- ‘Climate Justice in India’ is a collection of insightful and well-researched articles by a dozen of the finest scholars and professors of environment, economic, development issues and social justice from around the world
- Edited by Prakash Kashwan and published by Cambridge University Press, the book covers a wide range of topics starting from energy democracy, the intersectionality of access to drinking water, agroecology and women’s land rights to national and state climate plans, urban policy, caste justice and environmental and climate social movements in India.
- The 288-page volume is a must-read for students, policy makers as well as activists concerned about the massive impact of climate change happening across the country.
The book, Climate Justice in India, a collection of insightful and well-researched articles by a dozen of the finest scholars and professors of environment, economic, development issues and social justice from around the world, is a must-read for students, policy makers as well as activists concerned about the massive impact of climate change across the country. It raises the question, ‘Who is impacted the most by the climate upheavals and why’?
Edited by Prakash Kashwan, associate professor of environmental studies at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, U.S. and published by Cambridge University Press, it is a unique volume that covers a wide range of topics starting from energy democracy, the intersectionality of access to drinking water, agroecology and women’s land rights to national and state climate plans, urban policy, caste justice and environmental and climate social movements in India. The book also synthesises the historical, social, economic and political roots of climate vulnerability in India and articulates a policy agenda for democratic deliberations and action.
Although the data provided and the analysis is telling, the book does not make for easy reading. It is learned and highly academic! I wish the chapters were embedded in more human stories for a wider readership. The artwork and telling poems however, lift the book.
Praneeta Mudaliar’s The House with No Windows, captures the omnipresence of caste in India. Yet, as the book points out, caste is invisible in much of the research on the environment and the climate crisis in India.
Equally telling is the poem Stage by Waharu Sonawane, a Bhil Adivasi activist and poet who co-founded the Adivasi Ekta Parishad (AEP). In the AEP events, there is a big stage but no one is seated on it; there is only a microphone reflecting AEP’s belief that everyone is equal, and anyone among the Adivasis can take centre stage while everyone else listens.
In an interview, Waharu had argued, “this is a fight between Adivasi values and Brahmanic values—not between Adivasis as persons or Brahmins as persons. It is a fight between democracy and autocracy.” India’s environment and climate justice movements would grow stronger roots by adopting such a democratic approach.
Kashwan points out in the book that the nexus of the climate crisis and socioeconomic and political inequalities are at the root of various types of climate injustices. For decades, hundreds of thousands of poor Indians have died prematurely because of high levels of air and water pollution. Annually some 2.5 million toxic air deaths are reported in India, millions are displaced by annual floods and hundreds die due to heat waves. The worst impacted are the urban poor, women, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and the marginalised, he writes.
India’s failure to plan for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed an additional 75 million people into poverty in 2020, accounting for 60 per cent of the global increase in poverty that year. Despite the economic slowdown in the wake of a hastily declared nationwide lockdown, India counted 55 new billionaires in this period.
Clashes over clean energy transitions
Failure to remedy environmental degradation and stabilise the global climate system aggravates these injustices. Around the beginning of this year, 1,500 families in Assam’s Nagaon district were fighting to regain control of 276 bighas of farmland forcibly acquired for a 15 MW solar plant. Kashwan also writes that some 150 concerned citizens maintained the land acquisition process violated the state’s land laws as well as the residents’ human rights.
As India plans to rely on the expansion of its solar and wind power to achieve its contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement, Kashwan warns of similar injustices all over the country, aggravating the prospects of land wars.
The chapter by Karnamadakala Rahul Sharma and Parth Bhatia analyse some state solar policies from the perspective of justice and democracy in India’s solar energy transition. Importantly, the authors point out that control over infrastructure is often the source of political and social power. “Energy shapes politics as much as politics shape energy”.
India has the twin challenge of expanding its energy system as well as dealing with climate mitigation. Since renewable energy (RE) can address climate mitigation as well as help tackle energy poverty, India had announced a target of 450 gigawatts (GW) of RE by 2030 as against its installed capacity of 370 GW.
Renewable energy, however, favours the private sector and lessens labour’s bargaining power. It makes it difficult to secure the democratic rights of communities being displaced by large solar parks. Justice effects, the authors point out, are not inherent to the expansion of RE. It depends on the scale, siting and ownership of RE. Preference for it over traditional sources like biomass and charcoal is, as argued in a 2017 study based in Sierra Leone, seen as an ‘elitist interpretation of modernist development ideology’.
For facilitating the democratic transition of electricity, the authors favour the involvement of elected village and urban local bodies in energy production and management.
The chapter also looks at the notified solar energy policies of different states and finds that many continue to ignore marginalised groups though there is provision for greater distribution. The most commonly identified target groups are farmers and residents of remote and rural areas who are not connected to the electricity grid. Policies suggest standalone solar pumps for farmers and other standalone solar home systems of community-level mini grids for remote locations. However, the policies fail to mention women, residents of urban informal settlements and nomadic and pastoral groups. These groups, the authors point out, can be better served by decentralised, small-scale solar units. Not all states provide proper compensation for acquiring land for solar power projects and rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced are not explicitly mentioned. West Bengal and Kerala, however, are exceptions.
