India can't defeat climate change without tackling social injustice

Building a just and climate-resilient future for India requires reforms which address pre-existing inequalities based on caste, class and gender.
Pooja Kishinani
Just As Well Series

Kim Stanley Robinson's landmark climate fiction novel The Ministry for the Future begins with a deadly heat wave that causes widespread disruption across northern India.

“A few years ago it would have been among the hottest wet-bulb temperatures ever recorded”, Robinson writes. “Now just a Wednesday morning.”

The fatal combination of scorching heat, high humidity and power outages leaves millions of Indians in distress, struggling to survive. Twenty million people die in just one day.

Some readers may dismiss the novel, set in the near future, as an exaggerated depiction of climate breakdown. However, The Ministry for the Future is not only a warning of where business-as-usual takes us; it is also a stark reflection of the current realities facing marginalised communities, especially in the Global South.

Climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events. Rising global temperatures are also accelerating slow onset processes such as sea level rise, glacial retreat, land and forest degradation and biodiversity loss.

India in particular will face some of the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis. The country is home to 17.8% of the world’s population, yet it accounts for 3.2% of cumulative carbon emissions. A recent study by the Overseas Development Institute estimated that India's poverty rate could increase by 3.5% by 2040 due to the impacts of climate change, amounting to 50 million more people living in poverty — clearly an injustice.

Climate impacts also threaten to reverse India's progress in raising living standards and incomes over the last three decades, and may exacerbate social and economic inequalities within a highly unequal society.

So it's no surprise that Robinson's novel speculates how India will face its myriad climate challenges and vulnerabilities; what happens here is critical for the rest of the world. Crucially, The Ministry for the Future also paints a vision of the country's potential to address the climate crisis through structural and systemic change led by grassroots movements.


Widespread destruction

India ranked seventh in the list of countries most affected by climate impacts in 2019. Severe heatwaves across northern India have disrupted the lives of millions, causing 6,500 deaths since 2010.

In other parts of the country, extreme weather events such as cyclones and flooding have also become more frequent and intense in recent years. Cyclone Amphan struck India and Bangladesh in May 2020, affecting 13 million people and causing $13 billion in damages to infrastructure and crops.

A year later, Cyclone Tauktae caused widespread destruction along the west coast of India, leading to the evacuation of more than 200,000 people across the region. Both disasters unfolded amid the coronavirus pandemic, compounding the struggles faced by several low-income and vulnerable communities.

Image: Suzanne Lawrence.

While the Indian government has taken steps to climate-proof the country's infrastructure, the immense and unequal costs arising from recent climate-related disasters underline the urgency for greater investment in climate-resilient infrastructure to mitigate future losses.

Heavy rainfall, heat waves and changes in monsoon patterns also impact the agricultural industry, which employs over 42% of India's population. Declining agricultural productivity will not only contribute to food insecurity in the country but will also increase the precarity of millions of small farmers whose livelihoods depend onthe agriculture sector.

Agricultural policy reforms have the potential to reduce negative climate impacts on livelihoods and food systems. Shifts towards agroecology offers a way to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Similarly, investments in climate smart agriculture — things like solar water pumps, community-based water management and adaptive seed varieties — can also increase the resilience of India's food system.

Adopting the lens of caste, gender and class

While these reforms can tackle the interlinked challenges of climate change, food insecurity and precarious rural livelihoods, they must also address pre-existing inequalities.

This can be best exemplified by the gender gap in India's agricultural labour force. Rural women comprise over 70% of India's agricultural workforce, responsible for producing 60-80% of the country's food, and yet they own less than 13% of land. They also lack access to institutional credit and economic resources to invest in agricultural technologies, putting them at a further disadvantage when compared to their male counterparts.

Rural women comprise over 70% of India's agricultural workforce, responsible for producing 60-80% of the country's food, and yet they own less than 13% of land.

Without reforms encompassing social disparities as well as environmental degradation, India faces catastrophic climate-induced displacement. As more Indians migrate from rural to urban areas seeking refuge from climate disasters and to seek out employment opportunities, megacities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru will face the challenge of integrating migrants while simultaneously addressing problems such as water scarcity, housing shortages and energy poverty.

We cannot address these pressing issues without adopting the lens of caste, gender and class.

Socio-economic factors mediate access to water, energy and other essential public goods. For instance, a study in 2018 documenting the multiple challenges faced by Dalit women in accessing water highlighted that not only did they bear the gendered burden of travelling long distances to fetch water (since this is considered a 'woman's responsibility') but they were also subject to verbal and physical abuse on account of their caste identity.

