Below is the speech I gave at the Harn Museum of Art on Water politics and activism. I'm thinking about submitting it to a local publication several friends of mine work on. I've been asked by many people to write something about my study abroad experience and perspective on India. The best I've been able to do so far is this speech below, and the journal entries I posted this summer. I feel it falls short of both my and their expectations... mostly mine. I have so much more to say... just no idea how to say it yet. Any suggestions would be wonderful!
My research focuses on activism within India’s anti-dam movements and why these particular movements are gendered. By examining India’s multifaceted dam discourse through a gender lens, I seek to draw conclusions on the condition and involvement of women in this sphere of activity. This is part of a larger body of work I did this past summer for the UF in India study abroad program.
The issue of water scarcity is seen as part of women’s burden. This stems from the role of women within the Indian family, community, and society. Through their role in the family, women are expected to gather the water for household activities such as cooking, cleaning, drinking, livestock upkeep, and maintaining sustenance agriculture. As water becomes scarcer, women have to walk farther and spend more time, labor, and energy gathering water for daily use. As farms have failed and more men migrate into the cities to search for work, the women are left as the sole caretakers and maintainers of the household. Since water is an essential resource for daily activities and survival, women have carried the brunt of the burden of water crises.
Women emerged into the Indian public sphere during the movement for independence. Mahatma Gandhi called on women to do traditional activities in public spaces as a means of protesting British industry and control. Women were encouraged to spin their own thread and take up the national issues as mothers, wives, and sisters of India. This became a new responsibility that women incorporated into their roles within society. While the majority of activists were village and rural women, men participated in leadership or figurehead roles. Yet this is changing as depicted by prominent activists Dr. Vandana Shiva, Medha Patkar, and Arundhati Roy’s facilitation of various environmental movements. As women become more vocal about water crises and subsequent social problems, they emerge from the margins and into the center of society as activists and defenders of community and common resources. These women have stepped in and claimed agency within this context. Through these new constructions, women’s organizations and groups are now gaining support of the community and being publicly granted legitimacy as active members of the communities.
Many of the anti-dam movements, and environmental movements in general, developing across India’s landscape are deeply rooted in the ideas and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. Although his great work, Hind Swaraj, was in reference to freedom from colonial rule, its ideas remain highly applicable and are deeply ingrained in modern anti-dam discourse. As Gandhi describes it, “modern civilization is a disease (Gandhi, 2007, p. 34).” Modern civilization used in this context refers to the capitalist, industrial, cultural homogeneity that is Western “development” and culture. Gandhi analyzed this so called civilization as a degradation of morality, religion, duty, and self. The discourse used in the anti-dam movements updates these ideals and applies them to the current discourse and framework.
What activists are calling for is “appropriate technology – the application of grace and scale to machinery in pursuit of ecological balance” (Leslie, 2005, p. 28). The Narmada Bachao Andolan calls for the use of small check dams that could provide modest amounts of power to individual small villages instead of encouraging the wasteful energy consumption habits of Westerners. Activists call for responsible, sustainable development that takes into account social and environmental implications of dam building and technology. They call for examination of effects across societal boundaries and a government that listens to the concerns and protests of its people.