Air Pollution Viewed Through the Gender Prism: An Indian Perspective

Air Pollution Viewed Through the Gender Prism: An Indian Perspective

(Updated on 20th September 2019)

“The environment is not an abstraction but represents the living space, the quality of life and the very health of human beings, including generations unborn.”

-International Court of Justice (1996)

There has been a wave of viewing issues through the prism of human identities, like race [1], and more notably gender, but still, many might find the topic of this article rather puzzling. Nonetheless, as this piece shall bring out, it is a necessary prism through which environmental issues too need to be looked at, and there has been some discussion in this front in the context of air pollution. [2] In a country like India, where issues of gender bias and crimes against women remain pertinent [3] and which has 7 of the world’s 10 most polluted cities[4], the conversation about air pollution through the gender prism becomes even more relevant.

Air is arguably one of the most important components of the environment on the planet and air pollution has come to become a pressing global concern for our generation. Respiratory disorders like asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer have taken a toll on human lives, and particularly in India, the statistics demonstrate that air pollution is a bigger killer than terrorism. In India, terrorism has taken 65,900 human lives between 1994 and 2017, which is less than half of the deaths caused by air pollution in a single year [5], one in eight deaths in 2017 has been owing to air pollution [6]. As many as about 100,000 children under five years of age die from air pollution every year. [7]

Traditionally, the environment figures very strongly in the Indian psyche. In India, reverence for nature is rooted in Hindu traditions, and the wind is worshiped as a deity called Pavan or Vayu, and trees have been given special significance in the Hindu faith with the forest goddess Aranyani. The Bishnoi creed that emerged in the 15th century, comprising both Hindus and Muslims, in what is today India and Pakistan, has been very proactive in opposing deforestation, and in 1730, women of that creed in the village of Khejarli in the modern-day Indian province of Rajasthan died martyrs clinging to trees preventing their felling by the local ruler of Jodhpur. Mahatma Gandhi aptly said that the earth has enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed, and this was a clear influence of Indic thought when the environment was hardly a priority globally. It was under his influence and inspired by the Bishnoi sacrifice of 1730 that the legendary Chipko Movement of embracing trees to prevent their felling emerged in the hills of Garhwal in the 1970s, in which women actively participated.

Now, speaking of the gender dimensions of air pollution, they work in two ways – firstly by way of some forms of air pollution affecting women more than men and secondly by way of existing gender inequities getting widened as a result of the same. We shall here discuss examples from both the categories of effects.

It may be cited that women are biologically more prone to and more affected by respiratory disorders than men, as a study in New Delhi by scientists from the CSIR-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow, India and Hind Institute of Medical Sciences, Lucknow, India has demonstrated. [8] A biomedical research by scientists at Vanderbilt University and John Hopkins School of Public Health in the United States dating to November 2017 in the journal Cell Reports demonstrates that testosterone, the male hormone, plays a role in resisting asthma, which is why women are more susceptible to the disease after puberty [9], and in India specifically, an empirical study dating to December 2015 published in the Journal of Health and Pollution points to the same trend when it comes to respiratory disorders [10]. Also, given the dynamics of there being relatively lesser access to health care for females in India [11], this becomes more complicated, and also studies have shown how disease-causing less work for women in the workplace further adversely affects women’s prospects in their careers, proving an obstacle to an equal playing field for both genders, as Guillermo Mont from the International Labour Organisation has pointed out in the IZA Journal of Labour Economics. [12]

Speaking of indirect effects, pollutants like surface ozone, which is a common pollutant produced in the vehicular and thermal power plant emissions reduces crop yield through oxidative damage to biomolecules, resulting in less food production, and given the empirically documented gender discrimination in access to food in many rural households in India, this adversely affects female health much more, as Sofie Mortensen and Divya Pandey from the Stockholm Environment Institute have pointed out. [13]

