Gender in hydropower development: A long way to go

Hirakud, India's oldest dam (Image source: India Water Portal on Flickr)
Hirakud, India's oldest dam (Image source: India Water Portal on Flickr)

Large dams, back in the game?

Recent years are seeing the re-emergence of large dams as sources of hydropower generation in global development policy. Large dams are being propagated as clean, green, climate-mitigating and a major source of renewable energy in emerging markets in the Global South.

A paper titled 'Masculinities and hydropower in India: a feminist political ecology perspective' in the International Journal of the Commons says that this dramatic comeback of large dams marks a significant reversal in global environmental policy, ignoring earlier much-contested environmental and social risks of large dams and supporting the commodification of rivers and forests. This can not only lead to huge social, environmental and economic risks, but also threatens the survival of local populations whose identity, sense of belonging and livelihoods are connected to these ecosystems.

While the social impacts of large dams with respect to displacement and resettlement have been documented, there is very little information on the direct and indirect impacts of dams on different people living across the entire river basin. Even less is known on how gender and dams are correlated.

Large dams can be damaging to rivers, river basins and riverine ecosystems, impacting the lives and livelihoods of diverse groups of people. Large dams have been found to have worse impacts on women as compared to men, in contexts where women have very little or no agency to voice their demands or make their needs heard. Women suffer more due to displacement and relocation from hydropower development. They are especially vulnerable when gender sensitivities are ignored or overlooked in the project design and planning phases of hydropower development. These vulnerabilities range from losing their traditional means of livelihood when they lose access to their land, for instance, which in turn affects their food security and often their access to water and sanitation as well. They lose access to and control over resources such as land, rivers, forests, fodder, and have to thus deal with increasing workloads. Displacement often causes fragmented social and familial ties, a loss of mobility, poor health and little or no access to health care facilities or services.

While this impact of dams on gender has been acknowledged, the new focus on dam development now also includes attempts to be more inclusive and engender the process of planning and implementation of large dams through the use of gender toolkits. Gender-sensitive planning could include public consultations with women to better understand power dynamics. It could also include assessments of sex-disaggregated data to develop a gendered project baseline.

However, how much do the organisations that are supposed to include gender in the planning and implementation of hydropower projects, themselves understand and practise gender in their day to day functioning?

The paper presents the findings of a study that explores factors that shape gender attitudes and everyday practices by talking to male and female employees from two hydropower organisations - one, a public sector enterprise and the other a private company - in Sikkim. The study aims to explore gender identities, attitudes, perceptions and practices in these two organisations to understand if gender plays a role in the day to day functioning of these organisations, and whether it can affect the design and implementation of hydropower projects.

Here are some interesting findings from the study:

Dam building activities are perceived as masculine

Engineering work in hydropower is perceived as highly masculine and immensely risky, requiring re-shaping and re-ordering of "rugged terrains". The ability to undertake such risks is believed to be stronger in men as compared to women. By working in remote locations, blasting tunnels through solid mountains of rocks, stopping and containing the flow of mighty rivers, male technicians across the hierarchy of these hydropower institutions are believed to demonstrate their ability to take risks and achieve the unachievable.

The men who were interviewed in the study proudly talked about their competence and risk-taking ability, which they claimed made them distinct and different from others, including women. They presented their job as masculine and challenging, socially and physically risk-prone and needing adaptation skills and capabilities. They also frequently used masculine metaphors such as 'army life" and 'forced bachelorhood', to describe their work.

A culture of hierarchy and subordination prevails

This idea of masculinity is not only about being a man. It also extends to a larger culture of hierarchy and subordination within the organisation. Thus male respondents interviewed for the study saw women in their organisation as subordinate and less capable. These notions of subordination and hierarchy served to maintain power differences not only between women and men, but also among men. Staff at different levels in the organisation rarely mingled with each other, except when male staff were from the same state and of the same ethnic background. Women and men avoided interactions across hierarchical levels and maintained a safe distance from each other. Men in junior positions usually spent time with men in senior positions, did not leave the office until the seniors left, tried hard to please them by attending to their professional as well as personal needs, and ensured their visibility for a successful career. Men also engaged in masculine sports like tennis and cricket. Further, being emotional was considered out of place at work and both men and women in these organisations prevented any displays of emotions and controlled their feelings to appear physically and mentally tough.

These hierarchies within the organisation were found to limit access to information, opportunities and benefits for staff working at lower positions in the organisation, most of which were women. This masculine culture also inhibited transparency, kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness in the workplace. It was evident from this qualitative study that existing power structures and hierarchies could be seriously disrupted and turned on their heads, simply by being more inclusive towards female employees. 

Women in such institutions often conform to masculine norms

Female staff also tried to conform to masculine norms. For instance, a female human resources manager identified herself as no less than men and pointed out how she managed her work in a challenging situation without showing any emotions. She was highly critical of feminine behaviours like breastfeeding, seeking help, expressing emotions and feelings and dissociated herself from other women. She tried hard to be a 'model employee' and regretted not being allowed to do field visits despite making multiple requests. While this female employee felt that her work was not acknowledged enough, she did not question the existing gender norms in the organisation.

Shifts in organisational culture needed

The authors argue that it is not possible to promote gender equality in the planning and implementation of hydropower projects without addressing masculinities and the associated hierarchies within the organisational culture and everyday practices of the hydropower sector itself. Changing behaviours, attitudes and practices in the hydropower sector will require major shifts in organisational culture and societal values and gender toolkits alone will be unable to transform these entrenched masculine norms in these organisations

It would be highly unlikely that this work culture would encourage emotions, sensitivity and equality. Neither would it take into consideration alternative points of view, nor would it address the environmental and livelihood concerns of affected people, women and issues such as land rights of tribals and minorities adequately. And such issues cannot be addressed without adequate inclusion and representation of women within the hydropower industry.

The authors argue that with or without gender toolkits, the hydropower sector in India has little to show for, when it comes to equality and inclusion. This is because the emphasis on dominant masculine norms in the day to day functioning of hydropower organisations reinforces the denial of the ethics of caring and distributive justice as organisational values. It will not be possible to end one without recognising and tackling the other.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below.