women who have never stepped out of their village, was palpable as bodies, ideas, complexions and dialects seemed to merge and resonate in one voice demanding alternatives that could enable them to feed their families and survive with dignity. As Rajput put it, “So far women have battled the impact of climate change with their own adaptation responses. It is time we built on this more scientifically and strategically.”