The Sharma/Bhatia survey of state RE plans shows that India is reconfiguring its energy system in terms of scale, ownership and spatial spread but the push to ensure community ownership is almost completely missing from political discourse.
Vasudha Chhotray’s chapter ‘Extractive Regimes in the Coal Heartland of India’ looks at ‘just transition’ in the coal heartlands. Communities at the coal frontiers have borne the nested injustices of coal mining and energy poverty and now face an uncertain future due to the uncertain future of coal in India. Current strategies for facilitating a just transition from coal, like retaining workers or filling gaps in employment through RE development are extremely limited. “Energy transitions involve the reconfiguration of social practices and political power.”
Policies and justice – a balancing act
Arpitha Kodiveri and Rishiraj Sen, who have written the chapter titled ‘Climate Action Plan and Justice in India’, point out that India’s climate action policy fails to adequately address difficult political questions related to climate justice and rising inequality.
An analysis of state and national action plans shows that India’s engagement with climate justice issues remains superficial. During international negotiations, it has shied away from undertaking rigorous domestic climate action citing high levels of poverty and a need to focus on economic growth. It fails to adequately address the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor and marginalised. The common but differentiated (CBDR) approach at international negotiations enabled India and other developing nations to realize their energy transition faster through technology transfer and adaptation funding from the developed world but it is not followed up with efforts to reduce rising inequality.
The authors point out that to address climate vulnerabilities and climate injustice, great coordination is needed between environmental law and climate policy. An example of this could be seen in the relationship between the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 and the Green India Mission, which promotes afforestation to create carbon sinks. Afforestation efforts often marginalise forest-dependent people who are forced out of the land they have historically used and called ‘home’. These programmes, the authors state, often fail to get the consent of the gram sabha as mandated in the FRA.
The Paris Agreement has set three goals — to reduce the emission intensity by 33-35 percent by 2030, increase the share of RE in India’s energy mix to 40 percent and create additional carbon sinks by expanding forest and tree cover amounting to 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030.
With increased water scarcity and reduction in forest biomass, the impact of climate change could be particularly severe on women.
In their analysis, scrutiny of national and state action plans for climate change showed a lack of attention to caste and various forms of inequality. Reducing inequality and poverty are essential ingredients for realizing equitable climate action.
The chapters on water justice and ‘Realizing Climate Justice through Agroecology and Women’s Collective Land Rights’ touched my heart for, as a journalist, one has been reporting for decades on women’s long march for water and fuel. Women have also not got recognition for their contribution to agriculture. The ‘Water Mother’ sketch by Anupriya, of a woman with two pots on her head and a child on her hips eloquently summarizes the rural Indian mother’s struggle to provide her family with water.
Vaishnavi Behl and Kashwan tell you that though the media discusses water scarcity, it does not reflect on the gross inequalities in water distribution and this could be a major cause for perpetuating India’s water crisis. They look at how social inequalities and climate change contribute to water injustice, spelling out the discrimination in the distribution of water between the richer and poorer areas of Delhi. In the Bhalswa dairy district, water from community water sources and hand pumps is so polluted that residents have to collect water from government tankers daily.
India is ranked 120 out of 122 countries in the safe water index released in 2019 and the 13th most water-stressed among 150 countries by the World Resources Institute.
This chapter by Behl and Kashwan presents two case studies from Gujarat and Uttarakhand that show climate stresses due to caste, class and gender. Residents of Mathnaa village, Sabarkantha district, Gujarat, had historically depended on shallow dug wells for irrigation and potable water but with upper caste families sinking tube wells to extract water, shallow wells no longer had adequate water. This led to upper-caste households becoming “water lords”. Poor farmers, unable to invest in costly tube wells became dependent on them for their water, pushing them further to social and economic subordination. Even in villages where there are public stand posts to provide sufficient drinking water, caste-based discrimination leads to violent attacks on Dalits, notes the case study in the book. A study of 1589 villages in Gujarat showed that Dalits are denied access to public drinking water in 29 per cent of the villages and in 71 per cent of the villages, Dalit settlements have no public taps or wells. The Gujarat Water Supply and Sanitation Board’s unreliable operation of water tankers exposed Dalit women to increased vulnerability and harassment and increased dependence on the upper caste for employment and water.
Behl and Kashwan also write about similar instances in Uttarakhand, where, as reported in a 2011 study, perennial streams are considered sacred and Hindu rituals of purity often deny Dalits and menstruating women access to these water sources. Quoting from another 2011 study on water traditions in Uttarakhand, they state that Dharas, traditional water systems and crucial sources of domestic water in the Garhwal region are often marked by small shrines that serve as places of worship. Dalit women are often denied access to water from dharas near shrines, and, the authors write, have to collect water from a separate naula or structure and have to reuse wastewater from cleaning utensils and washing clothes. Young Dalit girls sent to collect water are subjected to sexual harassment and violence.
Clearly, justice has to be at the heart of all climate change policy making.
Banner image: People gather around a water well in Marathwada, India. Photo by Suhasajgaonkar/Wikimedia Commons.