Environmental Casteism: Can We Imagine Dalit Ecologies Within a Capitalist Setup?

Environmental experiences of Dalits are shaped by their caste-based identities and social hierarchies, leading a unique and often challenging relationship with nature.
Environmental Casteism: Can We Imagine Dalit Ecologies Within a Capitalist Setup?

The poem, “Thakur ka Kuan”, by Omprakash Valmiki offers a powerful testament to the enduring environmental injustices faced by the marginalized communities. Through its evocative imagery, the poem lays bare the deep intertwining of power and privilege with environmental exploration.

The poem unveils a historic continuum where control over resources is wielded by the privilege few, relegating the marginalized communities to a perpetual state of subjugation and dispossession. This portrayal serves as a testament of the enduring legacy of environmental inequalities, underscoring how power structures have shaped and perpetuated injustices in the environmental realm.

The poem symbolizes a narrative of servitude and dispossession, where marginalized endure pollution, land deprivation and exclusion from environmental governance, echoing a tale of entrenched inequalities. This essay will aim to dissect the layers of environmental injustice revealing the intricate patterns of power, privilege and marginalization that shapes our relationship with the environment.

Deeply entwined in the natural world of environment and caste, a paradox unfolds where “Dalits”  bear the weight of environmental injustices, their livelihoods entwined with the very fabric of nature. For the privileged few, environmentalism becomes a mere dalliance, a hobby detached from the harsh realities faced by the marginalized communities. A web of injustices, unseen yet pervasive binds the environment and caste.

Dalits often find themselves working in hazardous waste disposal, sanitation, and other environmentally damaging industries. The exploitation of nature and the perpetuation of caste hierarchies are inextricably linked, with purity and pollution playing significant roles in determining access and exclusion. The physical and social environments, characterized by segregated areas and the practice of untouchability, serves as a material context for the formulation of Dalit environmental subjectivity.

The juxtaposition reveals a poignant narrative where the intersection of environment and casteism paints a vivid portrait of disparity, where Dalits shoulder the burden of ecological degradation while elites engage in environmental pursuit highlighting the stark contrast in experiences and implications of environmentalism.  Environmental experiences of Dalits are shaped by their caste-based identities and social hierarchies, leading a unique and often challenging relationship with nature.

The shadows of India’s gleaming cities hide a horrifying truth. Dalits ostracized for generations, continue to die while cleaning the waste with their bare hands. The very act of manual scavenging, outlawed by the Manual scavenging Act 2013, continues to claim lives. A report by press trust of India revealed that over 400 manual scavengers died cleaning septic tanks and sewers between 2018 and 2023 (athawale, 2023).

 In an article in Down to earth (Isha Bhjpai,2018) claims that several deaths have been documented highlighting the persistence of the brutal practices (manual scavenging) These fatalities expose brutal realities. India’s economic engine is fueled by a thriving capitalist system, runs on the invisible labor of these marginalized communities.

We, the consumers, the privileged, the beneficiaries of this growth, remains blissfully unaware of the human cost behind functioning toilets and sanitized waste disposal systems. This exposes the fundamental contradiction within our society screaming of “environmental casteism”.

The very systems that enabled our comfortable daily routines and the fulfillment of basic needs rely upon the marginalized labor of Dalit communities. The essential work however is characterized by backbreaking toil and a constant threat of death. Consequently, Dalits are relegated to the periphery, denied the dignity and social mobility they rightfully deserve.  Environmental casteism

In the tangled skein of life, the threads of environment and caste weave together creating intricate patterns that reveal complexities of environmental casteism.

In my attempt to decode these complexities, I will try to dig deep into the interconnectedness of the threads weaving together the intersections of caste and environment. Highlighting how caste identities influence environmental practices, access to resources and the exposure to environmental injustice.

As we delve deeper into the web of environmental casteism, we must grapple with the historical injustices, power dynamics and social hierarchies that underlie this intricate weave. With this essay I aim to unravel the complexities of environmental casteism and its implications for environmental sustainability, social justice, and inclusive environmental governance.

