We present below a report of a group discussion that took place during a training programme, for environmental reconstruction at Mada, Dungarpur district, Rajasthan (from January 5 to January 14, 1988). Out of a total of 37 participants 20 were women. Mosst of the participants spoke Gujarati, Wagri, Haryanvi, Hindi and related dialects. Almost all were from a rural background, with some of the women participants being illiterate. All the participants would in turn involve villagers in an environmental reconstruction programme. The discussion clearly shows the impact of environmental destruction and how it is affecting people’s lives. Also discussed are what could be appropriate environmental action in such circumstances, and what ought to be womens’ role in an environmental programme.
METHODOLOGY AND OBJECTIVES
The topic - environmental changes and their impact - was discussed in six groups of seven members each. The objective of the exercise was to enable the participants to reflect on the seriousness of the problem of environmental degradaition and the type of impact this was having on peoples lives. Though this discussion, it was hoped that the participants would begin to see their environment related work in a broader conceptual framework. This, in turn, would give them a clearer basis for involving villagers in the programme.
The groups were given six questions to help structure their discussion :
The two hour group discussions proved to be rich and provided fresh insights to everybody. Most of the male participants were quite taken aback by the impact of environmental degradation on the workload and livese of rural women! The main findings of the groups are presented below. In this, the responses to questions I and II have been combined. Responses fo questions V and VI have been presented in the next chapter.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES AND THEIR IMPACT OF PEOPLE’S LIVES
These covered a very wide range and have been divided into six main categories.
Decrease in forests
According to the participants, destruction of forests has been a major visible change which has destroyed the ecological balance affecting every facet of life. For example,
Drastic fall in productivity of the land resulting in reduced crop output
Most of the causes for reduced productivity of the land can be linked to the destruction of forests. For example,
In addition, use of chemical fertilizers with the introduction of so called high yielding varieties has ad a very negative impact on soil productivity. According to the participants, use of chemical fertilizers in a situation of water scarcity has resulted in good soil becoming hard like rock.
As people depend on agriculture for subsistance, the uncertain and falling crop yields have shaken the foundation of their livelihood.
Frplryion of water resources
According to the participants, there was been an alarming change in the quantity and quality of water availability. Besides the increasing unpredictability of the monsoons and recued recharge of ground water due to deforestation, they felt that now there is faster evaporation of water because of reduced tree cover and higher temperature.
Another consequence of the declining water table is that in many areas, the quality of water obtained from greater depths is either coloured, stinking saline or brackish. Some people felt that the taste of milk and ghee has deteriorated as a consequence and that now it takes longer to cook lentils.
Drying up of the wells of poorer farmers is leading to their not being able to irrigate their crops and also suffering shortage of drinking water. Even if they can deepen their wells, they are unable to extract water with the traditional technology of the Persian Wheel using bullock power. On the other hand, richer, usually non-adivasi farmers can not only afford Well deepending but also extract water with diesel or electric pumps. Thus inequality between the rich and the poor has increased.
Changes in livestock
According to the participants, environmental changes have had a significant impact on the quality and composition of livestock owned by people Whereas the total number of animals has increased, the per capita ownership of cattle has decreased. There has also been an important change in the composition of cattle owned by people. Some of the impact on livestock has been :
Poorer health status of the people.
Environmental changes have had a drastic impact on people’s health. These have been caused by:
Changes in traditional occupations and sources of livelihood
- earlier, people’s land holdings were adequate, the soil used to be productive and water sources were perennial. People could produce enough from their lands to meet most of their needs;
- forests yielded enough to supplement the production from their own lands - fruits, gum, honey, fuelwood, bamboo and building timber. Some minor forest produce like ‘tendu’ leaves, gum, bamboo, etc. could either be sold directly or processed further to earn supplementary cash income. With the drastic changes in the environment, the foundation of people’s subsistance economy has got destroyed. Now people are forced to seek other means of livelihood, either working as daily wage labourers on drought relief works or by migrating to other areas in search of work. Having to work for wages means that people cannot devote any time or labour to developing their own land which worsenes the land’s already poor condition.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES AND THEIR IMPACT ON WOMEN’S LIVES
The discussions on this aspect were an eye opener for most of the male participants who had never given any specific thought to the impact of environmental degradation on women. The following points emerged from the discussions.
