Updated: Jun 15
The relationship between climate change, caste, class and gender is intertwined and women hold the empty cup
In India, systemic oppression exists in many forms, and climate change hasn’t made life any easier for oppressed communities. The caste system, which is built on the concept of exclusion and the restriction of social and economic opportunities across generations, means that people from lower castes not only have restricted access to education, healthcare and employment but also face widespread discrimination. With the increase in the detrimental impacts of climate change over the past decade, the discrimination and constrained opportunities faced by lower caste people have only worsened. Women, too, are at a greater disadvantage in society, with reports that about 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women. This is compounded by the fact that existing structures do not allow for women to gain easy access to independent livelihoods, or for them to mobilise out of poverty. This article highlights some of the injustices faced by lower caste people and women, how climate change exacerbates these issues, and some ways in which the people have fought back to try and overcome these issues.
The increased frequency and intensity of climate-change-related disasters have led to wide-scale droughts and depleted water resources, making India home to 163 million people - one of the highest populations in the world - with no access to clean water. A large part of this population comprises people from lower castes, who are oppressed and denied access to clean water. They are denied access to water sources in 48.4% of villages because of segregation and untouchability practices, and over 20% of Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water.
In the Chunni village of Uttarakhand, it was found that while upper castes celebrated an abundant supply of water and paraded their status as ‘water lords’, Dalits living in the same village were denied access to the freshwater underground wells. They faced extreme water scarcity, were unable to bathe after long summer work hours, and were forced to feed the farm animals dirty water left over from washing vessels. In 2019, the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh faced severe water shortages, with taps and hand pumps running dry. Water tankers that were hired to supply water to homes were for the exclusive use of the upper caste Brahmins and Thakurs. Those living on the Dalit basis were not allowed to access the tankers and were even beaten up for trying to use the hand pumps and tankers that were reserved for the exclusive use of the upper castes.
In a village in Gujarat, separate water tanks meant only for the use of Dalits are placed at a distance from the village. These water tanks are specifically placed to prevent water from flowing backwards into the main well, in order to prevent the water from getting “polluted”. It is common for lower caste hamlets to be situated at a distance from the central village, forcing these communities to travel long distances to fetch water, ultimately reducing their supply.
Within these oppressive structures, it is often the duty of the women (and most often, young girls) of these communities to head out and collect water for domestic purposes. These women are forced to walk long distances, cutting into their work hours and making them more exposed to instances of physical violence. As a result, many girls are forced to drop their education to instead shoulder household responsibilities.
Dalits and Dalit women in particular lack access to resources that could help them get justice. In addition to being economically dependent, their social exclusion, vulnerability, and lack of political representation leave them disenfranchised. This highly reduces their chances of ever mobilising out of poverty. To address the problem of water inequity, excluded groups need to be encouraged and given the opportunities to participate in water management policies. However, this alone is not enough, as systemic and historically embedded social inequalities also need to be tackled from the root.
Collective Farming by Dalit Women in Tamil Nadu
Dalit women farmers of the Cauvery Delta of Tamil Nadu, which is predicted to be underwater in less than 30 years, have turned to the practice of collective farming to survive. They have started grassroots farmer-led efforts to pool their resources and labour for mutual benefit. Their system acts as a financial and emotional safeguard against increasingly unpredictable climate conditions.
The produce from these farms is sold collectively, equipping the farmers with financial independence as well as decreasing their production costs. Formerly vulnerable Dalit women farmers can now save both money and food, providing them with economic and food security. Additionally, these women are no longer dependent on landowners for employment. Despite this, it is still difficult for Dalits to own property, with 86% of Dalit farmers in Tamil Nadu working as landless labourers. Landless women in Tamil Nadu depend on local NGOs to help negotiate for land and to help train them in farming techniques.
(Also Read: Death in Debt: Underpaid Women at Work)
In a village called Thiruvanaikoil in northeast Tamil Nadu, a group of Dalits, widows, and abandoned women has consistently been turning in a profit through collective farming since 2013. With a strong irrigation system in place, they are able to cultivate a variety of crops and are focused on preserving the health of the land and the community for future generations. These women are also embracing the term ‘farmer’, which has traditionally only been associated with men, for the first time.
Despite these empowering “success” stories, it is important to note that these women still go through immense struggles that are exacerbated by climate change, and their struggles will only continue to grow with the climate crisis. Even in cases like this, Dalits and Dalit women face the hurdles of oppression every step of the way, with upper-caste landowners even taking credit for the work done by Dalit women in converting barren land into fertile and cultivatable land. The local system of collective farming will only be sustainable if the root issues of climate change, casteism and sexism are addressed and actively tackled.
(Also Read: India needs feminist agriculture)
The tangled relationship between caste, class, gender and climate change in India needs to be looked at not only as a climate change issue but as a human rights issue as well. An inclusive framework of climate policy that takes into consideration workers’ rights, land use, and whether or not local communities are being affected or displaced should be implemented. Funds will have to be diverted into investing in climate infrastructure, building climate resilience, and ensuring that safety nets for the poor are provided. A transition to environmental justice would mean taking measures to dismantle oppressive structures like the caste system and the patriarchy alongside tackling climate change.
The anti-caste movement in India is an old and ongoing struggle, intersecting with all kinds of other issues like gender inequality and environmental issues. Here are some resources that will help those interested learn more about the movement and the people who are at the forefront of it:
The All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) is run by Dalit and Adivasi women and fights for Forest and Tribal rights.
You can read about Adivasi activists who fight for the environment here.
To learn more about the fight for Dalit rights you can check out the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.
To stay updated about caste issues and learn what you can do to help, you can follow these accounts on Twitter: Dalit Women Fight, Kiruba Munuswamy, Beena Pallical, Cynthia Stephen, Yashica Dutt, and Meena Kandasamy.
(Also Read: The State of Indian Female Manual Scavengers in 2022)
AR5 Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change — IPCC. (2014).
Environmental Justice | US EPA. (2021). https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice
Khabar Lahariya. (2019). Caste Discrimination in UP’s Bundelkhand is Worsening the Water Woes of Dalits.
Pandey, K., & Sengupta, R. (2018). 19% of world’s people without access to clean water live in India.
Kolachalam, N. (2019). These Indian Women Are Fighting Back Against Caste, the Patriarchy, and Climate Change.
Climate Change and Gendered Vulnerabilities: Accounting for Women and Patriarchal Systems in Climate Governance Policy. (2020). Economic and Political Weekly
Poverty Overview. (2021). World Bank