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Climate Change: A Crisis Of Inequality

To address the climate crisis in ways that serve the large majority of Indians, we must tackle the age-old questions of caste, class, religion, and gender-based oppression

Illustration: Vikas Thakur
Photo: Illustration: Vikas Thakur
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In March 2021, Kolkata’s iconic newspaper, The Telegraph, informed its readers that Kendall Jenner’s go-to street-style accessory has landed in the city and is up for grabs. The reference was to the merchandise being sold at the British luxury brand store Burberry housed in Kolkata’s high-end Quest Mall. The store also stocked Burberry’s Spring/Summer 21 line, In Bloom, which was inspired by the idea of a hot British summer.

Fast forward to a hot Kolkata summer evening in April 2023. The nicely furnished and extra-cooled space in front of Burberry was the site of a sit-in by residents from Kasia Bagan, a neighbourhood located in the area behind Quest Mall. According to a report in The Washington Post, the locals were there to protest the frequent and extended power cuts they had to endure amidst the sweltering heat.

Kasia Bagan is a mixed-income Muslim-majority neighbourhood that has been a victim of “Muslim-ghettoisation” and gross neglect by the agencies responsible for provision of civic amenities. After being without power for three days, they chose to descend on Quest Mall, as its owner also owns Kolkata’s electric company. The residents, enraged by an apparent injustice, asked: If the electric company could provide uninterrupted power to the mall, why couldn’t it do that for Kasia Bagan, especially when the city experienced extreme heat and many locals were fasting for Ramadan?

The protest worked. The electric company fixed Kasia Bagan’s power supply with surprising expediency. The Kasia Bagan men celebrated by holding a cricket tournament in the neighbourhood ground lit by makeshift floodlights. Most of the women were too exhausted to celebrate, several of them seriously ill from days of taking care of household chores, including lining up twice a day for securing their family’s stock of drinking water.

Kasia Bagan’s story exemplifies the challenges India confronts in a climate-changed world. Yet, the lion’s share of India’s climate advocacy for the past 25 years has focused on international injustices.

International inequalities in the accumulated stock of greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for the current crisis are truly staggering. A handful of countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, countries of the former Soviet Union, Germany, France, Poland, Canada, and Japan, have contributed about 75 per cent of the world’s historically accumulated emissions. China alone is responsible for about 18 per cent. The rest of the world collectively contributed only seven per cent to the total GHG emissions present in the atmosphere today, out of which India has contributed about three per cent.

This year’s unprecedented heat waves made it painfully clear that extreme heat is likely to be an enduring reality for Indians.

Despite contributing a negligible share to historically accumulated GHGs, various global indices rank India among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of the ongoing climate crisis. As such, India is a victim of international injustices caused by the climate crisis. Yet, the demands for international justice do not negate the need for addressing the disproportionate distribution of climate impacts within Indian society.

This year’s unprecedented heat waves made it painfully clear that extreme heat is likely to be an enduring reality for Indians. Even though international media blamed the rapidly worsening effects of climate change, most Indians refer to extreme heat, floods, and landslides as “natural disasters.” Such normalisation of climate-related disasters obfuscates how India’s glaring inequalities concentrate the effects of these disasters on some sections of society.

The policymakers and opinion makers themselves rarely experience the kind of hardship that residents of Kasia Bagan had to endure for three days. Men within a community do not experience the kind of hardships that women do. Muslim and Dalit women bear the dual burdens of a communal, casteist and patriarchal social system. Elderly women within disadvantaged communities do not receive the type of care and attention they deserve.

The extent and nature of the effects of the climate crisis are multi-layered and vary by gender, age, caste, class, neighbourhood, and region. The complexity of the varied intersections of the climate crisis and socioeconomic factors is best captured in the idea of intersectionality. In its simplest form, intersectionality highlights the convergence of multiple forms of overt or covert discrimination and oppression rooted in the deeply entrenched social and economic structures. The deep-seated nature of intersectional injustices also determines how well we can respond to the climate crisis.

For example, traditional local water-harvesting systems, such as naulas and dharas, which channel subterranean or spring water to the surface, can aid the process of climate adaptation. These well-adorned and intricately carved outlets are a crucial source of domestic water supply in the Garhwal region. Dharas often host a shrine or a small temple and, in some cases, a dhara itself serves as a place of worship, which brings them under the guidance of casteist Hindu rituals of purity and pollution. Dalit women are subjected to water apartheid, as they are assigned separate sources of water. Young Dalit girls who are sent to collect water from naulas are often subject to sexual harassment and violence.

It has been almost 100 years since Babasaheb Ambedkar led the Mahad Satyagraha, often referred to as India’s first civil rights movement, in which 3,000 Dalits dared to confront the caste norms that forbade them from drinking from a public water tank in Mahad, Maharashtra. Yet, access to safe drinking water remains a challenge in India even today, especially for Dalits, Adivasis, and other marginalised groups.

Research from Uttarakhand and Gujarat, which we synthesise in Climate Justice in India, suggests that caste-based discrimination in access to drinking water is widespread. Such discrimination also continues under the watch of prestigious NGOs and multilateral agencies and in the workings of state government agencies responsible for emergency water supplies. Essentially, these enlightened agencies give into and normalise the casteist social order.