Women’s workload and physical hardships
These have increased tremendously because women have to walk much farther for fuelwood, for water and for fodder or for taking animals for grazing. All tehse tasks are considered ‘women’s work’ in the local culture.
Impact on women’s health
Women’s health has been badly affected because of inadequate food grain production and non-availability of fruits and other nutritious foods like edible gums, leaves and flowers workload affects pregnant women particularly badly and in turn, the future generation of children. With complete depletion of many reserves of energy that women may have, they are unable to fight off even minor illnesses and their health status is becoming progressively worse.
Increase in mental tensions
Due to increased food insecurity, there is greater tension between husbands and wives often leading to domestic violence. Many husbands demand better food than the women can serve. Some of the women participants said they come across many women being abused - and even beaten - because they can serve their husbands ‘rotlas’ with only a ‘chutney’ of green chillies and Salt!
When women go out in search of fuelwood they are harassed by forest department staff. They are similarly ill-treated when they go out for wage labour. They live in constant fear of danger to their persons.
Impact of migration on women
As men tend to migrate in search of wage labour, women are left behind to look after the children, old parents, livestock, and the land. Besides disruption of family life, this increase s their responsibilities and workload. On top of that, they are constantly afraid that men will find other women while away. Getting second wives in common among the adivasis of Bicchiwada block.
Women whose husbands have migrated, have to cope with greater insecurity and social abuse.
CAUSE OF ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES
The causes of environmental degradation were classified into external and local by the participants.
Among these the participants identified short sighted and inappropriate government policies as the major negative factor.
Whereas earlier local people exploited forest produce only for meeting their own needs, the government has permitted outside contractors to destroy forests indiscriminately. No systematic effort has been made to replenish the depleted forests.
Earlier, local rulers used to pay village councils an annual fee for protecting forests near their villages. Illicit felling of trees was strictly punished. Such traditional systems of management at the local level have been completely destroyed.
Till recently, government policies encouraged the clearance of forests for agricultural use.
Among the other external factors listed by the participants were :
APPROPRIATE ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION AND ORGANISATIONAL OBJECTIVES
What can be done to improve the degraded environment? What should be the objectives of the organisation in relation to an environmental programme? We present the findings of the group discussion on these questions.
What can be done to improve the environment
This question was discussed by looking at what could be done at the following four levels:
People should treat forests as their own and protect them. Individuals should take an oath to plant 8 to 10 trees each and replace each tree cut with at least 2 new trees. They should try to change the practice of uncontrolled grazing by their animals and start stall feeding them instead. They should not cut down trees recklessly, particularly green trees, and should use timber sparingly. By planting fuel and fodder trees on their own land, they can reduce the pressure on forests. This can be done on their hilly land which is lying fallow at present. By terracing the sloping land, more rain water can be conserved and soil erosion prevented. Trees can also be planted along the edges of terraces. Where slopy land is being used for cultivation, terracing must be done to prevent soil erosion. people should grow local species and use domestic waste water for watering the plants. They can also raise plants in basket nurseries for becoming more self reliant. They must increase the use of organic fertilizer to restore soil fertility and respect common rules evolved by the community for protecting the village environment.
People should organize to prevent reckless, criminal tree fellings. They should collectively grow and protect plantations on parts of their community grazing lands. Rules should be made to prevent indiscriminate grazing on common lands and cutting of green wood. Poorer members of the community who are forced to cut trees for sale as firewood, should be helped by generating alternative local employment. They could be given priority for employment in protecting community plantations or processing their produce. Effective means of ensuring equitable distribution of benefits to all members of the community should be worked out to ensure that everyone gains a stake in protecting plantations on common lands. those still indulging in cutting young trees should be given exemplary punishment.