“Where Untouched hands tend poisoned Lands”

Amita Baviskar in her article, “Between violence and desire: space, power, and identity in the making of metropolitan Delhi “narrates a true story of a young Dalit man who sought to use a toilet was beaten to death, symbolizing the deep rooted casteism and discrimination that permeates Indian Society, even in the context of environmentalism and the struggle for basic amenities like sanitation. This incident underscores the alienation and disconnect between environmental movement and the anti-caste movement, where the struggles of the marginalized communities including Dalits and Adivasis are overlooked or marginalized in the pursuit of environmental preservation.

The young man’s death serves as a symbol of the untouched hands that tend the poisoned lands, where the privileged few reaps the benefit of the environmental conservation while the marginalized bear the brunt of environmental degradation and discrimination. This incident also highlights the need to redefine environmentalism, one that centers around the experiences and the struggles of the marginalized communities and challenged the deep-rooted power dynamics that perpetuate environmental casteism.

In the article “Why Dalits dislike environmentalists” (omvedt ,1997) noted that the alienation between anti-caste movement and environmental movement where Dalits and Adivasis express frustration and hostility towards environmentalism. The struggle for access to resources and the fight against the environmental injustices are overshadowed by the preservation of the environment, perpetuating the marginalization of Dalits and Adivasis.  The silence of most environmental descriptions on equal water rights or land to the tiller is a testament to the deep-rooted power dynamics that deny marginalized communities access to resources and opportunities.

The elitist environmental movements, often dominated by upper caste individuals perpetuate another narrative that marginalizes the ecological concerns and struggles of communities like the Dalits. This perpetuation of casteism within the environmental movements is a stark reminder of the intersectionality of caste and environment justice.

Mukul Sharma’s paper, “Caste Environmental justice and intersectionality of Dalit-Black Ecologies,” highlights the parallels between the struggles of Dalits and the black communities, shedding light on the challenges faced by the marginalized communities in asserting their rights to resources and spaces. Therefore, dismantling casteism within environmental movements is crucial. Inclusive action requires recognizing the unique struggle of marginalized communities like Dalits and incorporating their ecological knowledge. Only then can we achieve true environmental justice for all.

Academic scholars like Mukul Sharma, Amita Baviskar collectively illuminate the profound disconnect between environmental movements and anti-caste struggle emphasizing the marginalization of Dalit and Adivasi’s in environmental preservation efforts Their work underscores the urgent need to redefine environmentalism centering it around the experiences of and challenges of marginalized communities there by challenging entrenched power dynamics that perpetuate environmental casteism .

The historic Mahad Satyagraha, led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, serves as a powerful symbol of the struggle emphasizing the need for access to the public water sources and the right of Dalits to reclaim their ecological spaces. However, the suffocation of Dalit ecologies within the broader environmental discourse continues to be a poignant reality. Mahad Satyagraha challenged the deeply ingrained practice of untouchability, which denied Dalits the right to use public water sources.

The satyagraha attracted around 2500 delegates, workers, and leaders from various districts of Maharashtra and Gujrat. The leaders of the movement along with the “Dalit” community members marched towards the water tank, where the access was denied to drinking water and drank water, marking a symbolic victory against the caste system. However, the victory was short lived as the local priest spread rumors about the Dalits planning to enter the temple, leading to intra community clashes and violence. Upper caste Hindu’s then conducted a purification ritual by emptying cow urine into the water tank.

This event underscores the pervasive discrimination and deep-rooted prejudice that perpetuates the marginalization and vulnerability of Dalits in the society.

 The capitalistic society, within the deep-rooted power dynamics, perpetuates the marginalization of Dalits, rendering their ecological struggles invisible. The elitest environmental movements, dominated by the upper caste individuals, only serve to further suffocate Dalit ecologies, as untouched hands are left to tend to the poisoned lands. The Mahad Satyagraha was not just a struggle for about access to drinking water, but also about asserting human rights and challenging the caste based social order.