Air pollution, especially prolonged exposure to poor quality of air with higher levels of particulate matter (PM 10 or more), adversely affects cognitive brain functioning, leading to poorer scores, and given that very often, girls face more challenges when it comes to availing education owing to various sociological factors, this too is indeed an adverse indirect effect of air pollution on gender equality [14]. Also, women’s physical fitness and sports participation suffer. [15] Air pollution also increases the chances of miscarriage among pregnant women, as the researchers Research University of Utah Health have pointed out in the journal Fertility and Sterility in December 2018. [16] In fact, researches have shown that air pollution can have many adverse effects on pregnant women and even fetuses. [17]

Now, what needs to be done to address these problems? Of course, a lot does need to be done to fight pollution and also fight gender inequality, and one point on the agenda should be to give women representation in spaces to fight environmental degradation, not only as activists (and we do have female environmental activists like Sunita Narain and environmental lawyers like Aparajita Singh) but also as scientific innovators developing eco-friendly technologies and as entrepreneurs marketing the same, with women not finding much representation in scientific innovation and entrepreneurship globally, as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) sought to do in late 2015 in its project titled ‘Promoting Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Energy’. [18]

Interestingly, the National Policy on Forests in India drafted in 1988 did emphasize the role of women in social forestry, and indeed, women have played an active role in the same, as documented even by the World Bank in 1991. [19] However, the draft in 2018 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi omits the gender dimension altogether, and even the document outlining the National Clean Air Programme launched by this central government makes no mention of the gender dimension.

The current central government, however, has candidly accepted in a statement that they have not been very successful in combating air pollution in their previous term and much more needs to be done. [20] Looking at the gender dimension would also be significant in this regard.

One initiative in the right direction launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Ujjwala scheme [21], a repackaging of and building on the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin LPG Vitarak Yojana with the objective of installing Liquefied Petroleum Gas distributors in remote and inaccessible areas to increase LPG penetration, launched by the Congress-led UPA government in 2009. The initiative is aimed at subsidising gas cylinders in order to prevent burning of smoke-emitting fuels like biomass, coal or kerosene used by economically downtrodden women in 85% of the rural households and 25% of the rural households as of 2015, and as Prof. Kirk Smith from Berkeley University has pointed out, an open fire in your kitchen is as harmful as burning 400 cigarettes an hour. [22] Indeed, indoor air pollution caused by cooking using polluting fuels has adversely affected women’s health in India, as a study by the well-known Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab conducted from 2006 to 2010 has demonstrated [23], as have other studies [24].

The Ujjwala scheme was launched in May 2016, aimed at reaching 50 million LPG connections by 2019, but it is believed to have reached that target in August 2018 itself, though these fissures also include connections already given under the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin LPG Vitarak Yojana, and other schemes launched by state governments like the Kerosene Free Delhi scheme launched in 2012 by the then Congress government of Delhi. The government received 2, 14,149 applications for free gas connections under the scheme, and 1, 83,842 eligible LPG connections were released by the end of 2014. Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam, Mizoram, Sikkim, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra also had state-run programmes to release free LPG connections to BPL families. All the schemes put together, a total of over 150 thousand free LPG connections were distributed to BPL families before the launch of the Ujjwala scheme. While the number of LPG connections across India has increased by an impressive 16.26% since the Ujjwala scheme was launched, the use of gas cylinders increased by only about 10%. This is even lower than the rate recorded in 2014-15, when the scheme did not exist.

A CAG report notes, that before the Ujjwala scheme was launched, households with LPG connections used about 6.27 cylinders on an average every year; but that came down to 5.6 cylinders after the launch of the scheme! This has, in good measure, to do with the rise in process of LPG, thus making it not seem like an affordable alternative in the long run even to those availing of the scheme. Since the vast majority of below-poverty-line households have taken Ujjwala connections using the loan on offer, they have to pay for refills at the market rate – they cannot avail of the LPG subsidy (which the oil firms now pocket) until they have paid the loan back via the subsidies. Since the subsidy per cylinder amounts to around one-fourth of its cost, Ujjwala beneficiaries must refill their cylinders around seven to eight times at the market rate for the subsidy to accumulate to be enough to write off the loan.