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The normalisation of climate change-related disasters also contributes to the obfuscation of the responsibility of policymakers. Nine years after the deadly heat waves of 2015 that killed more than 2,500 people, India wasn’t prepared any better for the heat waves this year.

The data on fatalities related to heat waves are often grossly under-reported because protocols for recording the cause of death are unclear, especially in cases where extreme heat fatally exacerbates pre-existing health problems. This year, amidst reports of more than 40,000 recorded cases of heatstroke, only 110 heat-stroke-related deaths have been reported. Medical experts believe that the percentage of fatalities is expected to be 20 to 30 per cent of heatstroke cases, which means that the data reported publicly should be scrutinised very carefully. Clearly, we need to spruce up data collection protocols to better inform policy making. Yet, systems of data collection cannot be seen in isolation from how India’s economy is organised.

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More than 80 per cent of India’s population works in the informal economy, which lacks proper systems of record keeping and accountability of employers. A very large proportion of India’s Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, and economically weak sections of society rely on outdoor labour in agriculture, mining, construction, autorickshaws, taxis, and other types of transportation services. These sectors are most directly affected by extreme heat, floods, and increasingly frequent avalanches.

The high levels of informality in all these sectors, with virtually zero record keeping, makes it extremely difficult to implement social security and insurance schemes that are the first lines of defense against socio-economic vulnerabilities that the climate crisis is exacerbating.

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The informal nature of our economy, coupled with gender, caste, class, and religion-based inequalities, makes the climate crisis an even more daunting challenge for India. Unfortunately, as the analyses we present in Climate Justice in India shows, India’s climate action plans, including those at the state and city-levels, fail to address these intersecting inequalities in any meaningful sense. The effects on SC, ST, women, and minorities are often referenced perfunctorily, without context-specific analyses or concrete policy solutions. Hyphenating SC/ST as a made-up joint category, which ignores the remarkably different context of vulnerabilities experienced by Dalits and Adivasis, betrays the casual approach that most policy documents take to these serious questions.

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Another worrying trend is the blind mimicry of policy solutions imported from Western countries. For instance, India’s 2019 Cooling Action Plan focuses mainly on building the infrastructure of air-conditioning and refrigeration, while barely mentioning the hundreds of traditional practices that people in different parts of India have developed to deal with the heat.

The normalisation of climate change-related disasters contributes to the obfuscation of the responsibility of policymakers.

Ironically, the only time the Cooling Action Plan mentions architecture is with reference to “market-architecture.” Not cool! The unprecedented nature of the climate-induced heat waves means that we cannot ignore the role of air-conditioning and refrigeration, nor can we ignore the social inequalities embedded within traditional practices mentioned above. Yet, we cannot jettison centuries of context-specific knowledge and knowhow in favour of a singular focus on energy-intensive solutions borrowed from the West.

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The entire Northeast region or ecologically vibrant Thar Desert cannot be treated as hydropower or solar factories meant to feed our hunger for “renewable energy.” Responsible development of renewables requires controlling the consumption of the wealthiest Indians and promotion of good quality public transport systems. Any attempt to air-condition our way out of the climate crisis or cynically exploit the climate crisis as a source of profit for mega corporations, will further worsen the outdoor urban heat stresses, ecological impact of renewable energy, and contribute to new social injustices.

Instead of treating our forests, pastures, and soils as stocks of carbon offsets exploited by global multinationals, we should support Adivasis and rural communities fighting to protect their forests and ecosystems. India is home to hundreds of deeply committed civil society organisations and youth climate movements.

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Policymakers must work with our world-renowned think tanks and NGOs such as the Centre for Science and Environment, Development Alternatives, Centre for Equity Studies, and Deccan Development Society, which have advocated the bolstering of water-harvesting structures, climate-resilient indigenous architecture, community resilience, and eco-friendly agriculture, in both rural and urban areas.

State governments in Tamil Nadu and Kerala have introduced policies to secure Dalit women farmers’ access to agriculture land and extend support for agroecological farming, which minimises the use of energy-intensive chemical fertilisers and makes use of nature-friendly agriculture techniques. The success of these programmes shows that a hybrid approach that integrates the goal of securing women’s land rights with the state-led efforts to promote agroecology interventions advances women’s empowerment, food sovereignty, and the broader goals of climate action and climate justice in India.

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As climate activist Disha Ravi articulated: “Climate Justice isn’t just for the rich and the white. It is a fight alongside those who are displaced; whose rivers have been poisoned; whose lands were stolen; who watch their houses get washed away every other season; and those who fight tirelessly for what are basic human rights.” To address the climate crisis in ways that serve the large majority of Indians, we must tackle the age-old questions of caste, class, religion, and gender-based oppression.

Brave activists like Hidme Markam, Suneeta Pottam, Surju Tekam, Nodeep Kaur, and Sudha Bharadwaj, who fight for ecological resilience and social dignity of the marginalised masses, should give us the strength to confront the climate crisis with humanitarian courage. We cannot tackle the climate crisis without pursuing climate justice.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'A Crisis Of Inequality')

Prakash Kashwan is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Brandeis University. He is the Editor of Climate Justice in India

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