Caste and Climate Change: The Indian Context

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the rise of Asia and its’ significance as a global force in a myriad of fields has been impeccable. The world has recognized it as a competing force. Asian economies have been long characterized by their people and the immense dynamic diversity that comes with it. India in this regard has been prominently and densely populated and imperatively diverse and vibrant in its’ culture and heritage. As promising as this sounds, the diversity has always been a potent challenge for this nation in managing its’ manifestation as a welfare economy attempting to cater to various sections of the society, demand and needs together. The intensity of the population has ensued many socio-economic liabilities on this nation, ranging from income inequality to gender discrimination. Hence, it is important to note that marginalized and underrepresented sects of the society have always been on the brunt of being adversely impacted by any kind of cultural, economic, political or environmental parameters, explicitly as well as implicitly.

As we speak of this, it is crucial to highlight a new phenomenon that has been observed which is the impact of climate change on caste-oriented aspects in India. It is difficult to understand the relation between these two independent variables, but the dynamic conceded here has been critical in shaping the face of the future of the caste-based issues being perpetuated because of the ill effects of the climate change, a globally acknowledged aspect now. Environmental issues are matter of concern, not just for a certain region or a specific section of the society. It is massive threat to the entire humankind. This is itself should be alarming. Now, to begin the conversation of caste and climate change in the Indian context becomes principally paramount, since India has had a long withstanding history of caste-based discrimination and atrocities of those people that has prevailed, and continues to exist even till now.

Climate change in India has significantly catered to two very specific issues, equanimity and growth. Environment politics in India, specifically since the post-colonial India has evolved from being centered around protection programs to now the focal point being development and sustainability programs. However, as much is being done in this regard, it is commonplace knowledge that the marginalized (particularly caste inflicted) have been suffering despite policies being heralded for holistic sustenance of the entire society. In support of this argument, it is critical to note that in this nation Dalit women are constricted to drawing water from public water facilities in many villages in the south of India as untouchability is still being practiced. This has led to inequitable distribution of public facilities to the vulnerable section of the regions in times of climatic crisis such as water shortage. It is a matter of social injustice. As per some prominent reports published in this regard, it has been observed that, “In over 100 villages affected by drought in India, Dalit women are being denied access to water sources in 48.4% of villages because of segregation and untouchability practices. More than 20% of Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water.”

Such sections of the society that are more exposed to natural disaster or severe climatic conditions than other groups end up receiving less humanitarian support, comparably. Laws and policies that have been institutionalized to protect them have not been well executed or implemented resulting in making the situation more vulnerable and gruesome for the people facing such caste-based bigotry. Even so, the infrastructural support is withheld from preserving their interests making them more susceptible to climatic damage. Another observation highlighted from some reports has been that, “past instances have shown that the lower castes have also not received adequate support and humanitarian assistance during times of climatic crises. For example, after the Krishna floods of September 2009, a study conducted by Savita Hiremath brought out the discrimination faced by the Dalits in accessing government aid when relief operations were underway.”

With this understanding, one needs to now shift the focus and converge their energy into making environmental politics a seemingly supreme agenda for policy makers of this nation. It needs to emerge as a strong point of consideration within the periphery of our lawmaking agencies.  Environmental concerns have gained momentum in the post-colonial India due to high ecological imbalances in the form of wildlife, nature and people. Political debates in this regard doesn’t only have to be about conserving and preserving the ecosystem, but about reducing the implications of the damage upon both the nature and the people, now particularly the neglected and the overlooked groups. Women and children get the most affected, which probably goes without saying.

As per UN reports, “To understand the nature of the environmental problems in India, it may be useful to compare and contrast certain environmental trends and concerns in India with those in the West, especially since the environment crusade began in the West and since many groups in India, including political parties, have for long dismissed it as a petty Western concept. The argument has always been that too much concern for the environment can only retard economic and industrial development. The UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 was the landmark conference that created worldwide consciousness about environment. No UN conference has ever been able to collect so many luminaries at one place.”

Environment politics first emerged ass a westernized concept, and took its own time to gain popularity as a global phenomenon. Today all the nations have a common thread that binds them when it comes to environment protection, but each nation has its; own internal challenges to overcome. India has predominantly failed in protecting its’ marginalized groups from climate-based damages despite having policies which seem more for namesake due to its’ dysfunctional attributes. This has been deep-rooted in our orthodox and conservative mindset to hold back equitable distribution of welfare schemes amongst all the stakeholders of the society.

Sonika Jha
Sonika Jha
Research Scholar (Strategy) FORE School of Management, New Delhi, India