With 400 million people living below the poverty line, and an agriculture sector that is heavily dependent on the Monsoon, India is on the frontlines of climate change. But with such a rapidly developing country and signs of climate change already manifesting, how can both development and climate change be addressed?
The world’s largest democracy will play a crucially important role in answering this question, and we will learn a lot from the process. This is why Environmental Defense Fund began engaging on the ground in India nearly two years ago.
Since half of India’s population lives in villages and rural areas, one branch of EDF’s work focuses on sharing information about climate change in rural India. And with a law requiring at least one-third of Indian representatives be women, locally elected women leaders are at the center of our outreach.
It can be challenging to explain how global warming is affecting the women’s lives, so EDF had to think creatively about how to contextualize the risks from climate change, like poverty, risk of hunger, and water security from events like changes in rainfall and rising temperatures.
As a first step, we produced a film starring an Indian soap-opera actor with our partner organization in India, The Hunger Project, which seeks sustainable solutions to world hunger and helps to empower women in rural communities.
The film “Aarohan”, which in Hindi means “A New Beginning”, is designed to prompt the kind of discussion that ultimately may lead to active engagement from women in working to alleviate rural poverty and adapt to climate change. It’s already been shown in more than 400 villages in three separate states at climate “workshops”, where the women leaders watch the film and share stories about the impact of climate change in their communities.
What follows is a blog piece written by Caroline Howe, a young entrepreneur deeply committed to addressing the issue of energy poverty in India. Caroline was kind enough to be present as an observer during one of the meetings in the Himalayan state of Uttaranchal, which hosted 100 community leaders from 30 villages. Through the post below, she shares her experience.
Sustainable development in India: reflections from a young entrepreneur
In Delhi, it’s easy to lose hope in the fight for environmental protection and climate mitigation – a thousand new cars every day; thousands of tons of garbage that make their way to the landfills coming from millions of homes, industries, and street sides; constant new construction of flyovers and widening of roads; and the sensation that it is too big for any individual, even any well-intentioned local politician to make a difference.
An overnight train ride away from Delhi, though, there exists another world. One that is full of enormous challenges in a rapidly changing climate, but also one full of Himalayan hope. Environmental Defense Fund, in partnership with The Hunger Project and local NGOs in Uttarakhand, are giving female political and community leaders the tools they need to be able to engage in the development decisions happening every day.
One cold but warming day in mid-January, I had the honor to join Richie Ahuja to visit a leadership program, bringing together more than 100 of these female leaders from throughout the Kumaon district.
Some of these women (and three generations of their family members) travelled by bus for more than 2 hours to reach this workshop, through winding mountain passes from their villages. Many of these women were Sarpanches (elected heads of villages) or members of their panchayat (an elected board of community representatives), while others were community leaders of other kinds, working with Self-Help Groups in their village.
While we waited for the last of the buses to arrive, several women led the group in a song that many of them learned by listening to the first group singing. Describing the interconnectedness between people and the environment, they spoke about how you can’t change one thing without changing the world around it. They sang other songs about the need for action, the need to fight to protect their communities, nature, and the beauty of the Himalayan mountainsides.
The majority of these community members had already seen EDF’s powerful climate film, a drama which unfolds along with the stories of community members in an area with serious environmental challenges directly impacting the lives of the main characters. (Film is a wildly popular medium in India; India’s own Bollywood now releases in excess of 1000 films a year.)
Conveying as impactful a message as An Inconvenient Truth, but in a format that is easily digestible and appealing to its target audience, the film obviously had sparked dialogue and action in these women. The Hunger Project had conducted surveys of the women who saw the film to discuss the impacts of climate change in their own communities. After a few more songs, the training program began with a review of the survey’s results, while the women present shared their specific stories of impacts in their areas.
Shared experiences from climate change challenges
People shared a common sense of the changing water availability – the lack of snow in Nainital for the past 10 years after centuries of snowy winters, increase in cloudbursts and intense rainstorms, springs running dry – and common impacts from these changes.
One woman observed:
We used to find water nearby; now we walk for 2 hours to find water, and the children do this before they can go to school. The further they walk, the less school they attend.
