- The study edited by Prakash Kashwan of Brandeis University, is an exposé of the discrepancies between theory and practice of India’s technological solutions to the challenges of climate change.
“Climate Justice in India,” edited by the interdisciplinary social scientist of global environmental and climate change, Prakash Kashwan of Brandeis University, Massachusetts, is the first of its kind to compile a mosaic of perspectives and findings of prominent academics, activists, and artists who envision a climate-just India. It’s a rather touching account of how climate change affects the most vulnerable of the denizens who are the most socially and economically challenged.
With climate calamities like cyclones, floods, and heatwaves intensifying in India, policymakers comprehend that they can no longer push exclusively for India’s “right to development” harping on the development-climate change dichotomy and ignore the impact climate change is having on the lives of its people. Since the late 2000s, the nation has been focusing on furthering its geopolitical role in global climate negotiations appealing to industrialized nations to support India through technology, resource, and capacity transfers that will allow it to leapfrog from fossil fuel to more sustainable forms of energy. But as India became a prominent advocate to push for international climate policies it faltered when it came to making its domestic climate policies more inclusive. Furthermore, India’s bias for looking for technocratic ‘fixes’ and prioritizing private sector interest tended to worsen existing social and economic inequalities.
While Indian policymakers have been fixated on technological solutions that demand big investment and large-scale infrastructure building, the agenda to adapt and respond to climate change-related risks to food, shelter, health services, and local jobs has fallen by the wayside.
This book’s primary motivation is to address this justice gap between the communities of climate scholarship research, policy, and activism, essentially between theory and practice.
The chapters unpack justice debates in specific policy areas discussing a wide range of topics including energy democracy, intersectionality of access to drinking water, agroecology and women’s land rights, caste justice, and India’s prominent environmental and climate movements.
As renewable energy projects grab eyeballs in India this unique volume asks the prickly question of whether these projects are truly going to benefit the local population who are most affected by the projects and if they don’t, why were these resource-heavy projects approved in the first place without taking into account the lived-in experiences of the locals.
The book tries to establish how climate justice is ultimately social justice and that climate change mitigation should not be a top-down process but a more inclusive one, that it cannot be meted out by isolating it from other social security concerns that plague the Indian society.
It is a critique of middle-class environmentalism and urban climate planning as discussed by Eric Chu and Kavya Michael in an early chapter. Starting from the 1990s the top-down focus on growing gated communities for high earners, pushing the urban poor (working in the unorganized sector) to the peripheries outside the ambit of urban planning worsened inequality, creating cities like Hyderabad also known as a “fragmented metropolitan.”
Karnamadakala Rahul Sharma and Parth Bhatia while discussing India’s solar energy transition explain how control over energy infrastructure in India is very political leading to unequal electricity access. Now that India is in the process of reconfiguring its energy system at a brisk pace, the implementation is still lacking in terms of community ownership and control.
Vasudha Chhotray in a chapter unwraps how a key element of the political discourse around coal extraction is the silencing of any critical opposition to the ruling regime. Every political party that came to power is to be blamed for allowing backdoor corporate entry into environmentally sensitive regions. Historically, anti-tribal models of extractive development have been continued by all governments. This ties back to Sharma and Bhatia’s chapter exposing how during the transition to renewable energy there is a further possibility of revictimization. Currently, there seems no strategy in place to retain coal workers or to fill employment gaps for them while transitioning from coal to renewable energy.
While the contribution of colonialism and imperial expropriation to the unfurling climate crisis has been well documented on a global scale, the attention should turn to more domestic structural elements that have played a crucial role in shaping environmental inequities in India. Srilata Sircar discusses in an insightful chapter how an individual’s contribution to the climate crisis and exposure to its effects are related closely to one’s caste location in Indian society. She goes as far as claiming that climate justice is caste justice. Her discussion takes us back to Chu and Michael’s examination of urban climate justice. The chic, smart city satellite towns developing around the country are choosing green and clean and often displacing slums which are dismissed as being unsanitary and illegal.
The inhabitants of the slums are the mobile, informal workforce that urban India is dependent on and comprises mainly of the deprived caste groups—Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes. The subaltern caste groups migrated to urban areas because of the absence of land rights, lack of security of tenure, and stagnant agricultural wages in the rural districts—in search of informal employment which is all they can aim for given their lack of formal education.
Now in the name of striving for a clean environment, Public Interest Litigations have become a weapon in the hands of elite, urban residents to displace these subaltern slum inhabitants from urban spaces.
Additionally, the two celebrated country-wide campaigns—Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Smart City Mission also don’t dwell on the deep-rooted role of caste in sanitation work in India and share no substantial vision in rehabilitating workers stuck in this line of work.
The chapter by Vaishnavi Bahl and Prakash Kashwan further discusses the glaring inequalities in access to drinking water along the axes of class, caste, and gender. Perennial streams considered sacred on religious grounds limit their accessibility to Dalits and menstruating women. This affects the climate-vulnerable states like Gujarat and Uttaranchal the most.
The triumph of this book lies in its proficiency in extracting the climate change discussion from sterile, technological solutions that appear too simplistic and resolutely assessing the barriers and constituents of a just approach to climate change. It critiques governmental policies that are investing heavily in technology-driven solutions instead of investing in building civic capacities and ecological resilience. It highlights frugal innovations by local governments and firms that have proved far more effective in dealing with climate uncertainties.
For example, Ashlesha Khadse and Kavita Srinivasan in their chapter examine cases from Kerala and Tamil Nadu to show how women farmers’ models of agroecological farming have given more visibility and benefits to vulnerable women by converting them from laborers to cultivators.
The book is a reminder to policymakers and activists that climate justice cannot be understood and addressed in scholarly silos. Laws and implementation of climate policies, therefore, should take into consideration different sectors of the society and economy and focus on adaptation and community-level vulnerability reduction. This means at the national level, there is a need to recalibrate the climate change agenda along its human dimensions, focusing on its implications for housing, food security, water, health, and livelihood.
The playful inclusion of art and poetry adds a welcome lightness to the heavy material discussed. Perhaps a few human stories could have added a personal dimension and made the topics more relatable but there can always follow a second volume connecting individual stories to the big picture discussion.
A dense read, with plenty of technical jargon and information fit to fill two volumes, the book demands concentration and background information mining while getting through the chapters but each chapter is inspirational and sows seeds of numerous future interdisciplinary and intersectional research endeavors. It is a treasure trove and the perfect reference book for researchers, activists, and policymakers who want to change the climate justice conversation to a more inclusive one.
Climate Justice in India
Edited by Prakash Kashwan
Cambridge University Press (September 30, 2023)
(Top photo, Walk for Land Rights, Chambal, India, 2009, Ekta Parishad CC BY SA 3.0. Inset, book cover)
Sreya Sarkar is a public policy analyst based out of Boston.