Caste and climate change: the Indian context

I’m sure you must be tempted to skip this article. After all, what do caste and climate change have in common? What does a discriminatory socio-economic system based on the ethics of purity and pollution, imposing a hierarchy between groups, have to do with a phenomenon that involves a long-term alteration of temperature and weather conditions typical of a place, attributed directly or indirectly to human activity? These two concepts have often been treated as isolated and unrelated, the same being reflected in current institutional mechanisms, which do not recognize caste-induced environmental vulnerabilities in any way. Yet on closer inspection it becomes increasingly clear that both involve the human being, in one way or another, at a fairly central level! Since the caste system is deeply embedded in Indian society, caste inequality maintains a significant influence on India’s environmental inequalities.

We might think that if there is a relationship between these two then it is quite simple and straight forward i.e. climate change exacerbates caste inequality and caste inequality shapes the way an individual or group experiences the impacts of climate change. Although not completely wrong, such an understanding of the relationship does not answer a rather important question: how does the caste system, for example through the practice of untouchability, add to or exacerbate really climate change?

To answer this question, we must, first of all, understand the nature or status of environmentalism and environmental politics in India, as it relates to caste. Various academics have rightly pointed to the current discourse rendering caste and Dalit issues largely invisible, excluding them from discussions, policies and laws dealing with climate change and its subsequent impacts, thus failing to recognize these communities as contributors and conservators of nature. It would therefore not be wrong to qualify the current discourse as essentially “Brahmanic, Hindu and conservative”. This brings us back to a point raised earlier, namely how such an understanding ultimately leads to the creation of ineffective and caste-blind environmental policies. Moreover, past examples have shown that lower castes have also not received adequate support and humanitarian aid during times of climatic crises. For example, after the Krishna floods in September 2009, a study by Savita Hiremath highlighted the discrimination Dalits faced in accessing government aid when relief operations were underway.

There is, however, another side to the story, which is more ‘ideological’ in nature. The caste system promotes certain social practices and mentalities harmful to the environment. Take the example of manual cleaning. It is not only harmful for the person who has to perform it, but the practice has also proven to be extremely dangerous for the environment, since waste disposal might not be done properly. In addition, the upper caste, especially in rural areas, has some outdated and uneducated beliefs, for example, that only they have a right to natural resources or that these resources are inexhaustible and unlimited. Thus, they continue to exploit the environment ruthlessly.

Along the same lines, it is not so difficult to understand how an individual’s caste determines their experience of climate change. The point remains that how one experiences the direct and indirect impacts of climate change is strongly determined by their caste, which manifests as several far-reaching ramifications and phenomena. An important point in this regard has already been made earlier, about how lower castes are often left behind in government efforts and initiatives, and experience a lack of humanitarian aid during calamities and disasters. In addition, they also have to deal with increased and aggravated forms of vulnerability, because not only are they less equipped to deal with the adverse effects of climate change, due to a weakened access to resources which reduces their ability to s adapt to climate change, but their ability to adapt and cope is also limited by a host of social, economic and political barriers. Lack of economic mobility as well as dependence on agriculture and other main activities make them particularly vulnerable.

At the other end of the spectrum, we must also take into account that climate change further deepens caste inequality. The effects of climate change are further widening the gap between upper and lower castes, essentially hampering the development of lower castes and creating several setbacks to the progress made in recent years. Since many members of the lower castes are employed as agricultural labourers, climate change may exacerbate their hardship, adding more forced, arduous and unfair agricultural labor as they are forced to accept unfair terms offered by local authorities . dominant upper caste institutions, so as to rent out the property and the basic irrigation facilities.

We rarely recognize the issues of inequitable and unsustainable distributional impacts, the vulnerabilities of different communities and social justice, during climate crises. Policymakers need to move towards a more diverse, integrated and long-term strategy to deal with the impacts of climate change, as experienced by vulnerable communities such as Dalits and other lower caste members. The need to recognize and consider the links between climate change and the caste system is an extremely crucial and urgent prerequisite for a more equitable society, based on the principles of sustainable development, egalitarianism and climate justice.

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