Environmental Casteism

About this Issue

The environment is experienced differently by different groups of people, the experiences, be it climate change, natural disasters, or access to natural resources, are shaped by one’s class, race, caste, and various other identities. Race and the disproportionate impact of environmental injustices felt by certain racial groups has been widely acknowledged and studied. Such discrimination is visible in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, and the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”. 

In India and other South-Asian countries, where caste hierarchies are entrenched, we must look to understanding the relation between caste and the environment. Despite the pervasive nature of caste in Indian society, it remains an “under-recognized marker of environmental inequalities”. There is also a need to understand the multiplicity of our relations to nature, as opposed to the definitions of nature and environment derived from Brahminical and colonial ideologies. 

In 2020, a new draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification was proposed by the Union government. The motivation of the EIA is to regulate industrial and infrastructure projects and evaluate their potential impact on the environment. However, the proposal does away with public and scientific consultation and simplifies the process, allowing mining activities, dams, and other projects to be easily approved. The draft, when seen considering the weakening of other environmental protections, could lead to excessive ecological damage as well as climate change. The development model focusing on global investments, ignores not just the environment, but also social structures, causing the marginalized sections to bear socio-economic costs. The EIA-projects cause displacement of Adivasis from their forest lands, ghettoizes residents based on class and caste, and robs land and property from many poor farmers. These are the implications of a caste-blind policy where no attention has been paid to the social impact of a policy. While the draft EIA is a recent development, such policies are not new and there is a long-documented history of the vicious cycle of environmental impacts and social inequality

The most vulnerable groups of people affected by climate change and natural disasters are women, children, the elderly, the disabled and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A recurring pattern in India has been that “not only are the marginalized communities most vulnerable to climate-related disasters but they also have the least ability to recover from them.” Cyclones in Orissa and Tamil Nadu have affected the landless Dalit farm workers the most. Living in the periphery of villages, feeling pressured to continue with caste-based occupations, and having barely any access to relief materials are just a few ways by which caste structures become amplified during a natural disaster. Post disaster, it is extremely difficult to rebuild homes, have access to electricity and water, and return to work. Some areas are susceptible to recurring disasters and the cycle of inequality becomes almost impossible to break. 

With caste playing a significant role in the impact of climate change, it is imperative to understand the model of environmentalism in India and its implications with respect to caste. Professor Mukul Sharma argues that Indian environmentalism is Brahmanical in nature and is so intrinsically linked to Hinduism, that they cannot be separated. He provides three justifications for this assertion 

  • the invisibility of Dalits from the environmental movement and leadership positions, and their exclusion from recovery policies
  • Hindu conceptions of purity, pollution, and selective sacred-ness of nature 
  • Perpetuating untouchability and isolation, and denying access to natural resources to “lower caste” groups

The continuation of practices such as manual scavenging, the disingenuous attempts of the state to ban it and Brahminical activism which provides “liberating” alternatives such as management and cleaning of Sulabh toilets reaffirm casteist, discriminatory understandings of environmentalism. 

Given these issues concerning environmentalism, how must we envision environmental justice in India? 

Robert R Kuehn defines environmental justice by dividing it into distributive, procedural, corrective, and social justices. In the Indian context, Bhimraj provides the following elements 

  1. Equitable and fair access to natural resources.
  2. Equal distribution of benefits/burdens of the environment.
  3. Same degree of protection from environmental laws, schemes, policies, rules, measures etc.
  4. Fairness and equality in the decision-making process through inclusiveness and public participation.
  5. Equal access to judicial remedy for reparation for damages.
  6. All the above must be secured to all without any discrimination on the basis of caste, class, gender, political opinion, race, religion, sex, social or national origin etc
  7. Historical injustices, if any, have to be taken into account for the purposes of differential treatment. 

While India recognizes the right to environment, right to water and natural resources, it fails to correct the existing discrimination. Bhimraj points out the issues of landlessness, denial of access to water and unequal protection from health hazards which persist due to caste discrimination and the caste-blind nature of environmental laws. 

In this edition on Environmental Casteism, we attempt to discuss some of these issues in depth and understand the intersections of discrimination and of environmentalisms in India. 

The Nazariya piece on evictions provides a look at the processes of evictions and casteist underpinnings to this urban problem. 

Awaaz in Focus, hosts Professor Mukul Sharma, who asserts that Indian Environmentalism is inherently Brahmanical and as a result casteist, provides the Dalit critique of Indian Environmentalism

In this episode of Vichaar, Professor Harsh Vardhan Bhati walks us through the history of the issue of climate refugees, how the term was coined, what it means, and how it has gained recognition over the years.

Finally, Talk Point documents a round table conversation conducted by the Environmental and Social issues cluster of Nickeled and Dimed on the intersectionality of environmental engagement. It answers the question of how different classes and castes of people within India interact with the Environment

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