Waging the Same War, Fighting Different Battles


17th March, 2021

Written by Anna Abraham

Artwork by Kranti Gagdekar Chhara

The name Disha Ravi is probably one you have come across in the past few weeks. The arrest that followed no proper police procedure was unsettling, to say the least. It was crippling to see the State use all its might to bog down on a young woman’s voice like that. But Disha still comes from privilege and was able to battle the injustice with some semblance of force. 

This is not true for those in the margins, especially women.

Hidme Markam. Here’s a name you’re unlikely to have heard of, yet Markam has fought for the same climate justice Ravi has. Markam is Adivasi and a renowned tribal rights activist. Much of tribal rights activism is to do with the age-old fight for land and sustainable usage of resources. She has been at the forefront of the movement against Adani in Chhattisgarh where she leads anti-mining campaigns. Markam was arrested on 9th March, a day after Women’s day by the Dantewada police in Chhattisgarh. According to eyewitnesses, she was forcefully taken without a warrant shown or any reasons cited.  Dantewada suffers the peak of Naxal activity in Chhattisgarh. The police later claimed Markam is a Naxal with a bounty of 1.5 lakh on her head. The police claim Markam is a Naxal with a bounty of 1 lakh on her head. Activists across the country have rubbished this claim and point out that Markam is a famous activist who has met the Governor, Chief Minister and has never hid her identity like a Maoist would.

Ironically, Markam was protesting the rape and suicide of two women who were sexually abused by the police force when she was brutally arrested. 

Let aside the fact that the police as an institution feels they have the agency to exploit and abuse tribal women, they did not even allow a protest against it to be carried out peacefully. 

Institutionally, chapters of resistance have been erased, and taught not to educate but to disarm. I remember learning about the Chipko movement in school. For the uninitiated, the Chipko movement was a forest conservation movement in Uttarakhand in the 1970s where women embraced trees to prevent their hacking. It is rooted back to the 1700s and was started by Rajasthan’s Bishnoi community. However, in the impartment of this education, an important aspect was ignored. The movement in Uttarakhand was not just to prevent foreign logging companies from cutting trees –but also, more importantly, to assert the people’s rights over forest resources and land. Tribal people are the true wardens of the forest who can sustainably use its resources. The Chipko Andolan beautifully encompasses this, what is taught in school, however, does not.

Even the way women suffer the climate crisis differs and there have been no institutional efforts to highlight this disparity.

Take for instance the farmer crisis in India. Climate change impacts the way agriculture is conducted. Add to that the corporatization of the industry and you have yourself a dying art. This crisis invites out-migration to cities, and who is part of this migration? The men! Women are left behind now with less manpower. In Karnataka’s Kolar, this lack of manpower has left the burden of fieldwork to women, who quite often don’t even have their names to the lands they work on. The women claim that agriculture is no more a profitable occupation and this has forced the men to abandon the work and move to Bengaluru and urban sprawls around their native villages. 

Then comes the basic commodity needed for agriculture and survival -- water.

We understand the water crisis to be our impending doom but how does it affect places that actively require people (read: women) to fetch water. Men primarily use the water in agriculture but it is the women’s day that is centred around water. It is estimated that women around the world collectively take up 200 million hours fetching water, and an additional 260 million hours finding places to fetch water. Apart from the ailments that come with this labour, women, then, are unable to generate an income for themselves. 

The water crisis and farmer crisis in Punjab has had even more damaging impacts on women with the intensive pesticide usage (on demand of big Ag) contaminating drinking water and leaving many women infertile. The government denies this phenomenon but many experts corroborate this claim.  

But it does not stop here. The water crisis has impacted the way women socialize as well. Rural women across the world utilise the time collecting water to interact and gossip. Hence, drying waterbeds become an impediment to women’s social lives as well. 

The women from the Kaibarta community in Assam do not have many outlets of expression and interaction. Unlike their upper-caste counterparts, these women have been restricted from socially indulging themselves. Over centuries, fishing became their only outlet to lead social lives. Women would engage with fishing as a community activity, it was their leisure time, to indulge, talk and gossip. But with the drying up of many community water bodies, they have suffered the dual blow of Brahmanical patriarchy and the climate crisis, shriveling their social lives.

These are only the slow almost mundane unnoticed ways that the climate crisis affects people on the daily. The real motherlode is the disasters that come with the changing climate.

In the face of natural disasters (that become more man-made everyday), women are forced to continue their role of caregivers despite suffering the same disaster. Community toilets are often turned to rubble and sanitary facilities become scarce in such disasters. But the crisis women worry about is even more sinister.

The recent Uttarakhand floods caused by a glacial lake outburst can be attributed to the “development” projects that the government had been warned about. Of course, the government denies any correlation between the floods and the dam project. Even so, lives were so lost and it became another episode in the series of climate displacements in the region. 

Back in 2013, an eerily similar tale thrust Uttarakhand into deadly flash floods. The floods wiped out settlements and decimated lives and livelihoods. What followed was harrowing atrocities of rape, murder and looting. Women, stranded by the disaster, were subject to violent sexual crimes and the police and state in all its glory denied the occurrences of the crimes. 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, not much media attention has been thrown on the Uttarakhand floods of 2021 but similar outcomes would not be shocking. Limited access to facilities would be exacerbated in the backdrop of the pandemic. Any social distancing provisions would be a far-off dream.

The UN has urged countries to more actively involve women in climate policy-making due to the lens of patriarchy that becomes an added struggle for them. However, most climate bodies have less than 30% women representatives. Meanwhile, the Indian ministry concerning itself with climate change has not just disregarded tribal rights, women’s rights and climate justice but has seemingly been working under the corporate banner to ensure speedy project approval to the most powerful of men with the most destructive of ‘development’ plans. This plan was crafted through the draft EIA notification 2020. 

How heavy must be the head that wears the crony capitalist crown?

When an email campaign protesting the notification took full form last year, the esteemed Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change sent a complaint to the Delhi police after which the groups behind it were charged under the UAPA (an anti-terrorism law) and their websites were subsequently banned. Later the police called the charges a ‘clerical error’. 

Funnily enough, Disha Ravi is the founder of Fridays for Future India, the group that was mistakenly charged under the UAPA.

The pieces finally come together.