Caste, nature and their presence in a new India

Published: April 19, 2020 12:08:54 am

According to Safai Karmachari Andolan, Dalits are forced to clean a large number of these toilets, often manually, without the accompanying improvement in sanitation infrastructure. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha/Representational)

Written by Mukul Sharma

On August 15, 2019, the Prime Minister launched the Jal Jeevan Mission to provide piped water supply to every rural household by 2024. While the operational guidelines of the programme emphasised the use of modern technology, it did not even once mention the linkages between caste and traditional or modern water supply systems in India. That too, when caste conflicts over water have become more widespread and intense. Not only water, but also land, forests, mountains, climate and commons are spaces for everyday contestations between Dalits and savarnas.

Nature is common to all. However, nature is a complex historical and social construct. Thus, village, occupation, agriculture, food, water, land, and irrigation have been important sites for imposition of hierarchies of caste, and caste economy thrives on the use of natural resources. Dalit experiences, conceptions and desires underline the ecological burden of living and working within natural caste system. Dalit have their own environmental thought — mythological, anecdotal, theoretical, and rational.

The issue of Dalit participation in, and access to, natural resources is read more as an expression of social justice and human rights, which of course it is, but it needs to be centrally recognised by the environmental movement as well. Unless the intertwining of caste and nature is seriously addressed in environmental and policy discourses, there will neither be justice for Dalits, nor for the environment.

In fact, the experience of Swachh Bharat Mission should alert us that the evasion of caste in environmental concerns can have disastrous consequences, where the increasing construction of toilets puts more burden of cleaning them on Dalit communities. The Ministry of Jal Shakti’s recent data claim that 10,28,67,271 household toilets (cumulative) have been built between 2014-2020. However, according to Safai Karmachari Andolan, Dalits are forced to clean a large number of these toilets, often manually, without the accompanying improvement in sanitation infrastructure.

Power acquired on the basis of caste and nature can be exceedingly repressive and extraordinarily episodic. Dalits of Fatehpur village in Madhya Pradesh recently bore the brunt of such brute power. On February 16, 2020, Madan Balmik was shot dead in the village because his wife and daughters went to fetch water from a public hand pump. Just 60 kilometres away from the district headquarters Shivpuri, Fatehpur has treated-untreated tap water supply available all-round the year, but only in the dominant caste homes. For 361 Dalits (20% of the village population), there are a few uncovered wells and hand pumps. Since drain water is discharged directly into these water bodies, there is only one hand pump, fit for potable water, which has been traditionally barred to Dalits. The atmosphere became tense when a Dalit woman began fetching water from that hand pump. It became further strained when “one of the daughters swilled a pot, some water splashed on a forester, who, enraged, hurled casteist slurs at them, and shot dead Madan when he reached the spot to quell tension,” narrated a report.

Like water, land issues in contemporary India continue to be determined by caste. India’s current land conflicts have been framed mostly as struggles between farmers and forest dwellers, and corporates collaborating with the State to destroy community’s life and culture. However, such understandings often elide over stark inequalities existing around the axis of caste, gender and class.

In a significant research — ‘The Politics of Caste in India’s New Land Wars’ — academics Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Siddharth Sareen and Patrik Oskarsson underscore how caste crucially matters in contemporary land conflicts. They locate the ways in which caste and land are recursively linked categories that are produced and reproduced in continuous interaction, even as multi-scalar political economies (re)shape them.

There are new avatars of caste in the development march. This ‘new casteism’ has several strands in the environmental field: (a) Renewed caste aggression to appropriate natural resources and impose notions of purity-pollution, as exemplified in Fatehpur and hundreds of such incidents in the recent past. (b) Maintaining the status quo of caste-based occupation and its conservation, which became obvious in Swachh Bharat. (c) Evading the caste question in culture, environment and development, for example, in Jal Jeevan.

We need to recognise this interlocking of caste and nature in a somewhat new colour and complexion across regions in India, and its interrelationship with a new India project.

The author is Professor of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

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