How Indian Environmentalism Shelters Eco-Casteism

By Riyosha Sharma

Indian environmentalism is categorised by popular grassroot movements like the Chipko movement of the 1970s and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, often spearheaded by tribals, farmers and indigenous people living in direct harmony with the environment. It is the environmentalism of the indigenous, initiated by the people directly affected by climate change. Yet even so, Indian environmentalism is far from inclusive of communities that need it the most – the socially oppressed lower castes and tribal communities.

New Traditionalist Ideology

Movements like the Chipko movement present locals resisting industrialisation to protect their habitats and surroundings, which is widely misconstrued as originating from the new traditionalist ideology. The new traditionalist ideology places the responsibility of ecological degradation exclusively on colonialism, development and modernity. It draws a sharp dichotomy between the traditional Indian lifestyle, believed to be environmentally sensitive, harmonious and far less exploitative than today, and the modern lifestyle, characterised by drastic changes in social, ecological and economic relationships due to colonialism and economic development. With autonomous and self-sustaining villages and conservationist communities, pre-colonial practices are viewed to have been perfectly balanced. Thus, a major proportion of Indian environmentalism emphasises on the revival of Indian traditionalism. 

While the ecological advantages of traditionalism might be true to an extent, its enamoured pedestalization is problematic on many levels. This view entails that colonization brought the advent of all social and ecological degradation, while the pre-colonial era represents no such changes. However, even though the intensely commercialised and unsustainable modern development must be scrutinised and reformed, its critique should not lead us towards the uncritical adoption of the traditional alternative. Besides trivialising and not examining the adverse effects of Indian traditionalism, this ideology grossly ignores the importance of social equity and environmental justice, an essential part of any environmentalist movement.    

New traditionalist environmentalism romanticises ancient Hindu scriptures and practices, associating them exclusively with sustainable living and conveniently overlooking how the same scriptures make the environment inaccessible to a large proportion of society. This is precisely where movements like the Chipko movement deviate from the new traditionalist ideology – besides conserving nature, they strive for social change instead of revival of the old, traditional lifestyle. In fact, the Chipko movement was not simply preservationist or traditionalist, but aimed to secure collective forest rights for local use and abolish untouchability. Yet, the new traditionalist ideology retains a stronghold in our mainstream environmentalism. Access to common resources like forests, water and land is regulated on the basis of caste, especially in rural areas, restricting lower-castes’ right to natural resources. Yet the Hindu traditions are valorised as sustainable, eco-friendly and righteous. Even the UN Secretary General’s Report ‘Harmony with Nature’ (2010) one-sidedly praises Vedic philosophy, saying that it ‘has always emphasized the human connection with nature…The Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti contain some of the earliest messages on ecological balance and the need for people’s ethical treatment of nature. They emphasize harmony with nature and recognize that all natural elements hold divinity.’

It is also worth reiterating how the idea of precolonial autonomous and self-sufficient villages is central to the new traditionalist philosophy. In this aspect, Gandhi’s own conception of sustainability and self-sufficiency has been often a central part of Indian environmentalism, and so has Nehru’s. But it is disheartening to note how the ideologies of important Dalit and anti-caste leaders have been majorly left out of our ecological discourse. Where Gandhi’s beliefs about the ecologically non-exploitative, sustainable, village swaraj have been hailed and reworked, Ambedkar’s concerns about the exploitation of Dalits and exclusion from access to natural resources in villages has failed to gain ground as an important facet of environmentalism. In fact, if seen from an ecological lens, his legacy is especially relevant to the environmental justice movement. The Mahad Satyagrah of 1927, for one, was a historical movement against caste-oppression undertaken by Dr. Ambedkar and 2500 others, demonstrating Dalits’ equal right to public water by drinking from the common Chavdar Tank. While it is celebrated as an important anti-caste movement, its significance as an environmental justice movement for equal access to water is usually overlooked. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd also points out a similar trend in mainstream Indian environmentalism in his book Post-Hindu India, noting that it is exclusionary as it is unbothered by the caste hegemony.

Practical Implications 

The casually casteist ideology also reflects in the practical implications of the undertaken environmental movements. For instance, the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project, or the Vrindavan Conservation Project, launched in 1990s by World Wide Fund for Nature – India (WWF) aimed for the ecological restoration of Vrindavan through plantation, education, community awareness, citizen’s action and more. However, when faced with the challenge of inadequate sewage treatment, it conveniently opted for the ‘traditional’ system of waste disposal – one which required Dalits to manually carry the waste (‘night soil’) overnight, for it to be used as fertilisers and manure. One of the leaders of the project, Ranchor Prime, even invoked Manusmriti to support the revival of the old system.

Similarly, even if not outrightly casteist and biased, most environmental movements do not even acknowledge structural caste issues as environmental issues. UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 aims towards reduction of inequality within and between nations. Its target is to ‘empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status’ by 2030 – and it does not specifically include caste as a category. Dalit activists from the Asia Dalit Rights Forum view this lack of international recognition as a ‘critical lapse’. Formal acknowledgement of caste as a factor responsible for poverty, inequality and environmental injustice is the first step towards tackling it. However, there seem to be counter-efforts to prevent its recognition as an international issue and keep it an internal Indian matter, as prompted by Meen Bishwakarma, an MP from the Nepali Congress.

Further, let us consider the pro-sweeper Sulabh Shauchalaya movement headed by Bindeshwar Pathak. Sulabh International initiated movements like Bhangi Mukti Abhiyan for scavengers’ liberation in many states, which were considerably successful in improving the working conditions of scavengers or providing them alternative jobs. While the movement brought about impressive technical changes, it did not challenge the structural issue of caste. As Professor Mukul Sharma highlights, the Sulabh sanitation system (public toilets and cleaning) is still managed mostly by the Balmikis, the liberated scavengers still occupy traditionally ‘low caste’ occupations while the organisational structure of Sulabh Shauchalaya movement is dominated by upper castes. The outcomes of the movement have thus been mixed, with improvement in the sewage treatment system and the lives of manual scavengers while carefully maintaining the caste hierarchy.

Additionally, even though indigenous people may be the face of Indian environmentalism, tribal communities, adivasis and other low caste communities are often treated as disposable and become worse off than before. For example, around 18,000 families have been displaced in the 48 years since the initiation of Project Tiger, especially in the Protected Areas since the local officials hold the forest-dwelling people responsible for the extinction of tigers. Further, as reported by Housing and Land Rights Network India (HLRN) in 2017, the government authorities demolished around 53,700 homes, forcefully evicting around 260,000 (2.6 lakh) people across urban and rural India, with inadequate resettlement efforts. The major reasons cited for these evictions were ‘city beautification projects’, ‘slum clearance’, ‘environmental conservation and wildlife and forest protection’, ‘disaster management’ and ‘infrastructural projects’. This data clearly shows efforts towards sustainable economic development are anything but inclusive of lower caste and lower-class people. 

Conclusion 

It would not be exaggeration to say that environmentalism cannot be imagined in isolation of caste. In fact, the exclusion of Dalits and lower-caste communities functions on the very ideas of pollution, dirt and purity, making them inextricably linked with the environment. Indian environmentalism is not only incomplete but outrightly casteist if it strives for sustainable development with the framework of the caste hierarchy.

Riyosha Sharma is a second year undergraduate student at Ashoka University.

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