Saraniyavas is a small slum pocket in Ahmedabad located at the corner of two large arterial roads near Indira Bridge. The settlement is surrounded by upper-class residential houses with upmarket bungalows and low-rises. Nearly 500 families have been residing in Saraniyavas for the past three decades.

Women collect water from the three common stand posts, all located on one edge of the settlement, contending with severe water shortage, which worsens during the summer months. Water is supplied for barely four hours each day, which is not enough for all their needs. Women go to the riverbank, about half a kilometre away, to wash clothes and collect water for use in the mobile toilet located nearby. There is also severe waterlogging during the monsoon due to absence of drainage facilities. The slushy soil makes for very unhygienic conditions.

The residents of Saraniyavas do not own the land on which they live; that belongs to the Forest Department. They have built kutcha houses with single-brick walls, minimal plastering and tin/cement roofs. Temperatures within their homes can be unbearable, so people tend to spend most of their time in the small, open spaces outside their homes.

The settlement lacks any tree cover: families make do with the temporary shade provided by bedsheets and blankets hung outside. Men and young children rest on the long tract of open space along the main road, even though the heat radiating from the tar of the road during the day makes it very hot.

Low-income, informal settlements like Saraniyavas, not uncommon in the cities of the global South, suffer significant impacts of heat and climate stress, though it is less documented. Life in these communities is focused on living day to day. Extreme climate events are seen as “god’s will”, especially among the women. Financial instability makes them more prone to resolving immediate concerns (such as poor health) rather than investing in longer term resilience measures.

The lack of a longer term view of life is not the only problem in building their resilience to climate change impacts. Lack of knowledge and information and technical and institutional barriers inhibit their capacity to adopt practices that can ensure their sustainability. Marginalised as “informal citizens” in governance processes, they tend to be excluded from a city’s early warning systems and public infrastructure investments, leaving them to fend for themselves.

The high degree of gender discrimination in countries like India results in women being even more vulnerable as they have the least access to information, resources and assets. It is vital to build the resilience of the urban poor, particularly women, to survive, adapt and progress in the face of climate-related stress while maintaining their current level of livelihood, health and asset status.

From sceptic to believer

Savitaben opened the door of her house and welcomed Krishnaben with a warm smile. The two women had developed a friendship in the course of Krishnaben’s regular visits to the locality to popularise the adoption of energy-efficient practices in low-income households. Krishnaben had come today to repair Savitaben’s stove.

Not so long ago, Krishnaben herself was a sceptic, unable to truly understand how a legal electricity connection would be more beneficial (and cheaper in the long run) than the illegal connections that proliferated in her neighbourhood, Madrasi Ki Chali in Medhani Nagar, Ahmedabad. The settlement had benefitted from Parivartan, which brought piped water and household toilets.

For years after Parivartan, households continued to pay Rs 50 per electric point inside their houses to the local mafia. Krishna had three points in her house, for which she paid Rs 150 per month and an additional flat fee of Rs 150 for the consumption of electricity. Spending Rs 4,500 to install a legal meter did not make immediate sense! And when she did install one (after a year of saving) and got the connection in her name, the bill for the first month was Rs 900.

How was she to afford this, she asked the MHT coordinator? Wasn’t it better to pay Rs 300 per month and live with the uncertainty of an illegal electricity connection? “I was ready to give up the meter that had been installed, even though I had spent so much money to get it,” Krishna recalled.

The MHT coordinator informed her of a training in which engineers working at MHT would explain how she could save electricity and reduce her energy bill. Krishna agreed to go. In the training, for the first time, she heard the word “watt”, understood how the wattage of an appliance affects the consumption of electricity and learnt energy-saving practices. After the training, she was offered the position of an “energy auditor” with MHT. Her role would be to visit houses in her community, explain to them how they could save electricity and get them to adopt energy-efficient practices.

A thermocol ceiling to reduce the heat. Courtesy Mahila Sewa Trust.

Before venturing to speak with others, Krishnaben implemented all she had learnt in her own house. She had a kerosene chulha (stove) on which she cooked, and she knew that an LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) connection would be cleaner and cause less indoor pollution. Even though the government had a programme to bring LPG connections to the homes of urban poor women, a refill cylinder was expensive. She chose to invest in an ISI-marked stove.

When she needed to replace her room cooler, she made sure she bought one which had a 5-star rating. She was also trained in the repair and maintenance of the stoves. Regular maintenance ensures the flame burns steadily, consuming less fuel. She had learnt to conduct an audit of the household to assess needs and recommend ways to reduce energy consumption through changes in wiring, improved natural light, ventilation and insulation.

Confident in the knowledge she had gained, and the actions she had taken in her own house, Krishnaben began advocating with her neighbours and the members of her CAG to switch to legal electricity connections and adopt energy-efficient actions and products. Many women she met told her they use a wood chulha as well, especially to heat water.

The wood chulha is always kept burning. This increases the heat in the house and contributes to indoor pollution, Krishnaben informed the women. Switching to an energy-efficient chulha would not only be healthier, but their expenses would also be reduced as their consumption of wood would decrease. Through MHT’s recommendations of technology suppliers, she acts as a conduit for users, often bringing products to their doorstep, and offering after-sales servicing and repairs.

Krishnaben became such an inspiring energy auditor that when MHT needed a trainer to train women in Bhopal they approached her. “For someone who never used to leave the house, because I believed my husband’s claim that if I went out by myself, I would get kidnapped, today I travel alone by bus to other localities, carrying my meter and my tools in my handbag. Women call me to repair their stoves, or to speak to the members of their CAGs to convince them to make the switch to legal electricity connections,” Krishnaben says proudly.

Excerpted with permission from The City-Makers: How Women are Building a Sustainable Future for Urban India, Renana Jhabvala and Bijal Brahmbhatt, Hachette India.