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Excerpt: How a Women’s Collective Fought the Climate Injustice Wracking India

Excerpt: How a Women’s Collective Fought the Climate Injustice Wracking India

Women farmers in Palakkodu, Tamil Nadu, May 2021. Photo: Deepak kumar/Unsplash

  • The nexus of the climate crisis and socioeconomic and political inequalities is at the root of various climate injustices, making India an archetypal site for their manifestation.
  • The worst impacts of the crisis are being denied, ignored and normalised, because these burdens fall on the poor, women, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and others with little political voice.
  • The Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective tries to buck this ‘trend’ by reaching out to landless women farmers with a focus on agroecology and land access, among other things.
  • The collective trains members in the technical aspects of farming, supports them with credit, sets up share-cropping agreements and advocates for collective land grants.
  • The women farmers have become more respectable in their community, male farmers seek them for seeds and farming advice, and they have become role models.
  • With sustainable livelihoods, financial literacy and strong social bonds, these women are also more resilient to climate shocks.

Editor’s note: Climate Justice in India, edited by Prakash Kashwan, was published by the Cambridge University Press on November 3, 2022. It is also available online as an open access book. The following is a non-contiguous excerpt. The introduction is from the book’s introduction, written by Kashwan, an associate professor of environmental studies, Brandeis University. The next section is from chapter 10, ‘Realising Climate Justice through Agroecology and Women’s Collective Land Rights’, written by Ashlesha Khadse and Kavita Srinivasan.

Longer paragraphs have been broken up to ease reading on smaller screens.


The climate crisis is occurring in a world of extreme inequalities. The history of disproportionate contributions to the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for the current crisis is truly staggering. As of 2019, a handful of countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, countries of the former Soviet Union, Germany, France, Poland, Canada, and Japan, contributed about 75 per cent of the world’s historically accumulated emissions. China alone was responsible for about 18 per cent. The majority of the world’s countries collectively contributed only 7 per cent to the total GHG emissions present in the atmosphere today.

These inequalities would be even more significant if one were to account for the transfer of consumption emissions via international trade or travel. India has contributed less than 3 per cent to the accumulated emissions (Ritchie 2019). Despite contributing a negligible share to the accumulated stock of GHGs, various global indices rank India among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of the ongoing climate crisis (Reuters 2018). As such, India is a victim of international injustices associated with the climate crisis.

India is also home to the largest population of poor people anywhere in the world and is one of the most unequal countries globally today. Ranked according to the Gini coefficient, a national-level measure of inequality in income distribution, India was second only to Russia as of 2018 (Chaudhuri and Ghosh 2021). Concepts such as income inequality and poverty do not quite capture the deep-seated nature and wide-ranging effects of caste-based oppressions. Dalit men are lynched for falling in love with non-Dalit women, and Dalit women are routinely raped with impunity. India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported that 10 Dalit women were raped daily in 2019 (Kumar 2020). Even more worryingly, Dalit women are often ‘raped to keep them “in their place”’ (Nagaraj 2020).

The disadvantages that Dalit women face are a product of the oppressive caste system and patriarchal norms at home and in the society at large. The oppression of Dalit men and women is instrumental to the power, authority, and privileges upper-caste men enjoy in India. Caste hierarchy is therefore an embodiment of violent social norms with widespread social acceptance in today’s India (Coffey et al. 2018).

The nexus of the climate crisis and socioeconomic and political inequalities is at the root of various types of climate injustices. For decades, hundreds of thousands of poor Indians have died prematurely because of unacceptably high levels of air and water pollution. A recent study estimates that about 2.5 million people in India die every year because of toxic air (30.7 per cent of all deaths in the country) (Vohra et al. 2021). Similarly, the tens of millions of people displaced by annual floods, the hundreds of deaths because of heatwaves, and enormous disruptions to poor people’s lives due to climate disasters find scant mention in the national press.

These statistics are rarely a subject of public debate in India, except when a health minister, who also happened to be a doctor, denied the existence of data that link air pollution to premature deaths in India (Kaur 2019). Clearly, the worst impacts of air pollution and the climate crisis are being denied, ignored, and normalised, because these burdens fall on the urban poor, women, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and other marginalised people with little political voice. Accordingly, India is an archetypal site for the manifestation of the myriad injustices associated with the climate crisis.

Women from the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain near Lanjigarh, Odisha, February 21, 2010. Photo: Reuters/Reinhard Krause


Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective[footnote]This information is based on several interviews the authors conducted with Sheelu Francis of the TNWC between June and August 2020.[/footnote]

In Tamil Nadu, high levels of landlessness coupled with neoliberal reforms have led to a repurposing of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. This has restricted the availability of arable land for landless women, particularly those from marginalised communities (Murthy 2017). In 2020, when we wrote this chapter, there was no large-scale organic farming programme in the state, although activists were demanding an agroecology policy. Tamil Nadu has a few programmes for rural women, most of which tend to focus on credit and livelihoods. Mahalir Thittam is a women’s self-help group (SHG) building and poverty alleviation programme that operates in both urban and rural areas targeting women from poor households.