However, as noted economic commentator Swaminathan Aiyar puts it, despite the “(i)mplementation glitches and gaps in coverage”, the Ujjwala scheme “achieved far more than per year Congress initiatives” [25], which played a major role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi getting re-elected.

Moreover, the central government, in the recent budget, has given a well-intended push to increase the electric mobility (e-mobility) by giving tax benefits to the electric vehicle (EV) buyers thereby incentivizing EVs over the conventional petrol or diesel-run vehicles which are some of the main sources of air pollution.

Steps have taken to curb pollution even by the union territory government of Delhi. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal launched a mega tree plantation drive in the city last month, similar to how citizens in Germany drove the green expansion in their country. Other steps include shutting down the Badarpur Thermal Power Station, a major contributor to Delhi’s air pollution and deployment of mobile enforcement teams deployed to crack down on polluting vehicles and check those without pollution control certificates. The Delhi government has been purchasing electric buses, and the Supreme Court has suggested more hybrid hydrogen-electricity buses.

Cleaner BSVI fuel being introduced in Delhi much before the national rollout and opening two peripheral expressways on its eastern and western flanks to divert traffic, especially heavy vehicles, which transited through the capital, have also helped in reducing air pollution levels. [26]

A major initiative was the odd-even scheme, wherein car-owners were permitted to drive cars with odd-numbered plates on days corresponding to odd-numbered dates in the calendar and cars with even-numbered plates on days corresponding to even-numbered dates in the calendar. However, a major challenge that emerged was that given very valid concerns regarding crimes against women in the city of Delhi, many instances having specifically occurred in public transport facilities, the Delhi government did not wish to impose the odd-even rule on female drivers not transporting any other adults. This, however, was not acceptable to the National Green Tribunal, leading to this initiative, which was making some positive impact on reducing air pollution in the city, to get aborted. Thus, we see that while air pollution can and should be seen through a gender prism, gender concerns as regards other issues like safety from crime can often clash in terms of priorities and this is something worth pondering over.

Air pollution has a definite sociological and cross-sectional gendered impact. Women, by virtue of their biological differences and socio-economic situation, are seen to be more prone and vulnerable to the ill-effects of air pollution in general as compared to their male counterparts. Thus in all preventive, adaptation and mitigation policy measures, it becomes necessary to take a gendered approach while tackling environmental problems like air pollution.

Authored By:

Karmanye Thadani
Ieshan Vinay Misri
Sudhanva Shetty

The authors would like to thank their colleagues Milinda Sengupta and Anurag Singh for their assistance in writing the article.



[1] See, for example,

ANI. (2019, March 12). US: Minorities bear disproportionate burden from air pollution, study suggests. Retrieved from

[2] Clougherty, J. E. (2011). A growing role for gender analysis in air pollution epidemiology. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 16(4), 2221-2238. doi:10.1590/s1413-81232011000400021

Alsén. (2019, March 7). Time to close the air pollution gender gap. Retrieved from

[3] See, for example,

“Sex Ratio at Birth Dips in 17 of 21 Large States, Gujarat Records 53 Points Fall.” The Economic Times, 17 Feb. 2018,

[4] The Lancet. (2019, January 1). The impact of air pollution on deaths, disease burden, and life expectancy across the states of India: the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Retrieved from

[5] Basudev Mahapatra. (2017, June 3). Air pollution in India, a threat to human lives bigger than terrorism. Retrieved from

[6] The Lancet, supra note 4

Dinesh C Sharma. (2018, December 6). Air pollution killing more people than tobacco: study. Retrieved from

[7] Press Trust of India. (2019, June 6). 1 lakh children under 5 years of age die from air pollution in India every year: Study. Retrieved from

[8] Chandrasekharan Nair Kesavachandran, Vipin Bihari, Balram Singh Pangtey, Ritul Kamal, Amarnath Singh, and Anup Kumar Srivastava (2015) Gender Disparity in Lung Function Abnormalities among a Population Exposed to Particulate Matter Concentration in Ambient Air in the National Capital Region, India. Journal of Health and Pollution: December 2015, Vol. 5, No. 9, pp. 47-60.

