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

Article excerpt

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. Also, many of the women participating in urban governance are middle class and, as such, fit easily within a government dominated by the middle classes. Despite changes in the Constitution, the impacts are not straight-forward. Just being 'a woman' does not mean one's perceptions of the environment are different from men; middle class Indian women in many cases do not reveal any particular awareness of gender concerns with respect to the environment. This leads us to the problematic of women's awareness of the environment and of environmental inequality.

Burdwan Town: The Context

Burdwan is a district headquarter town with a population of 285,000, ranking it thirteenth among the urban centres of the state of West Bengal in eastern India(iii). The well-connected town is located in the middle of a rich agricultural land that has been a Marxist stronghold since the 1950s as well as benefiting from irrigated farming technologies in 1960s. Due to the predominance of metropolitan Calcutta(iv), Burdwan has remained a mofussil(v) town with poor civic amenities and a predominantly agriculture-based economy. Yet, the population of Burdwan has grown by leaps and bounds, attributed to several factors including its location between the Kolkata Metropolitan District in the east and the industrialized Durgapur-Asansol-Raniganj colliery belt in the west. The agricultural change in the surrounding rural tracts with a consequent expansion of agro-processing and service sector activities has been very important. At present, the town is increasingly experiencing inner city congestion as well as a higher degree of sprawl at the periphery due to the expansion of residential areas.

Burdwan is a town of considerable antiquity, and has conducted a flourishing trade since ancient times. When the River Damodar (flowing just to the south) was still navigable, Burdwan used to export fine cotton and other textiles by sea to Europe and to West and Southeast Asia. The society of Burdwan, and its attitudes towards women, has been significantly influenced by historical and political factors. Two of the most important factors have been the north-Indian Burdwan Raj family and its pro-British politics. The Rajas were originally a merchant family from Kotli, near the city of Lahore in present-day Pakistan, arriving in early seventeenth century to gradually establish a Zamindari (revenue-generating land). Although they are credited with setting up girls' schools in modern Burdwan, they had also inculcated a deep spirit of conservative ideals with regard to gender codes.

In Burdwan town, the upper and middle classes are dominated by a land-owning caste called the aguris (a warrior caste) who are associated with the Raj family. This group traditionally acts as patrons of local art and culture and still holds the highest positions in the social and political life of the town. Women of this elite caste - the bhadramahilas - represent a large segment in the formal economic and administrative activities of the town, while the majority of upper and middle class women still do not appear much involved or interested in formal politics. However, after the 74th amendment, a number of educated and working women, primarily from the local elite castes, have been elected as councilors in the local municipality.

Environmental Problems of Burdwan

Urban growth is associated with a number of problems in India especially the supply of food and water and of the disposal of waste. Burdwan's environmental problems are many and varied, but vastly different from those in industrialized countries or even the metropolitan areas of most developing countries. Environmental problems arising out of the local geography can be categorized in two broad ways: 1) general problems that could occur in any urban centre such as those involving water supply, traffic congestion, waste disposal, and filling in bodies of water to create more land; and 2) specific problems such as the pollution by agro-based industries and waterlogging.

General Problems

Municipal water supply is inadequate and particularly deficient in the wards situated in the southern part of the Banka (a small river flowing across the town). The ground water table is falling at a rapid rate with the increasing population and consequent consumption by the city. Neither the State Water Investigation Directorate nor the Municipality, however, has kept previous records of ground water table data within the urban region. The poor water supply causes enormous problems for women in low-income areas.

Narrow lanes and consequent traffic congestion is endemic in Burdwan town. Most of the streets are very narrow and join each other at acute angles. Therefore, traffic congestion and accidents are recurrent problems in this town, especially in the central business district. Accidents are most common where urban streets cross the National Highway or the railway line. Illegal occupation of the pavement by hawkers or petty traders further narrows the roads and adds to the crowding faced by pedestrians. Slums are increasing in size due to the migration of poor people from other parts of West Bengal and Bihar. Poverty and overcrowding pose serious threats to the management of the urban environment. Waste management has never been a priority for the municipality; accumulated waste heaps have become a part of the townscape. A large amount of bio-medical waste is generated every day by the mushrooming nursing homes and private clinics in the town. The garbage endangers human health and further adds to traffic congestion.

Specific Problems

Land, water, and air pollution is caused by the agro-based industry around the town including rice mills, chira (pressed rice) mills, oil mills, cold storages and molasses factories, and small factories making lozenges and soap. These processing plants are concentrated in the southern part of Burdwan emitting thick black smoke containing toxic gases, foul odours, and high levels of ash and rice bran that block up earthen drains. The situation becomes worse during the monsoons when the blocked up drains spill over onto roads contaminating the land with toxic materials. Main drains release heavily polluted water from oil and rice mills into the Banka. The blocked up kancha drains become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies resulting in malaria raging throughout the region.

