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Dalit Ecologies: Unveiling the Interplay between Caste, Environment, and Identity in India

This research led by Prof. Mukul Sharma explores Dalit experiences and narratives amidst environmental challenges and social hierarchies

Mukul Sharma

4 July, 2023 | 6m read

In 1997, Gail Omvedt, a renowned sociologist and author of influential books on Dalit politics, anti-caste movements, and women’s struggles, published an article Why Dalits Dislike Environmentalists. This article shed light on the disconnect between two powerful social movements in India: the anti-caste movement and the environmental movement. During the early 2000s, several Dalits and anti-caste intellectuals, such as Kancha Ilaiah, Gopal Guru, Chandrabhan Prasad, and Goldy George, raised questions about the ecological and political paths taken by environmentalism in India. They argued that the environmental movements showed little concern for the nationalist, casteist, hegemonic social, and natural structures that prevail in the country. These served as a foundation for Mukul Sharma, Professor, Environmental Studies, Ashoka University, in developing a research interest in exploring the intricate interplay between Dalits, caste, and the environment, along with the concept of Dalit ecologies. He is also influenced by and draws upon rich academic and political work from other parts of the world that revolves around ‘Black ecologies,’ ‘Racial ecologies,’ and ‘Feminist ecologies.’ These works analyze the interrelation between race, gender, and environmentalism through an interdisciplinary lens of race and gender studies, as well as socio-political ecology.

Prof. Sharma’s research delves into the intricate and inseparable connection between caste and environment in India. It explores how Dalit experiences and narratives consistently highlight the everyday ecological challenges they face and how Dalits express their environmental experiences and aspirations. Prof. Sharma has found that nature, entwined with fear and violence, horror and hardship, bloodbath and war, makes the environmental experiences of Dalits distinctive and different. Images of the land evoke deep-seated caste anxieties related to labour, blood, and bondage. In arid regions, Dalits must often sacrifice their lives, to recharge ponds and water resources. From village to city, and temple to school, caste metaphors of pollution, impurity, and dirt permeate places and spaces, reinforcing the imaginary threats associated with the presence of Dalits.  

Prof. Sharma has extensively studied life narratives, stories and songs of agricultural and bonded labourers, as well as the writings of prominent Dalit ideologues, leaders and writers. Additionally, he has explored the myths, memories and metaphors of Dalits around nature along with their organisations and movements. Collectively, these sources shed light on Dalits’ attempts at defining themselves through heterogeneous means. For his forthcoming book Dalit Ecologies: Caste and Environment Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2024), he has conducted extensive fieldwork, interviews, and conversations in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab.

Prof. Sharma grapples with several research questions, such as how are caste hierarchies perpetuated through the exploitation of nature. What role do purity and pollution play in this context? What are the underlying principles that determine access and exclusion? Can we assign a caste to water? How do caste dynamics shape irrigation networks within villages? Furthermore, he explores why and how caste and its associated culture influence notions of pure and impure food, impacting our dietary choices and preferences. His group is also investigating how the use of animals is classified as either legitimate or illegitimate based on caste. Additionally, Prof. Sharma is also exploring how the physical and social environments, characterized by segregated areas known by different names like Chamar tola in the north, Cheri and Hulgeri in the south, and Wadas in the west of India, as well as the practice of untouchability (associated with pollution, filth, stigma, and isolation), serve as material contexts for the formation of Dalit environmental subjectivity.

By examining the dialectical relationship between caste, Dalits, and the environment, one can reassess the intersection of nature and caste as cultural carriers. Despite being an integral part of nature, humans have a significant impact on the environment.  In India, nature itself is influenced by caste, and caste has historically been ingrained in the natural order.

 Instead of disregarding caste, developing an awareness of its presence in nature can help establish a new political space for environmental struggles. By viewing Indian environmental politics through the perspectives and actions of Dalits and their diverse movements across the country, we can uncover a new ecological paradigm—an observable Dalit environmental public space—that often exists beyond the dominant discursive framework.

Dalit environmentalism is an ongoing and evolving endeavour. However, its lack of visibility can also be attributed to the dominance of upper-caste individuals who operate within the realm of secular modernity and citizenship. 

To bridge the understanding of caste, Dalits, and environmentalism, it is crucial to explore the varied ways in which individuals perceive and engage with the environment. By uncovering the hidden aspects of secular environmentalism and its implications, we can foster a deeper comprehension of the complexities surrounding caste, Dalits, and environmental activism. Over time and across different contexts, the exploration of connections between gender and the environment, race and the environment, ethnicity and culture, gender and caste, as well as class and power, has paved the way for new political opportunities. 

Through this research, Prof. Mukul Sharma aims to make a modest contribution to such ongoing efforts.

Edited by Dr Yukti Arora

Reference Articles:

Caste, Environment Justice, and Intersectionality of Dalit–Black Ecologies, Environment and Society, 13(1), 78-97

Environment Justice and Caste after Liberalisation, Economic and Political Weekly (Engage), Vol. 58, Issue 13, 1 April

Author: Mukul Sharma 

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka