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TalkPoint: Intersectionality In Environmental Engagement

Roundtable Discussion by the Environment and Social Issues Cluster, Nickeled and Dimed

Ques: What implications, if it does, does globalisation have on how people interact with the environment?

There is a duality in the impact of globalisation. For the people who had prior social and economic capital, globalisation came as an accelerant to economic growth. For those people who came from sections of the society which lacked the resources which could be used as valuable input in a globalised world – economic, social and educational capital and, skills useful in a technocratic globalised world- climbing up the ladder became a feat because there were others who were already on far higher rungs.  Globalisation is that sort of phenomenon, the impact of which is very different for the higher and lower income generating sections of society.

Globalisation to me is how the rich perceive the environment. Globalisation has allowed one to integrate markets which increases competition and improves efficiency of companies by reducing the cost associated with production, the wastage of resources by improving resource efficiency. However, this is all merely theoretical. In the end how the rich people connect with the environment ends up being through usage of extra land which was otherwise used and possessed by tribal communities who were displaced by the rich who are part of the integrated global markets. Such forced displacement and acquisition is a waste of resources. The Amazon Forests are completely burnt out because of industrial activities and because of how the rich perceive the world. It has gravely affected the communities based on culture and tradition which were integrated with the environment. The Ladakhi culture, for example, involved integration with the environment. However, because of globalisation they had to succumb to the pressures of increased and reduced prices, so they could not sell their handmade products. They had to succumb to the pressures of mass production which they could not compete with, so as a result, their whole community which was based on self- preservation and working for themselves completely disintegrated, so globalisation, while it has its perks, has had a bad impact on the poor. So, globalisation works exclusively for the rich.

Ques: It has been established that globalisation works exclusively for the rich upper class and that local businesses are self- preserved. What is the link between these two phenomena or are they completely separate exclusive phenomenon?

There is a link.  Due to global warming and climate change, people are actually taking into account the fact that we are wasting resources. People are understanding the importance of  combining localisation and globalisation. The fact that there is a criss-cross of resources implies that people understand the impact of such transportation on the environment. In San Francisco apart form Supermarkets, farmers’ markets have been established which works with local producers and sell locally produced produce; these markets work side by side and are integrated ensuring that the local businesses are promoted while also not losing out on the perks of globalisation. The local and global markets do not work exclusively anymore, they work in an integrated manner. 

Ques: It is not possible to talk about ‘local’ in India, without the consideration of caste in addition to class. What kind of relationship do people of different classes and castes have with the environment?

Globalisation is responsible not only for creating rift between the rich and the poor but also for maintaining a caste hierarchy. Indian environmentalism often romanticizes traditions   emphasising on how traditions have always maintained harmony with nature and  encouraged sustainable development. For example, The UN Secretary General’s Report, 2010 titled ‘Harmony with Nature’  commended vedic philosophy and texts for promoting ecological balance and encouraging the maintenance of harmony with nature, such romanticisation also consequently romanticises the caste system embedded within these vedic scriptures since this ‘ harmony with nature’ crucially depends upon economic and social work allocated on the basis of caste  Indian Environmentalism also hinges on Gandhian traditionalism  which propagated the idea of a self- sufficient village, but it is also well-known, that Gandhi’s views have also been casteist. Views of BR Ambedkar on environmentalism is rarely part of the Indian environmental discourse. According to the new neo-traditionalist ideology rampant in Indian environmentalism, ecological problems are exclusively seen as a colonial problem or a modem problem and thus they allude back to customs, traditions , ‘going back to our roots’  and rediscovering and restoring Hinduism.

This Neo-traditionalist ideology also has practical casteist consequences. For example, the forest revival project launched  by the World Wide Fund, India, proposed to restore the traditional sewage management systems in which Dalits had to carry night soil human excreta on their heads and dispose of it .  Though there have been attempts to develop alternative sewage systems, it was never adequately developed because the fact that the traditional system existed reduced the urgency of installing an alternative. The popular environmentalist Bindeshwar Pathak, who launched the ‘Sulabh Shauchalaya’ Movement, uses casteist language by insisting on using the term ‘Harijans’ ,  a term the lower castes themselves do not prefer. The primary aim of the movement was to help the Bhangis improve their working conditions, but the point remains that even though a lot of new toilets were established, this movement simply gave them alternate employment which is still seen as menial or deplorable by the higher castes. The organisational work is mainly done by the upper caste while the menial work is done by the lower castes. So, while the conditions of work have improved, the caste system remains intact. These were only some examples of how some of the most popular environmental movements in India are blatantly casteist and this never comes up to the surface because while it seems superficially that we are working towards everyone’s betterment, behind the surface Indian environmentalism crucially depends on the caste structure.

We also forget that environmental movements in themselves are political acts therefore, it is bound to suit one section of the society.  The fact that Indian Environmental Movements have not been very global is firstly. because of  how deep caste runs in our society and in our country, this is not prominent in other countries. In the United States environmental racism is very evident, but the problem of casteism is exclusive to India. Our system does not even think of alternatives to manual scavenging.  It is often misconceived that since labour and access to commons are so highly defined by caste just as the environmental movement, that the labor and environment movements in India might get along; but there is also a clear distinction between blue (labour movement) and green movements  (environmental movements). One of the main reasons why such a clear divide exists is that these movements in themselves are political and therefore stick to a certain kind of hierarchy that favours those leading the movement. So if the rich elite of the country are leading the environmental movement and they do not feel the need to conceptualise labour within the environmental framework, then it does not integrate and remain separate, as it has in India.