Another woman described the impact on the soil: with less water, and less rain, she said, “The soil is getting loose.”
Soil erosion came up as a common theme because of deforestation as well. One woman said
This area used to be all forests, you could look over this valley and see only trees. Now you can see, we’ve cut down the jungle to build these villages and these cottages.
Some women didn’t know who was cutting their forests, but everyone knew it was happening – the best and biggest trees were disappearing.
Another woman described,
Without these big trees, and without the rains there are bigger and bigger forest fires.
Disappearing forests made medicinal herbs hard to find and harder to find fodder for cattle, as well.
It wasn’t just changes in forests and precipitation, though, that these women described. They talked about changes in consumption – with one female leader passionately describing the rise in packaged foods.
We are eating food from plastic instead of food that helps our children and our farms grow.
They talked about the rise in polythene on street corners, on hillsides, all along the village roads.
Other women described the increase in chemical consumption, in farms and in their homes. Instead of using dung or compost, farmers were using chemical fertilizers, and these women recognized that this was an increasing problem for the long-term fertility of the land.
But in the midst of these stories of significant changes, women shared the stories of what they had done to change things – what they had done to improve these conditions. One woman spoke of how her community was able to keep people from drawing from their remaining spring so that they could preserve it.
Another woman lay down in the road when someone was trying to take trees out of her village.
You can roll over me, but you won’t take trees out of here.
This delay gave the police enough time to arrive, confirming that these particular men had no permit for logging.
Another community leader had recognized that their village didn’t have a need for a 40 foot wide road as much as they had a need for the trees that would be cut to build it, and so stopped the state government from the road-widening project. They preserved their 10 foot road, and hundreds of trees along the way.
From stories of climate change challenges, hope and inspiration
These stories left me with hope, but the way they responded to questions about why they did this gave me even more inspiration. One participant said:
People from our cities, people from Nainital, have said ‘Why should we do anything? Let Delhi sort it out.’ But if we are the ones feeling the impacts, if we are the ones being impacted, then if we don’t take any action, how can we expect others to?”
Building on this, a woman added:
This is a global problem, but many of these challenges are in our hands, within our control. We can’t wait for others to solve it, we should do what we can with these problems. Polythene here is our problem, the polythene in the city is for them to solve.
One woman concluded by talking about transportation. More cars and more trucks in the mountains, she said, were leading to more pollution and more heat in their area.
I’m not saying don’t drive, but that we need cars that pollute less, and more thoughtful development of our regions’ transportation.
After this discussion, a group of young people from a local NGO performed a street play set in the future, using the same tools of drama and humor, building intriguing and captivating characters that were being impacted by changes in their communities.
In some ways, this street play brought to life the same dramas and dilemmas facing the characters in EDF’s film, demonstrating again the power of engaging people on an emotional level before asking them to engage intellectually or physically in combating these challenges in their communities.
It was wonderful watching women laugh as young men played characters of grandmothers and as their friends and neighbours made both comic and real the challenges they had been speaking about.
It was even more wonderful to watching the understanding wash over the crowd as these characters faced the extreme challenges that may well face these communities in 10 or 20 years, certainly within the lifetimes of the women present, and to watch the discussions that were generated afterwards.
The group concluded on a powerful, inspiring, empowered note, recognizing that the challenges they could face could also be solved.
They spoke about solar energy – “You may have to pay upfront, but from then on, it’s absolutely free!”– and water conservation – “There is enough, if we use it well.” More importantly, though, they addressed the mindset change that would have to occur within each one of them, and within their neighbours.
Prompting a round of applause, one gentleman said:
If man can make a ton of metal fly in the sky, then we certainly can solve these problems on the ground.
For these men and women who have seen so much change – technological and environmental – in their lifetimes, they know that they do have the power to make these changes possible.
Before getting back onto the ton of metal taking me back down the mountain, I looked back to these women who were facing so much with so much courage and strength, and were able to do so because they were together. They were able to share their stories and learn from each other, as human beings, with emotions and needs, with courage and confidence.
I took some of this with me and re-entered Delhi with a heart and head full of Himalayan hope.
Follow EDF's India Program Manager on Twitter @richieahuja.