Sustainable Development and Gender Equity

Abstract: When we talk of sustainability- one factor to note is what we perceive as the natural environment and natural resources and how we use them. Secondly how do we sustain human welfare and improvements in human capability consonant with the resources we have. What should be sustained if development is sustainable? Here the critical questions arise of what kind of development we envisage. Who has more access and control over the earth’s resources and who pays more for the cost of depletion of those resources? While all life – human and non-human – are affected, some gain while many lose. The paper focuses on the disparity that shows up in the levels of sustainability in relation to intra-household differences, class and caste differences in ownership and access to and use of productive resources. Sustainability can be ensured only when inequalities are eliminated to ensure just rewards and equal burdens to ensure human welfare consistent with protection of our planet earth.

Keywords: sustainable development, brundtland commission, human development, economic growth, production of labour, means of subsistence, social divide, women’s marginalisation, ownership access, caste/class impact on sustainalbilty

Arrow, Dasgupta, Goulder, Mumsfors and Oleson (2010) made an attempt to measure wealth by accounting for both natural and human capital as well as reproducible capital through time while integrating population growth, technological change and changes in health. According to Brundtland Commission (1987) sustainable development was conceptualised as the path of development that prevents diminishing of resources perceived as needed for human development. “Development that meets needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

The authors cited above criticise the Commission for its omission of human well being and weak attention to inter-generational justice. According to the Brundtland Commission sustainable development would imply that relative to their population each generation should bequeath to its successor as large a quantity of what may be called an economy’s productive base as it had itself inherited from its predecessor. Arrow, etal stated that wealth needs a more comprehensive concept than what the Brundtland Commission assumed. An economy’s productive base includes ‘reproducible capital’ such as roads, buildings, machinery and equipment. It also comprises natural capital such as ecosystems, minerals and fossil fuels as well as human capital in terms of health, education and skills, public knowledge , formal and informal institutions that influence allocation of resources. One has to also provide for the size, and demographic profile of a population. Future scarcities of natural capital will depend on the scale of the economy and the degree to which various assets can be substitutable for each other. The value of health is determined by life expectancy at birth and at different ages and reduction of mortality and morbidity. Both environmental conditions and health care services influence the outcome for human capital. After applying quantitative measures for the above, the authors Dasgupta etal conclude that sustainability is the capacity to provide well being to future generations and the indicator for this is a comprehensive measure of wealth that incorporates marketed and non marketed assets. Sustainability is assured only if such a measure of comprehensive wealth increases on a per capita basis.

Das (2011) on the other hand sees a flaw in this analysis, where the ability to achieve sustainability at the economic, social and ecological level is premised on environmental degradation being linked to lack of development for the poor. Thus the problem is reduced to one of poverty and population. Consequently, according to this view the conflict between growth and environment can be avoided by more efficient use of resources. Here the goals become: changing the quality of growth, meeting essential needs like jobs, food, energy and sanitation, reorienting technology, ensuring sustainable population levels, merging environment and economics in decision making in a participatory mode. In this narrative, there is an attempt to negotiate between economic growth, ecological sustainability, empowerment and participation. Das contends that this view of the problem neglects the deeper structural parameters such as land ownership, cultural values that lead to over consumption in the North and the need to politically reconstitute the mode of production such that environment circumscribes the scope of economic growth rather than imperative of growth accommodating to environmental limits.( italics mine). Chopra (2009) putting forth a systems perspective says two aspects determine the sustainability: inter temporal individual freedoms and interpersonal individual freedoms. This gives us a clue to gauging both these aspects with reference to gender equality and equity.

Extending this perspective, I would argue that inequality is a major cause of environmental crisis-inequality of class, caste and gender. It is not the poor who deplete our forests but the timber mafia. There are women who dwell near forests who depend for their fuel wood and fodder who lose ability to collect these when deforestation takes place. Among the poor, in rural areas, the dependence on what are known as Common Property Resources (CPR) is as much as 40%.When these are taken away by commercial agents for housing or industry the availability to women who earlier depended on them becomes difficult. The recent Land Acquisition Bill does not adequately protect the interests of the owners of land. Valuable agricultural land has been acquired to benefit commercial and industrial interest where the government has been acting as a broker. The original Act first enacted in 1894 was amended in 1933, 1962, and 1984 (Venkatesan 2011) specified public purpose as the reason and justification. Public purpose is a euphemism to benefit some lobby or other making claims on land for profit.