Women’s involvement should be increased at all lvels as they can be the most effective agents of protection. The community can also organise soil and water conservation works such as building of earthen bunds, digging of ponds etc.
The government must consult local people on all aspects of forest produce. It ishould not have double standards for use of forest wealth whereby the rich are allowed to exploit forests at low costs (both officially and through corruption), and the poor are prevented from getting their legitimate share. Forest legislation should be changed to increase benefits to local people to increase their interest in protecting forest wealth.
The government should inform the people about new programmes so that people are not cheated by contractors and middle men. Corruption by government staff and contractors should be stopped. Relief works should be organised in such a way as to improve the environment. For example, building check dams, making new ponds and desilting old ones, and organising plantations on barren lands.
The work of the voluntary organisation in the area can be grouped under three headings - awareness generation, prevention of environmental degradation and taking up programmes to improve the environment involving people in this effort.
The organisation should organise awareness generation camps and meetings in villages to help people understand the relationship between their own survival / well being and that of the environment. They should also be clearly informed about the organisation’s objectives. Special efforts have to be made to involve women since they suffer most from environmental degradation. People also need to be informed about existing laws and rules related to forests. For all this, educational materials, songs and plays should be prepared.
Efforts should be made to organise people to protect forests, prevent illegal tree felling, demanding relief work and full wages. The organisation can encourage people to plant trees along the edges of field terraces.
To improve the environment, the organisation should take up projects for plantations on both individual and community lands. Soil and water conservation measures like check dams and terracing should be integrated in these. for all this, the organisation should focus on training its workers and local villagers. The training should involve organising people, nursery raising and plantation and soil/water conservation techniques. In the projects, employment should be given to poor local people. people should be assisted in becoming self-sufficient in meeting their biomass related needs.
Objectives of the organisation in relation to an environmental programme.
The objective of this question was to help participants abstract objectives of the organisation from the activities to be crried out. However, we were only partially successful in this and the participants tended to repeat the activities mentioned in the previous section. We have regrouped some of the responses. Thus, the organisation’s objectives could be:
WOMEN’S ROLE IN AN ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRAMME
Objectives and methodology.
The participants had already examined the disastrous impact of environmental degradation of women’s lives and work burden. "The objective of this exercise was to take them a step further and reflect on the potential conribution women could make in an environmental programme. Once again, the method used was group work. After 2 hours discussions in six groups, each group presented its report to the large group. Two questions were given to the groups to structure their discussion:
A heartening aspect of the discussions was the male participants’ whole hearted acceptance of the need to increase womne’s participation and recognition of the invaluable contribution they could make to the programme. A synthesis of all the groups findings is presented below. At the end of the chapter, a modified version of a handout distributed during the training on ‘conducting meetings with women’ has been attached.
The role women can play
All ground agreed that women could make an invaluable contribution to the environmental programme as they have been affected most negatively by environmental degradation. Their participation should at least be equal to that of men, preferably even more.
However, it was felt that what constitutes women’s participation should be defined in consultation with the women. Increasing women’s participation should not end up in further incresing their already excessive work burden.
Looking at some of the specific activities involved, the following division of responsibilities between men and women was suggested :
Means of increasing womne’s participation
The groups discussed this question in much greater detail. In practical terms, they could see several reasons and problems due to which womne’s participation has remained limited so far. The points made by the groups have been divided into 7 categories.
(1) Reasons limiting women’s participation
The majority of village women suffer from the following:
these need to be understood and acknowledged. To increase womne’s participation, something needs to be done to reduce at least some of their problems.