[9] Cephus, J., Stier, M. T., Fuseini, H., Toki, S., Bloodworth, M. H., Zhou, W., Newcomb, D. C. (2017). Testosterone attenuates group 2 innate lymphoid cell cytokine expression and innate immune-mediated airway inflammation. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 139(2), AB73. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2016.12.285

[10] Zein, J. G., & Erzurum, S. C. (2015). Asthma is Different in Women. Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, 15(6). doi:10.1007/s11882-015-0528-y

[11] Archana Datta. (2018, December 24). Still in the shadows: do Indian women have basic health rights? Retrieved from,%20

[12] Montt, G. (2018). Too polluted to work? The gendered correlates of air pollution on hours worked. IZA Journal of Labour Economics, 7(1). doi:10.1186/s40172-018-0067-6

[13] Mortensen, S., & Pandey, D. (2018, June 5). Ozone air pollution and gender inequality in India. Retrieved from

[14] Montt, G., supra note 12

[15] Clougherty, J. E., supra, note 2

[16] Leiser, C. L., Hanson, H. A., Sawyer, K., Steenblik, J., Al-Dulaimi, R., Madsen, T., … Fuller, M. (2019). Acute effects of air pollutants on spontaneous pregnancy loss: a case-crossover study. Fertility and Sterility, 111(2), 341-347. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2018.10.028

[17] Air Pollution Means Pregnant Women Can’t Breathe Easy. (2019, July 2). Retrieved from

Ambient black carbon particles reach the fetal side of human placenta. (2019, September 17). Retrieved from

Air pollution particles may affect the fetus through placenta. (2019, September 4). Retrieved from

How Air Pollution Impacts Pregnant Women And Their Babies. (n.d.). Retrieved from

The alarming truth about air pollution and pregnancy. (n.d.). Retrieved from

How Air Pollution Impacts Pregnancy And Tips On How To Stay Safe. (2019, July 16). Retrieved from

[18] UNEP. (2016). Gender Equality and the Environment. Retrieved from

[19] Kaur, R. (1991). Women in Forestry in India. Retrieved from World Bank Publications website:

[20] Times of India. (2019, May 30). Centre admits less success in bad-air fight. Retrieved from

[21] Most of the information on the Ujjwala scheme in this article has been taken from the following two sources-

Dhirendra K Jha. (2017, June 11). Modi’s pet Ujjawala scheme wobbles as many beneficiaries drop out after their first LPG cylinder. Retrieved from

Nair, R. (2018, August 11). Modi’s Gas for the Poor Scheme Marred by Data Inflation, Poor Implementation. Retrieved from

[22]  Brink, S. (2014, March 27). WHO Report: Indoor Air Pollution Is Greatest Environmental Health Risk. Retrieved from

[23] Duflo, E., Greenstone, M., & Hanna, R. (2016). Cooking Stoves, Indoor Air Pollution, and Respiratory Health in India. Retrieved from

[24]  Kanti, A. (2017, September 9). 1.3 Million Deaths Every Year in India Due To Indoor Air Pollution. Retrieved from

[25] Aiyar, S. (2019, June 9). Congress gave slogans, Modi made them real. Retrieved from

[26] Times of India. (2019, July 16). Win this fight: Recent data shows that air quality can be improved with effort. This is encouraging. Retrieved from


Karmanye Thadani

Karmanye Thadani

An alumnus of Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, Karmanye has studied summer course(s) in International Human Rights Law from the Oxford University and London School of Economics. He secured a gold medal in his master’s degree in International Relations from the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University Sonipat. He has worked in eminent public policy think-tanks and has also contributed articles to reputed journals and media portals like the Times of India and Tehelka. He has co-authored several acclaimed books such as ‘India and China: Negotiating Spaces in the Narratives’; ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’; and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: Examining the History and Suggesting Policy Reforms’. He has also appeared on the news channel Times Now in the ‘Youth Parliament’ debate on Foreign Policy, alongside luminaries such as G. Parthasarthy, Brahma Chellaney and Maroof Raza.