Intersectionality and Climate Action in India
Just last month, 6000 Jenu Kuruba Adivasis were evicted from the forests of Nagarhole for Project Tiger. While the Jenu Kurubas cry foul at their forced displacement from lands that they and their ancestors have lived in for centuries, conservation authorities have cast them as encroachers who must be driven out to preserve wildlife. This is not an isolated incident; [thousands of tribals] (Down to Earth) have had their human rights violated in the name of conservation.
The Colonial 'Fortress' Model:
Such a mode of conservation comes from a colonial idea of nature as being an 'isolated' wilderness. This view of nature, termed the 'fortress model' of conservation, sees people and nature as incompatible.
The idea that nature needs to be kept pristine, and enclosed away from human intervention in order to thrive is out of touch with the lived realities of much of the world, especially the Global South.
Indigenous communities have lived in forests for centuries without depleting its biodiversity. In fact, studies show that biodiversity is highest on lands managed by indigenous communities. Indigenous lands house 80 percent of our planet's biodiversity, higher than the biodiversity present in so-called 'protected' parks and reserves. And yet, colonial structures continue to evict, threaten and inflict violence on indigenous communities, all in the name of wildlife conservation.
In 1996, more than 50,000 informal workers were displaced from the city of Delhi and lost their jobs as the courts ordered a shutdown of thousands of small-industries in the city, citing pollution concerns, ignoring that a much larger portion of Delhi's pollution is caused by the rapid rise in the number of cars on the street, owned by Delhi's well to do residents. Lake rejuvenation programs in the city of Bengaluru have labelled poor 'lower' caste groups that reside in shanties around the lake as encroachers and routinely evict them. However, encroachment on a much larger scale, which includes the city's central bus stand, several affluent apartment complexes and residential layouts, stadiums and golf courts- do not get any of the scrutiny, threats of demolition or eviction that poor groups face.
This kind of environmentalism, which overlooks the life and livelihood concerns of the poor is termed by Amita Baviskar as 'bourgeoisie environmentalism' and castigates the city's poor and vulnerable as environmental villains even though they have often contributed the least to the city's environmental problems.
The richest 1% of humans are responsible for more than [double the emissions] (Oxfam) of the poorest half of humanity. And yet, it is the poor and marginalised that are most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, and as we have seen, are also villainised routinely for problems they are not responsible for.
Several reports showcase that Dalit communities are the most affected and most vulnerable during extreme weather events, which are on the rise as the climate crisis worsens. Scarcity during extreme weather also exacerbates discrimination against Dalits, and they are likely to receive the least relief and rehabilitation during disasters. Dalit women here are doubly oppressed due to patriarchy as well as casteism. It is predominantly women that undertake the labour of gathering food, water, and firewood for the homes. In times of natural disasters, women are usually "the ones who spent hours wringing sodden towels by hand and hanging them to dry, carrying containers of water into the kitchen, bathing children in buckets". Dalit women, who have the least access to natural resources and face discrimination due to gender roles, tend to bear a disproportionate burden as resources get scarcer.
And yet, our environmental discourses have scarcely highlighted the ways that environmental issues exacerbate the discriminatory impacts of caste. Often times, environmental discourses have glorified the Indian village as a site of sustainability ignoring that it is a site of deep pain and discrimination for Dalit and other Bahujan communities. “Eco-casteism*”*** as Mukul Sharma writes in his book ‘Caste and Nature‘ is the “‘upper’-caste Brahmanical representation of nature and environment.”
Such a framework arises out of the hegemony of 'upper' castes in positions of power in the environmental movement, and lack of adequate representation of Dalits and other Bahujans in spheres of policy-making.
This hegemony dominates and delete the narratives and visions of Dalit environmentalism.
Move to Intersectionality:
As the climate crisis continues to worsen and India stands as one of the world's most vulnerable countries, environmental movements in the country must unlearn the biases that have shaped conservation work and confront the real harm they have caused. As a savarna ('upper' caste) woman deeply interested in environmental issues, I believe it becomes especially important for me not to continue to perpetuate systematic violences in my environmental activism.
Kimberly Crenshaw's framework of intersectionality has been a very useful tool to help in that journey. In its most basic sense, intersectionality sees all oppression as linked. It helps us understand how different social identities like caste, gender, class, etc overlap or 'intersect' to create different modes of discrimination or privilege. It can give us the vocabulary to speak about the differential impacts of the climate and environmental crises on different sections of the society, and thus address our efforts in a way that accommodates the needs of all, especially those who are most vulnerable.
What could our environmentalism look like if we adopted a more intersectional outlook?
For me, incorporating intersectionality in my activism started with acknowledging that I may be wrong, or rather, be operating with biases that cause harm, due to my privileged echo-chamber, and trying to step out of it through inclusion of more Dalit, indigenous and disabled perspectives. It has also included working in collaboration with, or passing on opportunities to, those who may be more directly affected by the environmental issues in question. Volunteering with, supporting and donating to environmental organisations that forefront indigenous and caste issues (like Safai Karmachari Andolan, Hasiru Dala, NCDHR, Adivasi Lives Matter, Survival International, Vettiver Collective) is also important. Supporting and amplifying campaigns by frontline indigenous or Bahujan activists against polluters and 'conservation' authorities, and questioning their illegal detainment or arrest, is also work that I know is very critical to do, and I hope to do better. I am far from infallible and my journey of intersectionality is only just beginning as I know there is still a lot of unlearning and new learning I still have to do, and I hope to continue to hold myself accountable and do the necessary work as I go ahead in my activism.
On a policy front, here are a three suggestions of what intersectional environmentalism can look like, based on the cases highlighted thus far in this article, along with links to sources to learn more:
Centering life, shelter and livelihood concerns of the poor in any efforts to tackle pollution or conserve ecology (more here)
Taking into account the specific needs of vulnerable communities like Dalits, women and the disabled, while planning disaster management strategies (more here)
We can and we should work to build an environmental movement that more just, inclusive and equitable than the one that came before us, and intersectionality is a vital tool that can help us get there.
About the author: Sanjana is a final year Master’s Student in Development Studies from IIT Madras, India. Having lived in the rapidly urbanising cities of Bengaluru and Chennai, she has and is seeing the impacts of the climate crisis all around her. Passionate about climate justice, she has been part of organizing for FridaysforFuture Karnataka over the past two years. She has also worked as a Storytelling Fellow for Our Climate Voices, and likes to share what she learns about intersectional environmental issues on her instagram @jasannadreams. In her free time, Sanjana likes to paint with watercolours, cook nourishing meals and listen to audiobooks.