Understanding The Impact Of Climate Change On Dalits And Marginalised Communities Harder
Drawing from the global debate between the developed and developing countries over their share in carbon emissions, it can be argued that the dominant communities contribute heavily to the environmental degradation. In contrast, the marginalised ones are affected severely by that degradation.
The recent deaths of more than 140 people in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar due to the sweltering heatwave have shocked the entire country. Due of the tropical location of the country, India has always had heatwaves, but, in recent times due to climate change, they have become more intense and unbearable, breaking all the previous records.
In the recent scenario, heatwaves claimed around 100 lives in UP and more than 40 in Bihar as the temperature in these two Indian states soared to 45-47℃. Climate change has shown its signs in different forms: such as unseasonal rains, inundations, extreme temperatures, among many other phenomenons. It has affected the lives of everyone, but the question remains: has it affected everyone similarly?
In order to explore this in the context of India, we need to revisit the historical background of the exposure of different communities to nature. Dalits and tribals are inextricably associated with nature and are reliant on it. When adverse situations arise, they are hit hard. Several Dalit writers have described this proximity to nature in their autobiographies. Bama, who has written ‘Karakku’ in Tamil, talks about how every aspect of the Dalit life is connected with nature; however, “our society is divided between those who toil and those who sit down and feast”. In a similar vein, it is relevant to mention Om Prakash Valmiki when he writes that “while the resources of nature were allocated to the upper caste, the wrath of nature affected the lower caste the most”.
In the Dalit narratives, the theme of the dominance of the upper castes on the environmental resources emerges again and again, which makes many of them link ecological exploitation with social exploitation. In other words, the exploitation of Dalits in the social sphere extends to the natural sphere as well. Smita Jha and Riya Mukherjee, in their paper ‘Live Simply that all may Simply Live’: Rethinking the Environmental Paradigms through Select Dalit Autobiographies’, while drawing from the works of Malaggati and Kamble have remarked that just like the social setup, nature was also casteised by the upper castes. Because wherever nature was present, it was supposed to be a resource pool of the upper castes, and hence Dalits were barred from adequately using nature.
Interestingly, Aravind Malagatti in his work Government Brahmana brings the concept of sanctimonious and non-sanctimonious wherein he tried to portray how some parts of the natural resources were castesied as sanctimonious meant only for the upper castes while others were categorized as non-sanctimonious meant for the Dalits and the people of the lower castes.
According to a study by the London-based think tank Overseas Development Institute in 2021, heatwaves are becoming more common and severe, with many cities reporting temperatures above 48°C in recent years.
“Heavy rain events have increased threefold since 1950, but total precipitation is declining: a billion people in India currently face severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year. Rising sea levels are also creating risks as a third of India’s population live along the coast, while the north Indian Ocean has risen by an average of 3.2 mm per year over the last two decades,” says the think tank.
Additionally, this report also helps us understand the extent to which marginalised communities are at risk from climate change. The report finds: “Sustained high temperatures have a greater impact on those who depend on manual outdoor work or live in crowded, poorly ventilated homes. Floods, storm surges and cyclones cause the most devastation in densely settled, low-income communities that lack risk-reducing infrastructure. According to a study, declining agricultural productivity and rising cereal prices could increase India’s national poverty rate by 3.5 per cent by 2040 compared to a zero-warming scenario; this would mean an additional 50 million poor people that year.”
Besides, heatwaves also affect women and young girls disproportionately as they are required to fetch water in many regions of India. As in the extreme summers, the closer water bodies dry up; they have to go further to get the water. People who are already marginalised are impacted much by the heatwaves. For example, farm labourers have to bear much because they don’t have enough resources to tackle the heat and street vendors in the urban areas also have the same fate because of their vulnerable situations.
Due to the climate change-induced heatwaves, water has become an important commodity to tackle it. The government in Uttar Pradesh had also issued directions to arrange the water supply at several locations. This scramble for water reminds me of the struggle of the Dalit and tribal communities to access clean water. In the writings of Dalit writers, water emerges as an important theme. However, in the mainstream discourse on environmentalism and climate change, this struggle of the Dalit community gets neglected. Ravi Kumar, in his work, asserts Dr. B.R. Ambedkar led the first environmental movement in India for accessing drinking water in the form of Mahad Satyagraha in 1927. Mahad Satyagraha became a watershed moment in the environmental history of the country which ensured access to clean water to the large mass of the country.
In contemporary times, due to the consequences of climate change, clean water bodies are getting scarce and polluted, which in a way, tremendously impacts the life of communities dependent directly on nature. In the region of Jharkhand, because of the unabated mining, the life of the tribal people living nearby has been affected severely. Water has turned undrinkable, the soil is cracking, and the air is infested with dust, among many other problems.
Through the discourse on climate change, one thing that also appears large is the intensity with which people from the different strata of Indian society pollute the environment. Drawing from the global debate between the developed and developing countries over their share in carbon emissions, it can be argued that the dominant communities contribute heavily to the environmental degradation. In contrast, the marginalised ones are affected severely by that degradation.
In the words of Mukul Sharma, there is “caste blindness in the mainstream environmental politics”. Dalits get hidden under the broader rubric of poor and marginalised. However, he stresses that the entanglement of Dalits with nature is very unique and deserves special attention. The broader rubric of climate change is a reality and there is no denial of that, but at the same time, the impact of climate change also differs with communities. The need of the hour is to address the specific situations of different communities by taking into consideration the intensity of vulnerability of different groups of people. Because the marginalised communities are the ones that are directly reliant on nature, and when nature does not behave in the way it is supposed to, they are significantly affected.
(Mohit Singh is a student of at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. Views expressed are personal.)
Courtesy : Outlook India
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