Do Dalits and Adivasis Bear the Brunt of Pollution? Uncovering the Impact
New Delhi - As the weather shifts across the country, the notorious 'pollution season' gears up to choke everyone's lungs. Delhi's Air Quality Index has already started to decline, reaching 'poor' levels. Experts predict that it will further deteriorate, as witnessed in previous years. During this period, the annual blame game among state governments in and around the NCR region will soon commence. However, what's worth noting is the population most affected and the precautions required.
Dalits and Adivasis bear the brunt of pollution. While there is no precise research correlating air pollution-related deaths with marginalized communities, the data underscores the necessity of such research. Pollution does not impact everyone uniformly; it intersects with various factors. The study of pollution and climate change requires an intersectional perspective, especially in a nation as diverse as ours.
A significant number of deaths related to air pollution occur within disadvantaged groups. According to a research paper published by the American Lung Association titled "Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution," certain groups may face higher exposure to pollution due to class bias, housing market dynamics, and land costs. The study states, "Firstly, pollution sources tend to be located near disadvantaged communities, increasing exposure to harmful pollutants."
For instance, brick kilns have become a major industry in the state of Haryana, with Jhajjar town gaining recognition for its brick production. Mukul Sharma, a Professor in the Environment Studies department at Ashoka University, discussed the situation of brick kiln workers in his 2023 article published in the Economic and Political Weekly. He noted, "Brick laborers in Jhajjar are predominantly Dalits belonging to Chamar, Dhanuk, Valmiki, Dagi, Deha, Gagra, Sansi, Khatik, Pasi, Od, and Meghwal Scheduled Castes from Jhajjar and other districts of Haryana.
Dalit laborers are also migrating from Punjab, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh for work." He added, "The majority of these kilns operate in an unregulated manner within the informal sector, employing migrant laborers. Systems of contractors, bondage, advance payments, loans, and compound interests are prevalent here. Labour exploitation and human rights violations persist in the sector. Simultaneously, the post-liberalization growth of the sector has made Dalit laborers increasingly vulnerable to temperature, heat, emissions, and climate impacts."
The study further highlights the impact of fossil fuels on the workers, stating, "The use of coal and other biomass fuels in brick kilns results in emissions of particulate matter (PM), including black carbon, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. These emissions have severe effects on health, climate, and vegetation. In recent times, high-ash, high-sulphur coal, industrial waste, and loose biomass fuels have been increasingly used in brick kilns due to higher costs and a shortage of good-quality bituminous coal, leading to new air emission challenges. In our interviews, laborers consistently reported respiratory problems, often resulting in serious illnesses such as bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, pulmonary disorders, and a lack of access to medical facilities."
Inherent Casteism in the Health Sector
Secondly, the low social status of certain groups makes them more vulnerable to health threats due to factors related to their disadvantage. According to a 2022 report by Oxfam, healthcare access remains unequal in the country. The report highlights, "Private infrastructure now accounts for nearly 62% of all of India's health infrastructure, making it crucial to assess its responsiveness to these communities. Only 4% of Adivasis and 15% of Dalits use private healthcare facilities. According to the 75th round of NSSO, out-of-pocket expenditure for inpatient care in private facilities is 524% higher than in public facilities. This is unaffordable, considering that 45.9% of Adivasis and 26.6% of Dalits are in the lowest wealth quintile."
The study also addresses the direct discrimination faced by these communities, stating, "One study found that 94% of Dalit children surveyed faced discrimination in the form of physical contact (receiving sympathetic touches while accessing healthcare), dispensing of medicines (91%), and the conduct of pathological tests (87%). Moreover, 81% of Dalit children were not given as much time as other children."
Thirdly, socio-economic status appears to be linked to greater harm from air pollution, as indicated by multiple large studies. According to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, "nearly 79% of Adivasi households and 73% of Dalit households were the most deprived among rural households in India." A study titled 'Social Disadvantage, Economic Inequality, and Life Expectancy in Nine Indian States' reveals that "Adivasis, Dalits, and Muslims have lower life expectancies compared to higher-caste Hindus. Adivasi life expectancy is more than 4 years lower, Dalit life expectancy is more than 3 years lower, and Muslim life expectancy is about 1 year lower. Economic status explains less than half of these disparities."