The consequences of these environmental problems, such as the increase in the incidence of bronchial diseases, stomach and liver problems and impairment of hearing, are borne by the entire communities living adjacent to the industrial plants, though the poorest and most marginalized residents suffer most. Labourers often attribute their high level of alcoholism to the difficulties encountered in their workplaces and residences. Women from lower economic classes, who work as daily wage labourers in the mills, suffer from poor health conditions and lack of sanitation both at work and at home.

Waterlogging is caused by the fact the northern part of the Banka slopes towards the north, away from the main drainage channel that receives the sewage as well as the rainwater. The low lying northern part of the town, therefore, suffers from the problem of waterlogging during the late monsoons, when the roads are knee-deep in stagnant water for days. Filling in wetlands, and other bodies of water, to make way for new residential areas has aggravated the problem of waterlogging over the last two decades. Waterlogging affects the communities from August through September by creating transport difficulties, again affecting those who are dependent on daily wages more than others. The rainwater is mixed with polluted sewerage from the blocked drains leading to enteric and water-borne diseases. seepage of stagnant polluted water into the ground water table also contaminates the ground water that is the main source of drinking water for the town.

Feminising the Governance of Burdwan

Following the 74th amendment in 1994, women began taking part in the governance of Burdwan with 33 per cent of the seats in the Municipal Council being reserved for them. Currently the 13 women Councilors represent 37 percent of the Council seats. Only one woman is from a lower caste and another from a tribal group (see Table. 1). The terms are usually 5 years, and only two councilors have been elected for more than one term. The average woman councilor is educated, from the upper class and caste bracket, and has an occupation and associated income. She usually has a family background in politics; either her father, her grandfather or her husband having been actively involved in the party, which is the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M)for short. This party has controlled the municipal administration of Burdwan (as well as controlling the politics of the state of West Bengal) for over two decades. In most cases these women started their political careers to accompany their husbands in politics. A few feel proud for joining their husbands and consider their husbands to be their political gurus (mentors).

Of all the women councilors, only Dr. Tanushree Saha has been included in the seven-member Chairman-in-Council, the core decision-making body of the Municipality. Tanushree is a medical doctor and comes from a renowned family with long involvement in the CPI(M). It is possibly her family background rather than her political stature that has facilitated her mobility into the upper hierarchy of the administration. She has been given the responsibility of looking after public health, sanitation and Indian Population Project (IPP)" schemes - all closely related to the environmental health of the town. Yet, during our conversations, she expressed her feeling that she is merely an implementer of the higher authorities' decision regarding environmental problems in her ward and does not have much voice in the decision making as a lone woman member of Chairman-in-Council. During informal discussions with women councilors, it became clear that they are aware that their selection by the party is only to meet the quota of reservation; rather than because they, as women, might have some special knowledge or skill that would improve municipal governance. Coming from families active in politics, they have been actively engaged in politics for some time, but without the reservation, it would not have been possible for them to be nominated by the party to stand in the elections. The one exception was Iva Biswas who has been in the municipal administration for 19 years. Women councilors noted that they are almost invariably offered the responsibilities most closely related to the development of women and children.vii

Usha Bhattacharrya prioritized her duty to represent the women of her ward as a councilor. "I have become a councilor as a consequence of one-third reservation for women in local level governance. I should take special care for women in my area. Therefore, socio-economic development of poorer women and eradication of their poverty certainly would be prioritized." But in other issues that are not so clearly "women's issues," they are not empowered to do anything. In Usha's ward there are eight rice mills that are creating high levels of land, water, air and sound pollution. In dealing with these problems she admits, "here we are helpless except checking their pollution control certificates from West Bengal Pollution Control Board." Still, she was able to require one rice mill owner among eight to increase the height of his chimneys and to make a concrete sewerage system.

