Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - MYINDIAMYVOTE -

It is that time of the year when one rou­tinely en­coun­ters peo­ple hack­ing and cough­ing in the met­ros, thanks to the toxic pea soup at­mos­phere. With this come ex­pert opin­ions on why this is so and how the air can be cleared. By and large, the con­sen­sus is that the poi­sonous air is part of cli­mate change in progress, whether man-made or nat­u­ral.

It is also the time of the year when many peo­ple are forced to stay away from work thanks to the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of pol­lu­tion or other cli­mate-re­lated is­sues. And here is where the gen­der fac­tor comes into play, es­pe­cially in a low-in­come coun­try like In­dia. Women face a much higher risk of the ill-ef­fects of cli­mate change. For a start, a ma­jor­ity start life with nu­tri­tional de­fi­cien­cies as a re­sult of prej­u­dices against the girl child. Cli­mate af­fects health in many ways — from ex­treme heat or cold, poor air quality, poor wa­ter quality and lack of food se­cu­rity.

All th­ese fac­tors are com­mon to both gen­ders but where women are at a dis­ad­van­tage is in their lack of or lim­ited ac­cess to health­care. De­spite com­mend­able strides in mak­ing health­care ac­ces­si­ble to all, fa­cil­i­ties in ru­ral ar­eas, even in many ur­ban ones , are not geared to cater to cli­mate-re­lated health prob­lems. Women do not go to clin­ics or hos­pi­tals due to lack of trans­porta­tion, fears re­lated to their safety, and the sim­ple fact that their health is a low pri­or­ity for the fam­ily.. Un­like ed­u­cated and em­pow­ered women, ru­ral or un­e­d­u­cated women who suf­fer pol­lu­tion-re­lated ill­nesses don’t even re­alise this. There is lit­tle pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion and aware­ness of this.

Cook­ing in­doors us­ing wood or coal is an­other rea­son why women suf­fer from pol­lu­tion-re­lated ail­ments. In ru­ral ar­eas, women spend much longer in­side their homes cook­ing with fu­els which give off car­bon monox­ide, hy­dro­car­bons and par­tic­u­late mat­ter all of which are detri­men­tal to their health. Many of th­ese pol­lu­tants af­fect not just the women but their un­born chil­dren as well.

The big prob­lem in coun­tries such as In­dia is the near to­tal ex­clu­sion of women from the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process on mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change. Women are pow­er­ful ve­hi­cles of so­cial change in many ar­eas. Rather than a face­less bu­reau­crat or ex­pert in a dis­tant place speak­ing about the ben­e­fits of de­creas­ing the im­pact of cli­mate change, women who are at the great­est risk should. They should be among the key stake­hold­ers in mar­ry­ing tra­di­tional knowl­edge with sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal in­puts.

Now that it is elec­tion sea­son and pol­lu­tion and other cli­mate change as­pects are talk­ing points, all par­ties have a chance to take this up as a se­ri­ous de­vel­op­ment is­sue. Maybe this is too much to hope for, but what a mighty leap it would be for In­dia both eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially to in­vest in ca­pac­ity and skill-build­ing for women to com­bat cli­mate change. The first thing to be done should be in­sti­tute mech­a­nisms to gather data on ar­ea­spe­cific en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. Many of us think a pas­toral life is con­ducive to clean liv­ing. It is not. The threats are dif­fer­ent but they are there.

It is not as sim­ple as dis­tribut­ing smoke­less chul­las, which many NGOS be­lieve to be a panacea. The an­swer has to come with lo­cal in­puts and lo­cal knowl­edge. The num­ber of work days lost and the health costs of pol­lu­tion in Delhi alone, if com­puted, should give an idea of how short-sighted it is to let things slide once the vis­i­ble signs of dan­ger are over. The prob­lems are clear and present all year around to mil­lions who do not have air pu­ri­fiers, masks, clean wa­ter or fuel. When it comes to clean­ing up the air (and the en­vi­ron­ment), women can lead the way. They just need to be given a chance to do so.

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