Natural resource management through a gender lens
Need to recognise women, the cogs in the feminisation of Indian agriculture
In incorporating female participation, some programmes only added (futile) burden on these women without challenging the current division of labour. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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 seventeen ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) to be achieved in 15 years to achieve holistic global development. The issue of ‘Gender and Natural Resources Management’ was addressed in a talk by Seema Kulkarni at #GenderGaps with Dr Indu Prakash Singh of CityMakers Mission International.

Kulkarni has been a champion of intersectional feminism, which is especially reflected from her work in Stree Mukti Sangharsh Chalwal, an organisation working to support the struggles of the single and widowed women from socioeconomically backward sections. She has been a vocal advocate for securing due recognition and rights of women farmers and is associated with the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (Forum For Women Farmers' Rights), a nationwide informal forum of more than 120 individuals and organisations of farming women, of women farmers' collectives, civil society organisations, researchers and activists, drawn from 24 states of India.

Her talk sketched two broad areas in the intersection of feminism and climate action. The first is the need to tackle gender-blind policies and programmes globally and attune them to the nuances of sociocultural dynamics. The second is the urgency to understand the relational perspectives in access and control over natural resource management to achieve the former.

Drawing upon the distinct experiences of the 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. Women are not a monolithic category, but an analytical one. Their demographics a la social class, caste, religion and ethnicity, have a significant impact on 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 of 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.

Before pointing out the contemporaneous problems, it is imperative to understand the background as well as emerging constructs in the field. There had been 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 rural women’s association with it.

The degradation of the environment was viewed as impairing the rural and indigenous lives, especially impacting women. The damage led to heightened time spent and drudgery for accessing resources, pushing forward narrative painting women as victims in a rural climate. The successive decade saw 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 the environment in 1972. Nationally, the scope towards environmentalism broadened with anti-nuclear movement 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 place 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 the current division of labour.

After being neglected in academia for the better part of the 20th century, theories of ‘women in development’ (WID) and women and development (WAD) emerged in the 1970-80s. These examined the incorporation of women in climate action and environmentalism without challenging the pre-existing socio-cultural paradigm.

The succeeding theories on ‘gender and development (GAD)’ 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.

Today’s debates evolve into a broadened perspective of gender and marginalisation. Ecofeminism, which brings together feminism as well as environmentalism, argues that the domination of women and the degradation of the environment are consequences of patriarchy and capitalism. Although guilty of simplistic essentialism without challenging biological determinism, there is plenty of truth to the prominence of women in environmental concerns as both helpers and victims.

The discipline itself has its distributaries specialising in several marginalised communities, political viewpoints as well as societal structures. Prof Bina Agarwal at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester has extensively studied feminist environmentalism in the South Asian context.

Agarwal’s empirical findings have critically shown women’s association with nature concerning their (involuntary) roles and responsibilities in various sociocultural contexts. An extension of this discipline involves feminist political ecology. Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva’s work, titled ‘Ecofeminism’ presents a comprehensive analysis of capitalism, gender and nature.

Contemporarily, Ms Kulkarni has identified gender gaps in a few prominent ways. The first includes differential access to resources such as water, livestock, fodder and fuel. Next, women’s knowledge has a 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 lower participation in governance and political institutions with ease. With restricted access to resources come limited opportunities, leading to repression on women’s agency with deep impact on individuals as well as at social, legal, cultural and economic levels.

A comparative study by the Gender Impact Centre, on differential access to nature, confirms the eminence of social prejudices. Two maps of the same village were presented that highlighted caste and land ownership; the latter showed caste, land and irrigation disparities. As expected, SC/STs and other marginalised groups had claim over less land. Juxtaposed to the second map, it was evident that these were also lands with poor to negligible irrigation facilities. It presented how marginalised communities had marginal land holdings along with disproportionately lower access to irrigation.

To find the gendered impact within these communities is difficult owing to the absence of gender-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 glaring minority in land ownership, but all of them are also small and marginal holders.

This has roots in an inherent aversion towards credit extension towards women resulting in 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 democratic participation – as suggested by Prof Agarwal as a ‘ladder of participation’ – can be achieved, there is a 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 of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) along with other employment schemes can aid in the 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 sustainable development can be achieved.


Acknowledgement: 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.

#GenderGaps is being organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute, Delhi Post News, GenDev Centre for Research and Innovation and CityMakers International.

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