(2) Improved communication methods
Women’s involvement could be increased by adopting more interesting and effective communication methods. These could include :
(3) Reducing opposition by men
The participants identified men’s opposition as a major obstacle to increasing women’s participation. Some of the ways of reducing this could be::
(4) Improving women’s knowledge and skills
(5) Improving the skills of women staff members
As each organisation’s main contact with village women is through its female staff, adequate attention needs to be devoted to developing improved skills and capabilities among them.
(6) Deal with problems of women staff.
The participants felt that the women staff emmbers could not play the important role expected of them unless their own problems are also dealt with. Being local and women, they share with the village women the problems of excessive domestic responsibilities and pressures exerted on them by male members of their families. Their men often start suspecting them in immorality due to their having to move around in villages and keeping late hours. Many of the chulha mistries, who are now taking on responsibilities in the environmental programme, have suffered physical and mental abuse from either insecure or alcoholic husbands. The organisation needs to explore ways of providing its women staff effective support for dealing with such problems.
Another category of thei r problems is related to their status within the organisation and the facilities the organisation provides them. Participants felt that often the women staff are allocated excessive responsibilities over an extensive area where communication facilities are minimal. Reaching some villages can involve walking 10 to 15 kilometers. Besides being physically exhausting, this takes up a lot of their time. Some of this time and energy could be saved by providing them better transport facilities.
Participation also felt that the women staff could make a more valuable contribution if they are more involved in the organisation’s decision making and if communications within the organisation are improved. At present, they are often asked to implement programmes without understanding their larger objectives.
Another handicap faced by some of the women staff is non-literacy. The organisation could provide them some support in learning how to read and write.
(7) Adoption of certain policies by the organisation
At a macro level, the organisation can facilitate greater participation by women and improving their status by adopting certain policies. for example, the organisation could insist on :
The organisation could also facilitate environmental work by women or private lands by arranging wages for them. Under present drought conditions, many women are forced to go out for wage work to feed their families.
It is also necessary that each field centre has at least one full time woman staff member.
Summary and reflections
From our point of view, this session, together with the earlier discussion on the impact of environmental degradation on women, were among the most valuable outputs of the training programme. We hope that both will ontribute towards removing the antipathy some of the male staff had started developing towards the women;s programme because of not being involved with it.
It is good that the special problems of the women staff also came up in the discussions. Given women’s unequal position in society, women staff members require extra support from the organisation.
Perhaps it was due to the sensitization to women’s problems through these sessions that at the end of the course, the male staff were supporting the demand for bicycles by the women staff and the presence of a woman staff member during every village meeting.
CONDUCTING MEETINGS WITH WOMEN
(based on the handout distributed during the training)
Why meetings with women?
it is extremely important to get women to participate in village meetings bcause of the crucial role they play in all walks of life. In addition to doing all domestic and child care work, an average adivasi women also does agricultural work and takes care of livestock. She has been affected the most by environmental degradation as it is she who has to go out much further to fetch fuelwood, water and fodder. She also shoulders the responsibility of going out to work on daily wages to meet household expenses.
Despite this, whenever any decisions have to be taken, only men are consulted. But men and women are likely to have different views on several issues. For example women will be more concerned about where a handpump should be installed because it is they who fetch the water. But often, only the men are asked. Similarly, because women fetch firewood, they are likely to give greater importance to planting forewood trees than men.
Due to these reasons, we must ensure equal participation by women in all out organisations programmes. Encouraging women to attend meetings is one way of increasing their participation and learning about their special problems.
How to get women to participate
How to deal with resistance from men
Because till now women have had few opportunities to participate in village meetings or have a say in village affairs, it is likely that the men will resist or oppose their coming forward. We will need to think of ways of slowly reducing men’s opposition. For this, we can do the following:
Conclusion : This section provides an idea of how analyses can be undertaken with local people regarding the situation of the environment in their own areas. This kind of an analysis is the first step in the movement towards positive action to reconstruct or save the environment from further degradation. Local people’s initiative and ongoing participation are necessary ingredients for effective action.