The Tamil Nadu Rural Livelihoods Mission (TNRLM) is a livelihood-focused poverty alleviation programme linked to the Indian government’s National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), which includes some support for sustainable agriculture. The NRLM promotes agroecology to enhance women’s livelihoods and climate resilience. In particular, one of the NRLM’s more recent programmes, Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP, translated as ‘Women Farmers’ Empowerment Programme’), focuses on women and agroecology and is being implemented through the TNRLM. The MKSP programme aims to support 42,359 women in undertaking agroecological methods; however, there is no specific focus on landless women (Murthy 2017).

Women’s land access in the state is due less to policy and more to do with the self-led initiatives of SHGs and the presence of a strong women’s land rights movement that has helped landless women file petitions with the state to access unused government lands (Murthy 2017). A key member of the women’s land rights movement in Tamil Nadu is the TNWC, a state-level federation of women’s groups founded in 1994. With a membership of over 150,000 women, the TNWC is spread over 16 districts in Tamil Nadu. In its initial years, the TNWC provided counselling and legal aid to women who were victims of sexual violence, particularly caste-based sexual violence, which commonly arises in conflicts with landlords. Over time, the organisation has expanded its activities to include sustainable solutions to food security and health. In this context, a focus on agroecology and land access has become one of the key pillars of the collective.

The TNWC organises women into SHGs called sangams. These sangams engage in group savings to improve women’s financial security and access to credit. TNWC leaders note that women come together in groups to share farming resources, particularly land. Most of the TNWC’s members are Dalits and tend to be either landless labourers or cultivators of small plots of land. Many of the women are single – either widowed, abandoned by partners, or unmarried – who single-handedly shoulder the responsibility of running their households. Most have no education. The women face discrimination for being Dalit and single, and rarely have access to land or other types of support from the government. Less than 10 per cent of TNWC members have land titles to their name. But the TNWC recognises women’s fundamental right to land and provides political education for women around this right. Some of the sangam members have been approached by state agencies to join state programmes.

However, as an NGO, the TNWC does not have any formal role in the Mahalir Thittam or the TNRLM. Sheelu Francis of the TNWC points out that the TNRLM does not provide any land access support, which leaves out landless women, who tend to unify under social organisations like the TNWC. The TNWC assists 81 women’s groups consisting of 715 members in total to engage in group farming over 91.74 acres.

The TNWC supports land access in a number of ways. It assists sangams in approaching the local government to make public land redistribution claims. But government officials are often apathetic, which causes delays and disappointments. The TNWC advocates for collective as opposed to individual land grants. The latter do not guarantee women control over the land and do not prevent land from being bequeathed to sons and thus taken out of women’s hands. It encourages the sangams to use their own savings to purchase land from the market but notes that the high cost of land is prohibitive. Indeed, the most common way for women to access land is by leasing it. This is done via a lease agreement with a landowner who is oftentimes a woman, such as a widow who may have inherited, but does not cultivate, the land.

Such single women are invited to become part of the group via a share-cropping arrangement. To minimise lease payments, the TNWC members split the costs and share a third of the produce with the landowner. This encourages landless women to make alliances with landed single or older women who cannot work on their land themselves. Such women are more easily able to enter into joint cultivation arrangements if they are the sole owners of their land rather than joint owners with their husbands.

Land leasing is often fraught with insecurity for women. Often, when landowners see the land improve after agroecological farming, they want it back for themselves. Sangams therefore prefer longer and formal leases, for at least five years, but most landlords prefer informal leases so that they can take the land back anytime; this practice is restricted under Tamil Nadu’s land lease laws. The TNWC currently advocates for long-term secure land leases for women’s sangams in cooperation with the Tamil Nadu government.

In addition to promoting access to land, the TNWC supports sangams with credit and training on saving and thrift activities. Members contribute at least ₹100 per month to their sangam – this is pooled to support joint farming activities and loans for members. The TNWC gives an initial loan or seed capital of ₹4,000 to each group to supplement the women’s own investments. As institutional or even informal credit is usually unavailable to landless women, the seed capital helps to fill this gap. When returned, the funds are passed on to another group.

The TNWC trains sangam members in technical aspects of farming like crop selection, agroecology, water conservation, and seed saving. During such training sessions, participants discuss relevant topics like violence against women, women’s land rights, sustainable diets, and climate change, among others. The TNWC has also designated one or two model farms in each of the 16 districts, which serve as demonstration and training facilities for newer groups. Some women’s groups maintain seed banks that facilitate the sharing of seeds within the network. Given that drought is a serious problem in many of the villages, millet-based farming is encouraged; this has helped the women’s groups adapt to dry conditions while contributing to household food security.

The TNWC’s work has led to several positive outcomes for its members. The building of strong social networks for women farmers has helped women resolve a number of problems and fosters confidence in them. The groups facilitate peer learning and the pooling of risks related to crop failures due to drought. Sangams also help with food security and access to credit for landless women, many of whom face absolute poverty. Further, growing food through sangams and having an assured source of income greatly enhances food security for families.

The women farmers share that group farming has brought them more respect in their community. In the initial days of the group’s formation, community members and upper-caste landlords subjected them to scrutiny, gossip, and ridicule. However, this has changed, as the women have persisted and succeeded in farming. Now, male farmers even ask them for seeds and farming advice. The women have also had a positive impact on youngsters who grow up seeing their mothers and sisters as role models.

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