The awareness of urban environmental problems seems high among women councilors in Burdwan. They are well educated and knowledgeable about the specific environmental problems in their wards. They were able to pinpoint exactly which agro-processing plants are responsible for polluting the area, precisely where garbage is unlawfully dumped and not regularly cleared, the areas where municipal water supply is meager, and where slums are contributing to congestion. Like other councilors, they try to solve these local problems through routinely monitoring the work of paid employees of the municipality. However they regretted that they are not entrusted with adequate decision-making or budgetary powers to make specific plans to achieve permanent solutions. They are at best allowed to follow the centrally allotted duties but cannot take decisions on their own on local issues in their respective areas. They are only entrusted with the maintenance of basic amenities, not the installation of new projects for the betterment of the urban environment. For example, councilors can require renovations to the existing water supply but cannot take the decision to dig a new high capacity well. This is true for all councilors, women and men, but women- because of the gendered chores and roles they are required to perform-suffer more from inadequate and irregular water supply, narrow roads, and unsanitary conditions. Male councilors tend to ignore these inconveniences causing frustration to build up amongst the women councilors.

Sumitra Konar noted, "my area constitutes the oldest part of the town which was built without any plan during the Raj tenure. It has narrow lanes and congested houses. The roads need rebuilding but it is not my authority. I cannot take decisions on how the funds should be allocated for my area." Sumitra also knows that the narrowness of roads make her area vulnerable as the vans of the fire brigade cannot fit into the constricted residential streets.

Waste collection is another important area women councilors wanted to improve; some of them introduced door-to-door solid waste collection as a step towards urban environmental management. As well, they set up a number of garbage vats, with separate demarcation of vats and garbage trucks for bio-medical wastes. As we probed, it became apparent, however, that these provisions are inadequate without daily monitoring and councilors were clearly reluctant to regularly and personally monitor these operations once in place. Yet, the fact that they have initiated such measures is evidence of their interest in creating a pollution-free urban environment. The door-to-door collection of garbage reflects the priority of women in keeping their area clean and healthy.

Some Final Observations

This local study examines some of the procedural and substantive aspects of urban environmental decision-making in light of gender mainstreaming in municipal management in India. While drawing the links between environmental management and gender inclusive political practice, it also addresses the complicated nature of gendered identities and the important roles played by personal histories, both of individual women and their contexts.

Most women councilors in Burdwan come from middle class backgrounds, and are entrusted by the municipal council with only those responsibilities deemed 'suitable' for their sex, such as overseeing women's and children's health programs. The fact, that only one woman has been accepted into the top decision-making body, clearly shows that the power imbalance has not changed much even after the 74th amendment. The new state provisions alone are not enough to make gender a meaningful consideration in a local system that remains unequal and divisive. While women councilors can pinpoint specific areas of the environment that need urgent attention, they do not seem to have the executive powers or influence to make needed change, yet.

i Literally meaning 'downtrodden', a term preferred by those officially known as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

ii Literally meaning 'indigenous populations', also called tribals.

iii In 1901, the population was 30 thousand which increased to 75 thousand in 1951 and 285 thousand in 2001. The growth rate of the population was much higher in the post independence planned development period (1951 onwards) than that of the first half of the last century,

iv Now known as Kolkata.

v District headquarters.

vi IPP is a health scheme run with grants from WHO and UNICEF. This scheme provides medicines to patients of leprosy, tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, and other epidemic diseases and also makes pregnant women aware of the need to care for their children. About two hundred health workers are working in this block level project that Tanushree runs single-handedly,

vii There are quite a few of these schemes that broadly follow Gender and Development principles, including women's Self-help Groups under the micro-credit scheme of Development of Women and Children in Urban Areas, child education centres and Integrated Child Development Schemes (ICDS), education of child labourers, improving the awareness of women's pre- and post-natal health and hygiene, and developing general awareness about health, education and sanitation among women.


Further Reading and Information

Agarwal, B. (1994) A field of one's own: Gender and land rights in South Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lahiri-Dutt, K. and Pallabi Sil (2004) 'Beyond the boundary: Middle class women in income generating activities in Burdwan, India', Contemporary South Asia.

Omvedt, Gail. (2005) Women in governance in South Asia, Economic and Political Weekly, 40(44&45): 4746-4752.

Sachs, Caroline (1996) Gendered Fields, Rural Women, Agriculture and Environment. Rural Studies Series, Westview Press, Colorado.

Samanta, G. (2003) Rural-urban interactions: Burdwan and its adjoining areas, Unpublished PhD thesis submitted to The University of Burdwan, Burdwan.

[Author Affiliation]

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt PhD is a Research Fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She teaches and does research on issues of gender and development.

Gopa Samanta PhD is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Geography in Mankar College, Burdwan. She does research on gender and development and on rural-urban interactions.

Pallabi Sil is a Lecturer in Ramai Pandit College in Chatra, Bankura, and completing her Doctoral research on the participation of middle class women in informal work.

Chhanda Karfa is pursuing Doctoral research in the Geography Department of the University of Burdwan on perceptions of urban local governance in West Bengal.