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Casteism and Climate Change: a deadly combination in South Asia

I’ve spoken to many people outside of South Asia about the caste system. Their understanding of it rarely goes beyond – “a social stratification based on the kind of work you do.” In reality, in many parts of India and its neighboring countries, caste is all pervasive. It dictates where you live, where you can and cannot pray, what you wear, what you own – down to what you eat and where you get your water from.

The caste hierarchy or varnas (system), is so deeply institutionalized within the country that to this day, many aspects of it remain invisible to the ones practicing it.

Caste in South Asia wears a slightly different face to racism in the West. However, it has similar implications for those marginalized by it, one of which is the increasingly disproportionate impacts of climate change.

It thrives on the politics of purity and pollution that deems the lowest caste, known as Dalits, an impure, “untouchable” section of the population. While many believe only Hindus are impacted by the caste system, casteism exists within the Christians and Muslim communities in South Asia – many of whom converted to these religions, but still bear their caste markers.

The purity politics in the caste system dictate that Dalits are not allowed to partake in upper caste rituals and services. In fact, Brahmins (highest in the caste hierarchy) were deemed so pure that they could not even clean their own shit. Enter: Dalits. They were assigned the dehumanizing task of manual scavenging, or removing human excreta from sewers, septic tanks and dry latrines, by hand, without any protective gear—a practice that continues to date.

Despite being outlawed several years ago, Dalits are still forced to rely on manual scavenging for work. The poisonous gases in sewers have taken the lives of countless manual scavengers over the years. Climate change makes it much worse.

During heatwaves, temperatures in the sewers can increase by three to 5 degrees. Oxygen levels are also reduced,  allowing noxious gasses to further trap heat. Heatwaves have increased in frequency, with 2023 expected to be a year of unprecedented heatwaves. Working conditions for  manual scavengers, or ‘safai karamcharis’ as they call themselves, will only deteriorate.

Dalits have also been systematically excluded from gaining property rights of any kind. In turn many today are landless laborers, socially and financially outcast from mainstream society. This leads to very high poverty and illiteracy rates among the community, compared to their upper-caste counterparts.

Rural Dalit communities, who are mostly engaged in agriculture, are disproportionately affected by changes in rainfall patterns, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events. They often live in low-lying areas, or on land that is prone to flooding or drought. Their limited access to education, credit, and other resources also makes it difficult for these communities to adapt to changing weather patterns, and to mitigate their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. There's little to no way for Dalits to build climate resilience, as that option has been systematically taken away from them.

For instance, when Cyclone Fani swept through the east Indian state of Odisha, affecting as many as 16 million people, it was the state’s Dalit communities that were hit hardest. And yet, they were the last to receive aid. The families living in Odisha’s villages were pushed to the region’s low-lying areas where they bore the brunt of the cyclone and had a tougher time recovering in the disaster’s aftermath.

In the South Asian context, climate justice cannot exist without the annihilation of caste.

— Anna Abraham and Prerana Narahari

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