Dalit Environmentalism

What might be the way of opposition and agitation against a social order that denies equal access to nature and the environment? The feet that bear the weight of this institutionalized structure are far from extinct. Due to the lack of agency, Dalits had to fight for dignity and consciousness in order to create an information framework and accumulate cultural resources. We often encounter environmental campaigns that include the voices of women and indigenous communities, but they often struggle to express the experiences of Dalits and their ecological roles, and their relationship with nature remains restricted within the scope of existing environmental frameworks. Furthermore, we should pause to understand and focus on this critical feature that shapes the Indian environmental paradigm and recognize Dalits as both victims and agents of opposition in environmental conflicts that go largely unnoticed, since only one facet of ecology is repeated. Dalits are largely ignored and unacknowledged.

Indian environmental paradigms and ideologies, which are often conceptualized and articulated in terms of India's golden history, frequently obscure caste and Dalit issues. A country's social structure has a major impact on the distribution/deprivation of environmental burdens/benefits. In India 'caste' is a major factor in environmental segregation. People from lower caste backgrounds, the Dalits, are denied environmental advantages and bear a disproportionate share of the emission burden. Although caste is a major factor in environmental inequality, environmental discourses in India typically neglect or undervalue this feature.

Dalit theorists, organizations, and campaigns have a broader view and criticism of environmental articulations that need to be investigated further. On the one side, contemporary environmental politics exhibit caste ignorance. On the other hand, we see Dalit perspectives on Indian environmentalism mirrored in their works, words, and protests around the world. This not only adds new dimensions to both the environment and the Dalits, but also aids in redefining core categories such as growth, modernity, culture, subsistence, and social movements.

The 'Hindu Society' is founded on hierarchy, which inevitably leads to injustice. It grants citizenship "primarily to the affluent upper castes," and the "burden of society falls most severely on the shoulders of Shudras and Dalits, who could assert few freedoms or rights."1 The fifth rank, 'Ati-Shudras' or 'outcastes,' are beyond the Varna fold and are positioned at the bottom of society owing to the tradition of 'untouchability,' which is "founded on the presumption that the lower castes will pollute the higher castes and the suspicion that members of the higher castes who have interaction with the lower castes will be spiritually damaged.”2 In comparison to Varna, the society functions at the ground level on the basis of 'castes' or 'jatis'.They do, however, derive "their ideological justification of purity-pollution, endogamy and commensality, and so on, from the varna model." Because of their polluted nature, Dalits are compelled to do menial and dirty tasks such as manual scavenging and are exposed to a slew of other discriminations.

(Ganpat Chavhan holds up the bronze badge of his father, who as village watchman got land from the colonial rulers in Achakdani, Solapur - IMAGE CREDITS: NIHAR GOKHALE)

The caste system is more than just a religious practice; it also has strong links with other social, economic, and political structures, such as kinship, power regimes, and labor relations. This paper contends that Dalits are denied fair access to natural capital in two ways: disproportionate land allocation and imposing disability to use common resources. As a result, they are helpless and are forced to work in deplorable conditions. These environmental injustices are rooted in the caste system, which is supported by Hindu scriptures that attribute pollution to the "Dalits." Water, for example, is very significant in the caste system. The majority of rituals to purify oneself from the pollutants of lower castes include the use of 'water.'

The caste system was originally based on an ancient idea of long-term sustainability. creation that disciplined society by dividing the use of natural resources services based on occupations (or castes), and created the right a societal environment in which balanced resource use patterns were encouraged to appear. 3 Dalits in India are often refused access to natural resources. As previously stated, the denial of equal access to such services occurs in two ways. First, by disproportionate land allocation, and second, by impeding the use of common resources.

Land ownership in India is based on Caste Hierarchy. It is allocated in such a manner that lower castes are denied equal access to land services. As a result, even though the Dalits make up the bulk of the agricultural economy, landlessness is extremely common among them. The key explanation for their poverty is a lack of opportunities, which leaves them dependent on the upper castes for a living and, as a result, makes it difficult for them to exercise their constitutional rights.

The area of activity under the Vrindavan Conservation Project, which began in 1991 and lasted for a decade, was skewed against people from Scheduled Caste groups such as Chamars, Balmikis, Koris, Khatiks, and Dhobis. The scheme, which was specifically aimed at restoring Vrindavan's ecology, called for the planting of trees along an 11-kilometer-long parikrama marg (pilgrim route) that encircled the area. 4 It vividly used Krishna imagery as a metaphor of environmental purity and elegance in the process to deliberately include Hindus in the activity. The project expanded its reach to include not only plantation but also nature clubs, community awareness, education, civic action, river watch, sacred grove conservation, environmental rallies and dramas, 'raslilas', and other activities like art exhibitions, prayer lectures, and shows.