If we look at our economic growth indicated by GDP now celebrated as India’s miracle next to only China, we have to see who gain and who lose. It is not only the total volume of output which GDP measures but its composition – the old guns or butter question. Do all the people have enough of life’s necessities and opportunities to improve their lives, do they have the freedom to enhance their capabilities? Our Planners now talk of ‘inclusive growth’ but data and policy analysis give the lie to this tall claim. Policy has leaned heavily towards the organised manufacturing sector as the engine of growth and enormous incentives have been given to boost this sector. Welfare schemes for the poor are a palliative.

The politics of economic growth after 1991:

For the last quarter century India’s economy picked up- initially at 6% then began to accelerate to more than 8% though now it has slowed down again. It is widely seen as the result of pro market policy. Despite this there is uneven growth and the Indian economy has grown only because the Indian State has prioritised growth and embraced Indian capital as its main ally with consequent adverse distributional effects. Despite higher rates of investment, overall rates of capital formation did not alter significantly during early 90’s .What altered was the composition. There was more emphasis on international trade. Thus there was not so much a pro market direction but pro big business brought about by an alliance of political and economic elite. Decentralised markets would have created a more efficient use of factors of production with labour intensive production. India’s growth was thus accompanied by high inequality and capital (Kohli 2006).

The special privileges that big business enjoy are clear from our tax structure. The well -off in India avoid paying taxes by legal and illegal means. The more property one owns, the more tax concessions one gets. Thus if an MD of a company gets Rs 30 crores as salary, bonus and so on but gets Rs 1000 crores as dividend, his tax liability is only Rs. 10 crores that is only 1% of his income. Less than 3% of citizens file tax returns. India has one of the lowest tax to GDP ratios in the world. Indian Corporate Sector which is less than 0.1%of the population controls 20% of the national income. (Kumar 2011)

Declining Labour Share and Increasing Capital Share

India’s unit labour cost in organised manufacturing had an upward trend since 1980 with some decline in early 2000.The labour share in India’ s manufacturing has a downward trend from 0.06 in 1980 to 0.26 in 2007. Real wages have increased nominally well below labour productivity while the profit rate and unit capital costs have increased substantially. The share of India’s labour in value added in India’s organised manufacturing has been on a downward trend from 1980 from 60% of GDP to 26% in 2007. An increase in share of profits leads to an increase in share of labour over an extended period induces a decline in consumption even if economy is growing.

(Kumar and Jesus Felipe 2011)

Rural-Urban Inequality: Spatial Pattern

The distribution of benefits from economic growth since early 1990’s has followed an identifiable spatial pattern. People in the largest cities have achieved the greatest gains followed by people in small towns and villages close to towns Villages located more than 5km from the nearest town where half of India’s population resides, per capita income adjusted for inflation fell between 1993 and 2005.

The steepest decline was experienced by lowest income groups. This debilitating effect must be countered by better physical and social infrastructures. (Krishna and Bajpai 2011)

Measurement and analysis of poverty and vulnerability in different states in India unequivocally brings out the stark hierarchical social divide that exists not only at national level but at the regional level as well. The dominance of the social divide over regional divide calls for policies and programmes that are socially sensitive. This social divide is well entrenched not only in terms of consumption expenditure but also a combination of measures to constitute a multi dimensional poverty index. (Kannan and Ravindran 2011)

The Connection between women, environment and sustainable development:

For Development Planners, it was clear that in the coming decades, the majority of people in the South would depend on wood fuel for their energy requirement as they cannot afford petroleum and other related energy sources. A two – fold strategy they envisaged was

a) reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce fuel wood by introducing more efficient stoves. Solar and wind energy have still not caught up and make up a miniscule proportion of the total energy needs as these involve heavy investment and there are oil lobbies that inhibit such a course b) undertake afforestation. Encouraged by international agencies there was a flurry of activities to launch fuel-fodder plantations. [Leach 1994]

What is missed is that women are not only consumers of fuel wood and fodder but are the main agents for collection of these. The major outcome of deforestation has been eroding basic resources for women. It is not women who are responsible for diminishing forest cover but commercial felling of trees and extension of agriculture into forest land. At the beginning of the twentieth century India had a forest cover of 40%. During the colonial regime, building of railways and roads to promote commerce resulted in steep depletion and further acceleration of this process after independence so that today we have less than 12% of forest cover, much of it denuded and consist of shrubs and not real forests. Afforestation by plantations cannot replicate real forest that harbour variety of plant growth and form a vital ecosystem.

Modern science speaks of the extraordinary range of interrelatedness of life forms. Ecologists say that a tree burning in the rain forest of Amazon alters the air we breathe here. The actions of a mouse in a cage is repeated by a mouse in another far off place, miles away by what is known as morphic resonance. Ignorance of interdependence has not only harmed the natural environment but human society as well. Instead of caring for each other, we place most of our efforts in pursuing individual material consumption. We have to understand and behave in a way that realises that human development has this ethical basis of interdependence of individual human beings with other human beings and with other living systems. When we destroy forest we affect climate, water, land and animals.

