Sapna Gopal did not set out to become an environmental journalist. She spent the first nine years of her career writing for a range of publications, including the Times of India, on subjects as diverse as celebrities and monuments in the city of Hyderabad. In 2009, she began writing articles for Planet Earth, a magazine devoted to exposing the environmental crisis. This was where it all began. It was a time, she says, when the issue of climate change and green energy was just starting to gain traction.
It was the following year in Delhi, where Gopal helped to launch a new publication on renewable energy – Energy Next – that she started to focus more closely on the green sector. She has been writing about the subject ever since, and is quick to credit her colleagues for her achievements: “It has been a wonderful learning experience, and I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with colleagues and seniors who have always helped me grow and encouraged me.”
Now, as a program associate for the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), an international network that helps journalists in developing countries produce quality reporting, Sapna is well placed to talk about the climate crisis, how it affects women, and developments in the renewable energy sector.
“Women in rural areas of India are severely impacted by disasters related to climate change, and now even those in the cities are being affected by unprecedented rainfall, flash floods, air pollution and so on,’ says Sapna. “The men leave home for the city in the hope that they can land a job that pays well and that would help support their family. Since women must look after their homes and take care of their children, they end up staying back in the village, working on fields.”
The problem, she explains, lies in part with cultural norms and the roles women are expected to take on as caregivers. “From very early on, young girls are expected to look after their younger siblings while their parents go to work.”
At mealtimes women will eat only after children and men have eaten. Consequently, they eat less and experience higher rates of hunger. The problem is exacerbated, she says, during natural disasters when resources become scarce and more farms fail. She refers to the report from Oxfam which says women make up nearly 75% of farmers in India; most are labourers, unpaid, and work on land owned by their parents, their spouse, or in-laws. These female farmers are at the brunt of climate change, coping with soil degradation, water shortages, and rising debt. On average, one female farmer a month takes their life in India. While their husbands migrate to the city in search of higher paying jobs, these women are at crisis point with no food and no income.
“While things have been changing, we still have a long way to go as far as breaking gender bias and stereotypical barriers are concerned,” says Sapna. She believes education offers a crucial lifeline for girls and women to escape from failing farms, poverty, and sexual violence. “Education provides a route towards financial independence. Once they are educated, they are empowered.”
Part of the problem, she says, is that in villages and small towns, the mindset is very narrow and many people just do not see any value or importance in educating girls. “Even if they do send girls to school, they feel she must opt out early, focus on marriage and involve herself in raising her kids. Hence, the dropout rate is very high.” Some reports suggest the number is as high as 57 per cent. The need to ensure that girls do not miss out on curriculum extras like swimming, take on a new urgency in the context of reports from UK based Christian Aid, that India has seen a three-fold increase in abnormally heavy monsoon rains over the last 65 years.
It is likely that education will lead to more women working in the decentralised renewable energy (DRE) sector, a prospect that excites Sapna especially in light of the recent announcement that India is on track to achieve its renewable energy target. Citing the leading think tank CEEW, she explains that DRE companies actively engage women from local communities in sales and distribution activities, and that women then go on to act as social networkers, influencers, and entrepreneurs in the community.
Another huge positive is the role of NGOs like the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust that are educating women to be consultants on energy usage who in turn will teach other women and households, sharing their knowledge and experiences. “Solar power has given women in rural areas a new lease of life,” says Sapna. “Girls are now able to study, and women can now sew with solar lighting, and be trained in the use of solar lanterns and other gadgets.”
Asked about her hopes for Cop26, Sapna would like to see a consensus among nations to work towards a greener and cleaner planet. She wants to see measures and plans in place to combat climate change, and for every country to make the effort to harness clean energy with stringent laws in place to ensure compliance.
“When I began writing on renewable energy, things were just about picking up in the sector, and renewable energy was not the buzzword it is today. Since then, there has been a tremendous realisation at the policy level, not just in India, but across the world that the time to save ourselves and the planet is now.”
As for personal goals, Sapna is determined to cut through the noise and have her voice heard. “I would not call myself an activist,” she says “but I’m doing my bit with my articles. Ultimately, it is important that everyone realises we have only this planet to live on, so let us make a concerted effort in saving it while we can.”