The use of environmental rhetoric in the name of moral modesty was a risky venture. Their sense of identity and cultural values were not of paramount importance to them. By linking Vrindavan and Dalits, it is possible to grasp the stark reality of Dalit alienation from mainstream representations of cultures and environmental traditions. Whereas the former connotes purity and cleanliness, the latter connotes waste. This untouchability tradition is maintained, and the prevalent imagery is amplified. By virtue of his aura, the festival of the holy figure of Krishna, who is seen as an environmentalist, social and political reformer, seems to invalidate past injustices and historical subjugation of Dalits.

Similarly, a group of Dalit women farmers are battling caste, sexism, and survival against climate change in an inhospitable world, making them the most helpless residents of Tamil Nadu's Cauvery delta. They aimed to practice communal farming, financially sustaining themselves by pooling money, planting large tracts of land by growing crops, and dividing labor. In addition to the challenging difficulties posed by erratic weather patterns, it is difficult for these women to legally own property, owing to their social disadvantage.

In Tamil Nadu alone, 86 percent of Dalits are landless laborers, rendering them powerless. To lease land, women in this area must bargain with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Vanniyars, a politically powerful party, abused 15 women who were engaged in collective farming. They even obstructed the flow of rainwater and prevented them from walking across their land to meet theirs.

They are no longer fearful of the upper caste's wrath. They made a significant effort to fight back to transform unproductive pieces of land into productive ones despite unpredictable environmental patterns by adding to their share of the landscape and maintaining it for future generations, which were formerly the repositories of men in general and upper caste people in specific. Their civic leadership encouraged them to expand the collective's membership, and they are constantly engaged in developing the land in their own unique ways, which leads to a sustainable community.

Dalit perspectives criticize Indian environmentalists not only for the apparent absence of Dalit topics in mainstream Indian environmentalism, but also for the creation of an exclusive and partial environmental politics, which is frequently Brahmanical, Hindu, and nationalist, and couched in the language of "new caste" and "new traditionalism." 5 Furthermore, particularly though not explicitly couched in an environmental context, many of the Dalit campaigns, symbols, photographs, and ideas highlight the ecological sensibilities of the most marginalized and oppressed constituency.

(IMAGE CREDITS - Feminism India)

Recently, a few Dalits and anti-caste academics in India have started to challenge the ecological and political trajectories of contemporary environmentalism. Omvedt's small but significant article titled "Why Dalits Dislike Environmentalists" highlighted the alienation between two of India's most influential social movements – the anti-caste movement and the environmental movement.

Various incidents clearly demonstrate the politics of environmental access and how it relates to one's caste profession. Caste, Dalits, and the environment tend to have a dialectical relationship. Since most prevalent environmental narratives refuse to include Dalits' perspectives, their access to the environment has become a matter of ignorance and negligence. Any inch of progress made by these groups is hampered due to inefficiency and apathy on the part of government officials. There is a need for intersectional environmental awareness, which can be achieved by efficient programmes and campaigns that are less patronizing and more participatory in nature. Dalit environmentalism is not a completed or refined mission. Its relative invisibility, however, is a symbol of upper-caste habitués living in a sphere of secular modernity and citizenship.


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  2. Sharma, Mukul. (2017). Caste and Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental. Oxford University.

  3. Mukherjee, R., & Jha, S. (2016). 'Live Simply that all may Simply live': Rethinking the Environmental Paradigms through Select Dalit Autobiographies. Sociological Bulletin, 65(2), 178-190. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26368033

  4. Sharma, M. (2012). Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(23), 46-52. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23214921

  5. Sharma, M. (2017). Brahmanical Activism as Eco-Casteism: Reading the life narratives of Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh, and Liberated Dalits, 199-221. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26405017

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  8. JOSHI, D. (2011). Caste, Gender and the Rhetoric of Reform in India's Drinking Water Sector. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(18), 56-63. Retrieved April 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41152344

  9. Sharma, Mukul. (2012). Dalits and Indian environmental politics. Economic and Political Weekly. 47. 46-52.

  10. Kumar, V.M.. (2016). History of Indian Environmental Movement: A Study of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar from the Perspective of Access to Water. Contemporary Voice of Dalit. 8. 10.1177/2455328X16662371.

  11. Nayar, Pramod. (2013). Indigenous cultures and the ecology of protest: moral economy and “knowing subalternity” in Dalit and Tribal writing from India. Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 50. 291-303. 10.1080/17449855.2013.815127.

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