Economic growth is not identical with development which implies a general improvement in living standards. Since the 1990’s the UNDP has been bringing out Human Development Reports initiated by Amartya Sen and Mahbubul Huq periodically along with Gender Development and Gender Empowerment index. We have fallen below every other Asian country. India is still one of the poorest countries in the world and only 16 countries have a gross per capita income lower than India in 2010 (Sen and Dreze 2011).

If we take gender inequality and equity – some indicators are maternal mortality, sex ratio in the ages 0-6; years of schooling, and literacy. Though maternal mortality has fallen from 570 per one 100,000 live births it is still higher than elsewhere at 230 deaths per hundred thousand. Mean years of schooling in 2010 for women is 4.4 years only. More statistics need not be repeated to drive home the point that economic growth has not equally beneficial to women as men. There is of course the class and caste angle. When we talk of human development or gender development, the women from more privileged sections share the benefits though perhaps not exactly equally but are better off than lower caste and lower classes. The proportion of women in our Lok Sabha has not crossed 10%. So who are our policy makers and decision makers?

To come back to women and sustainability of development, if the orientation of development path is geared to towards the particular segment of our people and social services are no where adequate, the problem for women in the underprivileged classes is more acute when earth’s resources are depleted. The major consumers of our resources are the well to do- be it water, land, forests, sanitation and energy. The inequity comes in not only because they get a lower share but also because they bear the costs.

It is important to distinguish between production of life and production of commodities which comprise goods and services. The production of labour power consists in the reproduction of the individual. For this a certain quantity of means of subsistence is necessary. The sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour power must include the means necessary for the worker’s replacement. A lot of this work is done by women who cook, launder, fetch, clean, feed infants and children. There is involved here the ethic of care not amenable to monetisation. There is diversity in what the components of care are depending on caste and class. Every social process is at the same time a process of reproduction because social reproduction entails the total reproduction of the conditions of production in a particular society such as class and caste and of course gender relations. The relations of production are organised through institutionalised sexual division of labour which defines what women can do or cannot do, where, under what conditions and terms. Such division not merely prescribes jobs and tasks, proscribes what women cannot do but also specifies the reward structure which has nothing to do with any objective criterion of productivity or skill but is governed mostly by social norms and values. One of the crucial differences between men’s labour and women’s labour is the fact that women shoulder a great deal more of what is called unpaid house work. It is this house work which is the base or foundation for getting a worker – male or female acquiring the ability to enter the workforce. So we have here two sets of gender relations: one in organising production and the second in organising reproduction of the human species. Hence when we discuss sustainable ‘development’ we have to see the gender effects of development not only by class and caste but in terms of production relations and reproduction relations as well. Gender equality and gender equity will vary among these categories according to the nature of economic growth, its sectoral composition and employment intensity.

When the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiated a human perspective with the effort of Amartya Sen and Mahbubul Haq beginning with 1990 people are no longer analysed as merely beneficiaries of growth but as real agents of change in economic, political, social and cultural change. Sen (1995; 1999, 2010). It is very significant that Sen emphasises freedom as an important ingredient. This reiterates what we said above as to who has the means to decide how we conduct our development; how public policy is enunciated and how participatory are the decisions that are made. Our question would be: do women in particular locations have an effective voice to decide their own future and the future of their society of which they are a part or are they most often victims of decisions made without gender sensitivity. Sen talks of women’s agency in several of his writings but agency is often mediated by several other factors including social conditioning. A woman may exercise her agency to promote her family’s well being as she identifies her welfare as contingent on the family’s welfare. Hence women among the well to do classes may go along with decisions that are made by men in their families as they stand to benefit by the outcome. Do women among the mining mafia or women among the timber mafia not benefit? When dams are built to generate electricity urban women benefit but hundreds of women and men lose their land and become displaced from their habitat and losing their livelihood. The conflict comes when the interest of men in the family and the interest of the women in the family are opposed. We have the example of the famous Chipko movement where men preferred commercial exploitation for cash benefit whereas women wanted to conserve the sources of their livelihood. In agriculture women seek food security by preferring food crops rather than commercial crops.

To conclude, women, environment and sustainability raise questions of intra-household disparity, class and caste differences in ownership and access to and use of productive resources. Sustainability can be ensured only when inequalities are eliminated to ensure just rewards and equal burdens to ensure human welfare consistent with protection of our planet earth.


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PROF. MAITHREYI KRISHNARAJ. Was Director, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai

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Was Director, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai

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