The movement highlighted the intersectionality of caste and environment emphasizing the need to recognize caste as a central category in environmental politics. However, the intersectionality remains significant challenge in the environmental movements with Dalits and Adivasi’s disliking environmentalism due to the perception that it ignores their struggles and focuses on preserving the nature at their expense. The Tehri Dam project too is a testament of development (by infrastructure projects) at the cost of vulnerable communities (Dalits and Adivasi’s) who bore the brunt of the negative consequences be it loss of cultural identity, loss of livelihood etc.  

The challenges faced by environmental movements often stem from the leadership being predominantly upper caste (Hindu’s) who fail to understand and recognize the challenges faced by the Dalits and the Adivasis. The silence of most environmental descriptions on issues of equal water rights or land to tiller is disturbing, as it entails challenging traditions as well as current capitalist structure of domination. The lack of discussion on these issues highlights the need for a more inclusive and a nuanced approach to environmentalism that recognize the intersectionality of caste and environmental discrimination.

A prominent example of a successful Dalit movement (one that was led by Dalit Leaders) would be the “The Bhangi movement”. The movement serves as an initiative one which challenged social hierarchies, promoted equality, and empowered marginalized communities. The Dalit feminist network yet another movement in India advocates for the ecological rights of Dalit women, particularly focusing on water access and sanitation serving as a powerful example of forging “Dalit Ecologies”.

When Green meets Gold: A frayed fabric unwoven, A New song will be told

 The relationship between caste identity and environmental practices is a complex and a multifaceted issue that requires a nuanced understanding of the intersectionality of caste and environmental discrimination. Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of a free India with strong, self-reliant, sufficient, and empowered. He believed that each village would be a complete unit, with the essential services like Chamar (read cobbling), Sonar (read metalworker) provided locally. This concept while aiming for self-reliance, unintentionally reinforced the caste system by potentially restricting occupational mobility and perpetuating hereditary professions.

Modern India needs to move beyond such limitations. We require a society where individuals choose their professions based on aptitude and opportunity, not on birth. Uplifting marginalized communities and dismantling the caste system are crucial for a truly equitable and prosperous India.  

Reclaiming and revitalizing the traditional knowledge systems can be a crucial way forward for building a thriving society, even within the constraints of a capitalistic framework. Reclaiming traditional knowledge is not just preserving the past but about actively shaping a more sustainable and just future even within the existing capitalistic structure. The integration of the traditional ecological wisdom and sustainable practices with the modern scientific and technological advancements has the potential to create more equitable, resilient, and environmentally conscious development methods.

Dalit communities for instance possess a rich history of ecological knowledge and practices passed down through generations. This knowledge encompasses sustainable agricultural techniques, resources management and a deep understanding of the local environment, integrating such wisdom into modern practices can lead to a more sustainable and harmonious relationship with nature.

Promoting eco entrepreneurship among marginalized communities would be a powerful step to bridge the gap in the current capitalistic framework. By empowering Dalits and Adivasis to create sustainable businesses based on their traditional knowledge will have a trickle-down impact on the environmental consciousness, while directly impacting their economic situation.

Good intentions, like fragile threads will require a sturdy loom. Advocacy woven with legal action dismantles the rigid structures of inequality new laws with vibrant equal web of opportunities, where caste holds no sway. More new laws and rightful enforcements to these laws is needed to protect those living in the margins.  Only then we can truly weave a new social fabric, one where individual choice reigns supreme and the forgotten knowledge of the past finds a voice.

This forgotten wisdom must resurface, the long-lost ecological symphony composed by the marginalized communities. By fostering inclusive growth economic opportunities, we unlock a vibrant orchestra of diverse talents. This will be the new song of progress we yearn to conduct, contributing to the economic symphony.

It’s a future woven from “Green to Gold”, a future where the integration of Dalits isn’t just morally right, but a catalyst for a long-term economic development. Imagine the richness in this framework, testament to a society that not only thrives, but thrives together.

- Dr. Krishan Kumar & Ms. Deepti Gulati

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of any organization, institution, or individual mentioned in the text.

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