Tamil Nadu is one of the largest and most urbanized states in India. It is also one of the states most threatened by climate change. Since 2019, Supriya Sahu, 54, has been leading Tamil Nadu’s fight to prevent the devastating effects of extreme weather—and she has been putting women on the front lines of those battles.
Sahu was appointed Additional Chief Secretary to Government, Department of Environment, Climate Change following decades of public service that included extensive experience in dealing with environmental issues. Meeting these challenges is now more critical than ever; a Tamil Nadu government report has named Tamil Nadu as one of the Indian states most prone to extreme weather, including recurring cyclones and droughts.
In 2022, the southern state was the first in India to launch a climate change initiative with specific goals and focus areas. The Tamil Nadu Green Climate Company (TNGCC) has three missions: increase forest and tree cover, address climate change and conserve wetlands.
Sahu chairs the TNGCC, overseeing an all-male board—an unusual situation that she takes in stride. The data journalism initiative IndiaSpend has reported that only 1,527 of the 11,569 Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers—about 13%—who entered the civil service between 1951 and 2020 are women. Asked about special challenges that come with working in a male-dominated field, Sahu says that in every job, you have to prove yourself, no matter which sex you are.
Her confidence may stem from her upbringing as the daughter of an IAS officer as well as past professional successes. Her tenure as the District Collector in the Nilgris, an ecologically sensitive district along the border of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka, was an important phase of her career that “left an indelible mark.”
“It was in Nilgris that I realised that at the district level, people have more faith and confidence in women officers to better understand their problems.” Sahu’s team banned the use of single-use plastics across the district—a feat documented as best practice by the United Nations Development Programme after finding that animals such as elephants and bison were eating plastic discarded by tourists. “We implemented the ban on single-use plastics 23 years ago, when no one even thought of their impact on the planet.” She attributes the programme’s success to the involvement of locals and women’s self-help groups.
Sahu is convinced that women bring a certain sensitivity and understanding to issues, especially those around climate change. “When you go outside, just look at what’s happening around you. It’s all about women. You go to fields, they work as farmers, they tend cattle, take care of children. They are the people who cook. But they are considered labourers, not farmers. It’s the woman who should be at the center of climate change initiatives. Otherwise, it will be climate injustice.”
A United Nations report states that women are more vulnerable than men to the impacts of climate change, mainly because they represent the majority of the world’s poor and because their roles, responsibilities, decision-making abilities, access to land and natural resources, opportunities and needs are very different.
Sahu says that climate actions taken in Tamil Nadu are designed around the idea that they must benefit women. In March 2022, for example, the state government launched a Green Fellowship programme to engage youth in environmental policy design and implementation.
“This is the first such fellowship in India, and we are going to have 40 fellows working on climate issues for two years,” says Sahu. “We’re going to put a lot of emphasis on selecting women fellows.”
A second initiative is the state’s climate literacy programme, which involves creating educational videos and social media posts on climate change in the Tamil language. “Most of it is going to be directed at women,” Sahu says.
Yet another program that works for women and the environment is Meendum Manjappai, which encourages the use of eco-friendly yellow cloth shopping bags instead of plastic. “I went to the outskirts of Madurai where I met a group of 15 women working at a small tailoring center, stitching bags of various sizes and models. We gave them orders to produce manjappais (the yellow cloth bags), and they are making decent money from that work.”
Because women’s work is often invisible, Sahu says that many initiatives inadvertently end up being a burden to women. “That is why the world has to think about how to equally share a woman’s burden.”
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