Thursday, 18 June 2015

It is time to turn the tables…..

It is high time to turn the tables and let the people talk. That’s what I realized when Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) first invited me to talk to some women leaders from slums in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India) on the issue of Climate Change. A talk which I thought would be quite easy turned out to be a daunting task when I realized I was talking to women who had no idea of Global Warming, Scenario Projections, not even Greenhouse Effect. And yet they were the ones I knew are to be the most affected by the impact of the changing climate. So I did what I knew best, asked the women what they were experiencing about the changing weather conditions. And voilà, the women not only knew what was happening, but were in their own ways developing mechanisms to cope with it.  It was very individual specific, often based on traditional knowledge, but it was working for them. This got me thinking, if just experience could help a group of women to fix so many problems, what could they not do if they had the requisite scientific knowledge, capacities and technologies. Can this be a way to develop actionable adaptation plans? To get solutions which are demonstrated on the ground, and which the world of poor will be ready to adopt because it would seem so real, so near to them.

I think the answer definitely is a YES.

BUT, and it’s a big but, how do we actually transfer this scientific knowledge to them. Climate science, is a very technical subject (or maybe we have made it so) and it felt very difficult to transfer the science to the lesser literate or often illiterate women. Again there is the complexity of inter-linkages and inter-connectedness between various issues, which needs to be understood before one takes decisions. A simple solution like a pond- which may seem very environment friendly and helpful in ground water recharge can be actually not so useful if the region is going to have high heat waves and thereby high evaporation rates and worst could be disastrous if the water pathways are highly contaminated especially with sewage and other solid waste as we could end up contaminating the ground water aquifer. This needs multi-disciplinary approach and so we needed a multi-disciplinary team to work together with each other and with the women to help them devise the most useful solutions.

AND, here came another challenge. Sectoral experts are often very possessive about their own subjects and not so open when comes to deviating from their said hypothesis. So it was important to develop a common framework which they could work on. This is easier said than done as we did not know how to develop this “COMMON” framework. That’s where I though the women could take the lead and they did. We exposed the women to the sectoral thinking, provided them with a few participatory tools to go back to their communities and understand the nuances and within a fortnight they were back, talking one-on-one terms with the experts, getting them on track if they deviated, suggesting localized/cheaper versions of technical solutions and working towards a common goal of people’s “LIVELIHOOD”, because that is at stake. As one Meenaben put it, “This is just about explaining to the community that what we should do now so that we can continue to live like this (read maintain this lifestyle) in the coming years also.” Such a simple definition of resilience and now we will be working jointly towards building capacities for the same.

So how did this happen and so soon. Does it provide some lessons for others? It definitely did for me. Firstly, I think it is important to begin work with communities which already have a higher social capital, preferably groups which have worked on governance issues before. They have a perspective and understand the necessary riggings to pull through such a complex problem. It also helped that the group we are dealing with has a previous experience of using GPS and mobile technology in their work. Secondly, women having a larger stake show higher acceptance of tougher decisions. Our women were talking of water meters and carbon tax for vehicles- quite radical considering we are talking of slum communities here. Thirdly, when you talk of adaptation, the solutions are getting designed from a mitigation perspective also. This surprised me, by the way, but it seems easier when you are talking of protecting people to get them to protect the environment. Even though we did not think so the women were talking of bio-diversity and the need to conserve the same in cities. Also, there are many solutions already existing on the ground, a lot of traditional (and even modern) knowledge available which we need to document and invest in for scaling. The communities have a lot to learn from each other and this becomes very fruitful when we get people talking who now are facing opposite climate conditions. So we had women from Jaipur and Ahmedabad (traditionally water scare areas) teaching water management techniques to women from Ranchi (which has high rainfall but is now becoming water scarce) while the latter reciprocated with their traditional knowledge of combating heat stress. And the last but not the least, there was the benefit of developing localized cheap coping mechanisms which can have multiple affects. I would end with this simple solution shared by the women, “Cover your roof with wet paddy husk and enjoy a cooler home. Buy it before the summers and sell it after the first rains and get most of your money back. It is simple, effective and affordable.” There have been many strong technical suggestions too, our sectoral experts now have a lot of work on their hands, customizing these for adoption, but they are very enthusiastic, as they know, this time people will also listen to them, as they are listening to the people.

By Dharmistha Chauhan, Strategic Advisor to Mahila Housing SEWA Trust.  Dharmistha is a development consultant with 15 years of experience working in India for promoting Sustainable Livelihoods of women, farmers and informal sector workers.

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