Engendering Urban Environmental Management: A Study of Women Councilors in Burdwan, India

By Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala; Samanta, Gopa et al. | Women & Environments International Magazine, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Engendering Urban Environmental Management: A Study of Women Councilors in Burdwan, India


Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala, Samanta, Gopa, Sil, Pallabi, Karfa, Chhanda, Women & Environments International Magazine


A range of literature portrays Indian women as a homogeneous group of resource users burdened by the subsistence needs of their families, as victims of degradation with little access to resources, and as the 'natural' conservators and nurturers of their local environments. It is true that gender inequalities are a reality of life across India, evidenced by almost every demographic indicator and a host of social and economic statistics. It is also generally true that throughout India women are burdened with the chores of collecting fuel and water, trying to help their families survive. The marginalization of women in post-colonial India has gradually driven many women into the most insecure and informal jobs. To empower women and to enhance their roles in local level decision-making, an extraordinary measure was taken by the Indian Government between 1992 and 1994. The Constitution of the country was changed to reserve 33 percent of seats in local municipal governments for women candidates. Known as the 73rd and 74th Amendments, the legislation attempted to usher in a new era of enhanced autonomy for marginalized groups such as women, dalits(i) and adivasis(ii) who have remained largely voiceless and invisible. Described as 'ground-breaking' by some, the result has been that more than five million women having had some experience in local politics in the last ten years.

The Act, meant to empower women, among others, in the political and administrative domains, has had varying success depending on the specific characteristics of the area, for example whether urban or rural. Here we examine the specific case of a medium-sized town, Burdwan, in West Bengal, and ask what can be learned from its distinctive history, its local culture and economy, and its specific geography. In particular, we note that many of the women councilors in Burdwan are well educated and not necessarily new to politics.

Using local environmental resources to perform daily chores is a challenge for many women. Women act as informal but primary resource managers, carriers, end-users and family health educators. But women also play significant roles related to the protection of the environment. Through the roles they perform in these activities, women often develop considerable insights about the environment and knowledge about the availability, quality and reliability, restrictions, and acceptable storage of these resources. Feminists have argued that women's knowledge is not utilized or given adequate priority when making resource management plans. Traditional gender identities often dictate the under-valuation of women's work, roles, contributions and knowledge, in both rural and urban India.

The view that all women are natural 'carers' of the environment, prone to conserving the natural elements, tends to ignore local social relations based on environmental resources in particular contexts, as well as the gendered attitudes, perceptions and constructions of the environment. Such a model also acts to further oppress women by putting the burden of care straightaway and informally again on women as a whole, undifferentiated category. Consequently, strong objections have arisen against this view; many third-world feminists in particular object to being categorized en masse as a single category, as being the natural 'carers' of the environment, reinforcing conventional notions of their subordinate positions and lack of agency. This nature-nurture equation does not help change current power imbalances between women and men. It ascribes to women the additional responsibility of being caretakers of their local ecology without at the same time giving them access to and control over the resources, knowledge, information and decision-making systems necessary to make needed changes in the environment.

Women are a minority in urban governance and in decision-making bodies within the municipality, thus lacking the critical mass necessary to develop their own political agenda. …

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