caste and climate change
by vaidehi dhavde
The Indian caste system is over 3000 years old and was first mentioned within the Manusmirti1, an ancient legal text stating the laws of Hinduism, which detailed a hierarchy created by the division of people into four main groups (‘castes’). It was used as a means of oppression by the ruling castes for centuries until 1950, when the constitution of the newly independent India made discrimination against people of lower castes illegal2. However, the prejudice associated with being lower caste still remains deeply entrenched within all aspects of society and continues to be instrumental in the subjugation of persons of lower castes. The constitution terms those of disadvantageous caste backgrounds as being of “scheduled caste”; according to the latest census3. 18.46% of the Indian population is comprised of individuals of a scheduled caste. For these individuals, the socio-economic factors in their life continue to be determined, from the resources that they can access to the temples they are allowed to worship in4, often compromising their fundamental rights.
This article will attempt to examine the relationship between a person’s caste and how they are affected by climate change. It is important at this point to acknowledge that it would be impossible and incredibly irresponsible of me to suggest that the complex nature of the manner in which caste operates across the subcontinent can be summarised in one article, nor that would it paint a realistic picture of the struggle against casteism. Moreover, this approach would be in ignorance of the fact that caste based discrimination is multifaceted, often blurred with other issues such as classism and sexism. It does not operate independently, but as part of a wider scheme of oppression. Instead, this article will take the approach of suggesting that there is an obvious link beginning to form between caste and experiencing the adverse effects of climate change.
Currently 22 out of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India5 according to recent studies, with air pollution exceeding the World Health Organisation’s annual exposure guidelines6. Delhi and Mumbai have become notorious for continuously finding themselves in headlines which expose a damning level of pollution. Most recently, Mumbai, the ‘City of Dreams’, once again became a source of scrutiny when it was found that the pollution levels in one of its areas had caused over half of the 30,000-strong population to experience health problems. These can ranged between breathlessness, a ‘choking’ sensation and skin irritation, among a range of other issues7. The suburb of Mahul used to be a small fishing village and became the new home of thousands who were relocated after the demolition of their slum8.
Research indicates that those from scheduled castes and those from poorer rural backgrounds have significantly smaller carbon footprints9. Despite a lack of contribution to the problem, they continue to suffer the consequences without possessing the means of accessing proper medical care. Mahul is just another example of a failed ‘rehabilitation’ project where masses are forced out of their homes in order to make way for state projects (in this case a pipeline) and displaced arbitrarily. It is a wellknown fact that Mahul was a heavily industrialised area, with no local infrastructure or schools, hospitals or transport links set up to support the newly uprooted residents. Caste is an integral factor in this situation as those of scheduled castes have limited access to education and job opportunities which means that they are left vulnerable to governmental action. This action is typically executed by high caste individuals, who disregard their fundamental rights which have appear to have become luxuries they cannot afford.
This is just one example of the many injustices which are suffered by lower caste individuals who continue to bear the devastating effects of rapid climate change. The lack of access to justice regarding issues of pollution is also astounding with recent figures suggesting that there are over 20,000 cases relating to industrial pollution and environmental violations pending in Indian courts10. Overall, it would be naïve to think that it would be possible to isolate and dismantle this one particular aspect to casteism – more a symptom than the root cause – effectively. In order to actual change, higher caste individuals must acknowledge their privilege so that climate change can be issue which is faced collectively. At a grassroots level, projects such as small farming communes are beginning to form and succeeding, such as one of Dalit female farmers in the state of Tamil Nadu who have turned to collective farming by pooling together their resources11. Protests are also taking place Mahul in order to demand better living conditions for the residents. It is imperative that these movements are supported and that the voices of lower caste individuals battling against climate change are heard.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (no date), ‘Manu-smriti Hindu Law’. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Manu-smriti (last accessed 19/03/2019)
Article 16 of the Indian Constitution
Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, Government of India (2011). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socio_Economic_and_Caste_Census_2011 (last accessed 19/03/2019)
Gettleman, J and Raj, S (2018), ‘’Tell Everyone We Scalped You!’ How Caste Still Rules India’. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/17/world/asia/tell-everyone-we-scalped-you-how-caste-still-rules-in-india.html (last accessed 20/03/2019)
AirVisual, Report: ‘World’s most polluted cities (2018)’. Available at: https://www.airvisual.com/world-most-polluted-cities?continent=&country=&state=&page=1&perPage=50&cities= (last accessed 25/03/2019)
Van Mead, N (2019), ’22 of world’s most polluted cities are in India, Greenpeace says’. Avaliable at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/mar/05/india-home-to-22-of-worlds-30-most-polluted-cities-greenpeace-says (last accessed 25/03/2019)
Lukose, A (2015), ‘ KEM report points to high toluene levels in Chembur-Mahul belt’ Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/kem-report-points-to-high-toluene-levels-in-chembur-mahul-belt/ (last accessed 27/03/2019
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Ahmad, S , Baiocchi, G , Creutzig, F (2015), Report ‘CO2 Emissions from Direct Energy Use of Urban Households in India’ Environmental Science and Technology, 49 (19 pp. 11312-11320). Available at: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es505814g?src=recsys, (last accessed 25/03/2019)
Sengupta, R , Pandey, K (2018) ‘Here are 3 o 21,000 industrial pollution cases pending in Indian courts’. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/urbanisation/here-are-3-of-21-000-industrial-pollution-cases-pending-in-indian-courts-62508 (last accessed 27/03/2019)
Kolachalam, N (2019), ‘Caste, the Patriarchy, and Climate Change’. Available at: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/02/india-dalit-tamil-nadu-caste-climate-change-farming.html (last accessed 27/03/2019)