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Environmental Casteism: An Overdue Apology We Owe To Ecology And Victims Of Caste

by Ashika Thomas and Noor Sharma

How does Environmental Racism transcend into the Indian Context? 

The US National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, developed a document of Environmental Justice Principles which defines Environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” This idea was concretely discussed in the US through this document in 1991 and has been further discussed in India’s context over the years.

Environmental injustice can also be found in India through the central governments’ policies and decisions throughout India’s history. From the construction of dams that displaced poverty-stricken marginalised communities during the period of Congress, to the recent changes in the EIA draft, such discrimination has been widely ignored all over India. Hence, another branch of environmental racism, environmental injustice towards scheduled castes and tribes and other backward communities, emerges. 

Manual Scavenging:

 “The most degrading surviving practice of untouchability in India”- Harsh Mander, Director, Centre for Equity Studies 

One of the principles in the 1991 document, states that environmental justice implies that workers should be able to earn their livelihood in a safe and healthy environment. This principle was made to highlight the unsafe work that people of colour were coerced to do in the US but it also  applies to the situation of Indian sanitation workers who undertake manual scavenging. 

The practice of manual scavenging or cleaning of human excrement from latrines,sewers and septic tanks , is driven by caste and class hierarchy. Majority of the workers in this practice belong to the Bhangi, who are considered the “untouchables among untouchables, (who are) located at the lowest rung of the social order”. Despite the existence of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act since 2013 , an RTI filed by the Wire revealed that the number of manual scavengers have only continued to grow. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, while manual scavenging is practiced in several states and is a national issue, its solutions should come from a grassroot level.

 The reason that projects like Garima Abhiyan, succeeded in freeing scavengers from this job was its approach of giving them assets and a new means of livelihood which is independent of one’s social stature. The government’s act involves giving money to manual scavengers and punishing those who hire them, but they do not consider providing livelihoods to these Dalits. This causes Dalits to find work such as manual scavenging in the informal work sector thus continuing the cycle of oppression. Following Banerjee and Duflo’s Nobel Prize winning work on poverty-alleviation, giving manual scavengers an opportunity to choose their livelihood by building up on their human capital and material assets will bring them into the formal work sector. This makes them eligible for “access to healthcare services, benefits of public distribution system (PDS), Anganwadi services and housing schemes”among other government schemes. 

Casteism In Residence

Reminiscent of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984, wherein an entire village in Bhopal was subjected to a life-altering gas leak by a pesticide plant, India, too, has its environmental evils to fight. The Jaiprakash Nagar colony residents, which is about 600 metres away from the factory, housed most of the labourers, cart pullers, junk sellers, and some small dairy owners. The children still inherit diseases from their parents. The lack of concern is highlighted by the fact that there is no closure to the case even after three decades. 

  The North-Eastern region of India, especially the state of Assam, has continuously been subjected to environmental disregard, despite its rich biodiversity. The new drafting of the Environment Impact Assessment allowed industries to be set up base with lesser regulations. Moreover, fueling this already lax policy is the fact that it’s accompanied by reduced severity of consequences in case of a mishap. Blatant disregard in the case of money-making industries also eventually led to the Baghjan blowout, a fire in Assam, which sent more than 5,000 people to relief camps. This was caused due major lapses on the state owned company, Oil India Limited’s (OIL) part- which did own mandatory permits to carry out their operations. The central government’s policy-making is not something they overlooked; instead, it can be reasoned through their treatment of the Seven Sisters as outcasts. Indians, themselves, have always antagonised the north-east through stereotypes.

  However, in India, discrimination doesn’t stop at one’s facial features but extends to one’s caste. Even when it comes to access to essential resources such as fuelwood and water, caste hierarchy trumps humans’ survival. Last February, in the Fatehpur district of Madhya Pradesh, Dalits suffered at the hands of these age-old repressive policies. A word of caution, though, this is obviously just one instance out of the many which go unnoticed every year. Madan Balmik, a Dalit man, bore his caste’s burden when he was shot dead because his daughter and wife fetched water from the local public hand pump. The only other source of tap water is 60 kilometres away in Shivpuri, the district headquarter, which is also reserved for the upper castes. Fatehpur has treated-untreated tap water supply available all-round the year, but only in the dominant caste homes. The 361 Dalits residing in the area survive on few uncovered wells and hand pumps. The sewage plan again cheats on the human rights of caste minorities and discretely mixes drain water with those water bodies, making it unfit for drinking. This leaves only one hand pump, which is barred to Dalits. The episode proceeded like this, “one of the daughters swilled a pot, some water splashed on a forester, who, enraged, hurled casteist slurs at them, and shot dead Madan when he reached the spot to quell the tension,” narrated a report.

