Vehicle transport is a key source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Indian cities, and one in which power dynamics, occupational differences, as well as socioeconomic and cultural differences related to gender shape exposure for women and men.   Credit: USAID Clean Air Catalyst
Vehicle transport is a key source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Indian cities, and one in which power dynamics, occupational differences, as well as socioeconomic and cultural differences related to gender shape exposure for women and men. | Credit: USAID Clean Air Catalyst

Women, Transportation, and Air Pollution in India


Air pollution affects women and girls differently than men and boys. These differences include biological and socioeconomic disparities, and unequal gender norms that affect exposure type and frequency. Gender differences tied to air pollution require different  mitigation efforts for women and men due to disparate access to solutions, such as urban transportation. Yet there is very little research addressing the gendered effects of air pollution and how it can be effectively addressed in international development programming. To fill this knowledge gap for its work in India, USAID’s Clean Air Catalyst (CAC) program, with help from USAID’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Hub (GenDev), commissioned a gender analysis for air pollution in the transport sector in Indore—a CAC pilot city of 2 million people.

Air pollution is a global environmental health emergency and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), India sits on the frontline of this global crisis. Fourteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India and an estimated 99.9 percent of India’s population live in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO air quality guidelines. In 2019, air pollution was estimated to be responsible for 1.6 million premature deaths in India and $95 billion USD in economic losses—or 3 percent of India’s GDP. CAC seeks to address the growing air pollution crisis in India through a five-year program in select pilot cities to understand local pollution sources and identify sustainable solutions for clean, healthy air for better health, climate, and development outcomes. 

Vehicle transport is a key source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in Indian cities, and one in which power dynamics, occupational differences, as well as socioeconomic and cultural differences related to gender shape exposure for women and men. For this reason, the gender analysis focused on the transport sector. The analysis broadly examined data from India and, when available, specifically examined data from Indore.

Female Exposure Differences

Mobility Patterns

Evidence shows that gender inequalities often shape women’s and men’s mobility and use of transport globally and in India. If a family owns a car, the male head of the household is more likely to use it, leaving women and children to rely on alternatives, mainly walking and public transport. Low-income women in particular are “no-choice walkers.” A gendered comparison of five large cities in India showed, on average, 37 percent of women walked to work compared with 27 percent of men. Data from the Delhi morning rush hour demonstrates the implications of walking near roadways for exposure to increased levels of air pollution. Measurements of fine particulate matter pollution (PM2.5) exposures in microenvironments near and far from roadways showed walking near roadways resulted in 40 percent higher exposure than from locations farther from roadways. 

Occupational Differences

In India, women are more vulnerable to roadway/transport emissions because they have reduced lung function due to indoor air pollution from domestic duties, such as the use of biomass fuels for cooking. Common occupations for women working outside their homes lead to enhanced exposure to air pollution, especially for low-income women. For instance, most street sweepers in India are women. A study cited in the analysis found the risk of chronic respiratory morbidity among street sweepers was 4.24 times higher than that in the comparison group, and the risk increased significantly with increasing length of service. 

Women in the informal sector often also work in street vending or minding small retail shops that are frequently located in high-traffic roadsides where they have greater exposure to emissions. These women may be forced to choose between the increased incidence of respiratory disorders if they vend on busier streets or the increased risk of gender-based violent attacks on quieter streets. This is similar to the choice between walking or taking public transportation, where nearly 90 percent of female riders say they have been subjected to harassment at least once.

Designing Equitable Transport Solutions for Cleaner Air


Encouraging greater use of public transport and enhanced energy efficiency in vehicles are key features in India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change and are critical to achieving improved air quality. However, successfully implementing this plan will require a consideration of the needs and threats to women and girls in public transportation.Women experience harassment and abuse on public transport, on the street, and at bus stops. A study in Delhi found 90 percent of women reported facing sexual harassment in public spaces overall, 51 percent of women faced harassment in public transport, and 42 percent more while waiting for transport. More disturbing, this kind of harassment is “normalized”—it is accepted as an ordinary part of life. Special provisions are often made on public transport including reserved seats and female-only buses (including in Indore) or compartments for women and children on trains, but these features do not go far enough in addressing the systemic factors that restrict women’s safety. In order to build transport systems that work for all, including women, the gender analysis argues that systems must reinforce women’s safety and incorporate features including:

  • police-verified drivers and conductors; 
  • working and continuously monitored CCTVs; 
  • safe, well-lit, well-maintained footpaths to get to and from public transport; 
  • gender sensitization trainings and protocols for redress 

Female Entrepreneurship: Electric Vehicles

In India, there are very few women in positions of authority in the air pollution and transportation sector, but opportunities for women’s leadership, entrepreneurship, and employment are growing in the emerging electric vehicle (e-vehicle) industry. E-vehicles emit fewer greenhouse gases and pollutants than gas-powered vehicles and are thus better for human and environmental health. Various types of e-vehicles are emerging in India, such as e-buses, e-scooters (two-wheelers), and e-rickshaws. There are a growing number of female-led businesses that are working to advance women’s economic empowerment and the air pollution crisis simultaneously. For instance, Ampere, a leading e-vehicle manufacturer in India, is led by Hemalatha Annamalai, a female entrepreneur making low-cost electric bicycles, scooters, and load carriers. Since inception, women’s empowerment has been the driving force for Ampere; more than 30 percent of its manufacturing workforce is women. Eride E-mobility is a Hyderabad-based electric vehicle company that is creating “she-rickshaws” for female commuters, driven exclusively by women. Eride aims to expand entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for women in the transport sector. 

Empowering women to lead clean air solutions in the vehicle transport sector is a critical next step for sustaining improved air quality in Indore and beyond.

For more information, download the full report.

Clean or Renewable Energy, Gender and Social Inclusion, Health, Urban
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