Ques: How does the class and the caste divide, social, economic and caste position affect  how people access commons?

People interact differently and derive different resources from the commons. The right to good quality air and clean water, right to shelter are constitutionally guaranteed under the fundamental right to life enshrined under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Common resources  ie, resources which are not privately owned but held in trust by the State, were supposed to be available to all persons equally, this is, however not the case in reality which is attributable to differential access to resources, a result of inequality entrenched into the societal structure. When talking about commons, it can be viewed from the point of view of slum and non-slum settlements. For example, in talking about access to water, 17% of the urban population live in slums and  about half of them do not  have tap water within their reach. There are three types of slums – identified, recognised and notified slums; only recognised slums can avail piped water provided the families have settled in the slums prior to 2000, no such cut-off date exists for non-slum areas, there is therefore, differential laws governing two localities within the same urban landscape. The disparity also exists in water supply – non slum areas are provided 150 litres per capita, while the slum areas are supplied a third of that ie, 35 – 40 litres per capita. In a paper by Vistaka Bhansal, she argues that religious disparity also has a role to play in access to commons –  in certain slums muslim localities are not given the same amount of water as the Hindu localities. All of these factors work into the differential access to something as basic and common as water.  Putting this in context of the pandemic, it is hard to imagine how people in slums can maintain and adhere to the hand washing rules where they have intermittent water supply or where it comes for just  3 to 4 hours a day. 

Ques: What role does intra-state, inter-state migration to urban spaces play in creating a hierarchy in the access to commons?

We have established that there is a hierarchy in society and that determines how people access and interact with the environment. While overpopulation may be a factor when it comes to material resources- say access to healthcare, it cannot be a determinant when it comes to fundamental rights. One person is not entitled to more of a right than another. For example, the availability of good quality air, there cannot be more for one person and less for another. What the state needs to ensure is the establishment of practices and protocols to ensure that each person irrespective of where they live within urban or rural spaces have access to the same quality of air. I do not think it is really a matter of population, because the Southern regions are just as populated as the Northern regions and yet the pollution levels is far less in the Southern states. I think one of the factors which is responsible for the degradation of air quality, has to do with the short-sightedness of policy. 

Another form of segregation which creates differential access to commons, is the  segregation of space itself.  Spaces can be classified as slum and non-slum spaces, both provide access to different kinds of commons. Few people who have the choice and can afford certain spaces also have access to the commons attached exclusively to those spaces, while those who cannot afford such spaces, do not have access to such commons. A good example for this is the bottled water industry. There are arguments which are made by members of the upper class in justifying the fact that poor people often have to pay to have access to a requirement as common as water; they say that even they have to pay for bottled drinking water and see no difference between the two. However, the people of the lower class often have to pay Rs.800 to Rs.1000 a month to have access to clean water, which implies that  a huge chunk of their disposable income is being spent on water, when the often meagre amount also has to be used to meet all of their other needs- ration, living expenses, medical expenses, education etc. These two scenarios are not the same, one arises out of need, the other out of convenience. Then again, there are two types of bottled water consumers as well – those who are forced into purchasing bottled water as a result of the toxification of their water source by industries and others who buy bottled water because producers manipulate them into actually believing that the water is sourced from the Himalayas and have additional qualities and minerals. 

Ques: It has been established that in the context of environmentalism, the rich upper class. ‘exploit’ and the poor lower class are ‘exploited’, where does the middle class fit into this equation? What are your thoughts on middle class environmentalism?

The question of who constitutes the middle class has long been contested. According to the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the  middle class are those whose earnings typically remain within the bracket of $10 to $100 per day. For the poor, environmentalism has political undertones, it is about their right to life and basic needs; for the rich, environmentalism hinges mostly on green washing, they buy products which are presented to them as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. The Middle class however, take small steps which will affect their niche group. For example, there was a study done on the Bangalore middle class and their relationship to the environment. The study revealed that the Bangalore middle class attended bicycle clubs, rode bicycles or walked instead of driving their cars or taking public transport, they even opened up waste management units at their homes or in their neighbourhoods and used the compost to grow vegetables in small terrace farms. The difference between the lower class and the middle class is that the poor do these things because they have no other choice- they cannot afford cars-  the middle class however, despite having the option of using a car for commuting, make the choice to use a bicycle instead. Several of the environmentally friendly practices that the middle class adopt are not exactly intentional, they are also often a result of their economic status. Middle class households are very efficient in recycling be it reusing plastic bags and bottles or handing down clothes instead of constantly purchasing new ones- these practices though beneficial for the environment are not done specifically because it is environmentally friendly but rather because their economic status requires them to do so. They do not view reusing clothes or shoes as a way of saving the environment, rather as a way to save money, environmental benefit is often a  lucky side-effect.

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