Casteism in Disaster Relief:

Natural disasters are also driven by notions of caste, class and economic status. Mainly, the vulnerable sections of the society face discrimination during distribution of financial aid and their precarious living conditions before the disasters makes them more prone to the after-effects. Post the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which struck several coastal areas in India, a study found that just as a country’s chance of  receiving international aid is often based on politics and finances, post-disaster relief was also given to those with the power not distributed as per need. In addition to this, a study by the University of British Columbia found that “in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, authorities brought in Dalits from other areas to remove dead bodies. However, they were not provided with gloves, masks, or other basic measures to prevent infection or the spread of disease.” They also found that Dalits are often not included in official fisherman organizations and are not allowed government aid. Once again, just like in the case of manual scavengers, there is a structural issue because of which Dalits cannot break out of oppression. Being a part of the informal work sector is a substantial part of this structural issue. 

Almost 14 years later, the situation has not improved much. Several parts of Kerala were flooded in 2018 due to excessive rain and mismanagement of the dam system. In severely struck areas such as Wayanad, relief arrived much later than the affluent sections. This phenomenon is defined by a report drafted by the RIGHTS NGO as “discrimination by default”, since members of higher social standing usually live in easily accessible areas. There also exist tensions in relief camps because of the resources that are being shared between members of different classes. As per UNICEF India, several challenges hinder the implementation of equity monitoring in a disaster response. These include: “the perceived reluctance of Government and civil society to collaborate; general perceptions of relief as charity; people’s perceptions of vulnerability, a limited understanding of specific needs of different vulnerable groups; and lack of proper methods to facilitate monitoring in a non-threatening and non-offensive manner” among other things. Most of the caste issues are reported to local authorities but they remain as reports and are not taken up any further. Unlike the case of manual scavenging, this deep-rooted mindset existing in society cannot be solved at the local level but instead needs to be taken up at the national level.

Conclusion While the protests of the upper-castes’ inconvenience with the environment meet headlines, the struggle of caste discrimination is known but not felt, it’s realised but not voiced, and therefore, India is still stuck in time as the capitalists move forward. This neglect has also led to a dichotomy where the iron triangle, government, the bureaucracy, and interest groups, are anthropocentric (humankind is the most important element of existence) only when talking about the upper class and swiftly transition to becoming environmentalists when it comes to the ‘slash burn’ practised by indigenous communities (lower castes). Therefore, Mukul Sharma very truly states, “Unless the intertwining of caste and nature is seriously addressed in environmental and policy discourses, there will neither be justice for Dalits, nor for the environment.”

Ashika Thomas is a second-year student who is pursuing an Economics major and an Environmental Science minor at Ashoka University.

Noor Sharma (UG ’23) is an incoming freshwoman at Ashoka University. She is interested in exploring topics within the intersection of economics and behavioral science.

2 responses to “Environmental Casteism: An Overdue Apology We Owe To Ecology And Victims Of Caste”

  1. you start of by outlining what is meant by environmental racism as
    Environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”
    and then use caste and class and racism (north-eastern peoples) interchangeably under the heading of caste.
    those terms and classifications are not interchangeable.

    Good attempt and yes we need to do a lot of work to ensure one section of the population don’t pay a disproportionate price to safeguard our environment.


  2. Ashika and Noor good article. Another angle you can also possibly look up is how land acquisition from Dalits and/ or from the economically poorer section is done by corporates and governments discriminate against them. Also this could also cause a long term environmental issue due to destruction of agricultural/ forest.
    So this discrimination by caste/race/ economic status could also cause huge long term environmental issues.
    I think this would be happening in many parts of the world


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