These examples underscore that climate change is not a 'single issue' but rather one that intersects with pre-existing inequalities based on class, gender, caste, disability and other socio-economic factors. Building a just and climate-resilient future for India requires us to reform the socio-economic and political structures that reproduce inequalities and injustice.

The dead hand of colonialism

Nobody will escape the consequences of anthropogenic climate change. But the adverse effects of the climate crisis will not be distributed equally; communities that have contributed the least to the problem are already bearing the biggest burdens of the climate crisis.

For instance, many poor coastal communities in India face significant economic and health risks due to rising sea levels. Within large Indian cities, the urban poor residing in informal settlements witness the worst impacts of flooding, and often struggle to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of such events. Without appropriate and carefully designed initiatives to insulate them from climate impacts, vulnerable groups risk being trapped in a pernicious cycle of poverty and precarity.

The climate crisis is also taking a disproportionate toll on India's indigenous population, known as Adivasis, who comprise 8.6%, or 104 million, of the country's total population. The majority of Adivasi communities live in the states of Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, and other Adivasi groups also reside in the north-eastern region of India across Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.

India's indigenous population faces climate breakdown and systemic discrimination. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As forest-dwelling communities, Adivasis have been on the frontline of the climate crisis for decades, protecting India's rapidly depleting forest cover. Adverse climate impacts such as crop failure, diminishing freshwater sources and fuelwood shortages have posed a threat to their livelihoods in recent years. In addition to these climate impacts, Adivasis also face systemic discrimination when accessing health, education and other basic services. They have been evicted from the forest territories they have lived on and protected, which is largely a consequence of conservation policies implemented during India's colonial era.

Colonial conservation models, in India and across several African and Latin American countries, framed indigenous peoples as a threat to nature, culminating in the mass extermination and displacement of indigenous communities from their ancestral lands. As Amitav Ghosh argues, European colonialism contributed to the climate emergency by erasing indigenous knowledge systems and by commodifying nature as a resource that can be conquered and exploited for endless consumption and wealth accumulation.

The impacts of colonialism are still evident in present-day India. As Ghosh aptly points out, colonial models are being replicated by the government as it pursues 'development and progress' to promote an "upper-caste, middle-class, urban vision of the world". Despite being excluded from mainstream conversations about climate and social injustice, Adivasis are on the front lines of resistance against land grabs, forest evictions and the expansion of coal mines.

Although most of us may feel disconnected from the problems facing India today, we cannot afford to look away from injustice. The plight of its marginalised and indigenous populations signify that the climate crisis cannot be understood or addressed without examining how multiple power structures — colonialism, capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy and caste hierarchy, to name just a few — intersect to reproduce climate and social injustice.

Only by mapping intersecting struggles can we truly build an international movement for climate justice.


Resistance, solidarity and system change

Confronting the climate crisis requires us to address inequalities and injustices within global, national and local contexts. In addition to rapid and sustained emissions reductions, transfer of finance and technology — like investments in renewable energy and low-carbon technologies — from high-income to low and middle-income countries will be central to mitigate the climate impacts faced by vulnerable populations.

Since the first international climate negotiations in the early 1990s, Small Island Developing States have emphasised the urgency of scaling up climate finance for adaptation (adjusting to the consequences of a warming world) and loss and damage (compensation for adverseeffects that are inevitable due to 'locked in' emissions). While progress has been made on increasing funds for adaptation and creating separate mechanisms for loss and damage, high-income countries have fallen behind on their climate finance commitments.

To be sure, India must also reduce the wealth and income gap to address the unequal distributional impacts of climate change. Policies and initiatives to tackle the climate crisis must adopt a climate justice framework to recognise the multiple disadvantages and struggles facing different communities. Marginalised communities must be included in both policymaking and wider climate conversations. As General Secretary of the All India Union of Forest Working People Roma Malik put it, national climate policies in India will remain incomplete until indigenous communities and vulnerable populations are integrated into initiatives to tackle climate change. 

To continue to live sustainably on this planet requires a rapid shift away from fossil fuels, factory farming and industrial agriculture. It requires us to patiently learn — and unlearn — how unjust systems such as capitalism, colonialism, casteism and patriarchy exacerbate the climate crisis. It demands that we examine our exploitative relationship with nature.

We are allowed to grieve the loss of ecosystems, to rage at climate inaction and injustice, and to be overwhelmed by the thought of how much lies beyond our control. But ultimately, we need courage and to create a community to resist, challenge and transform unequal power structures. As we transition from an extractive, growth-obsessed society, we need to ensure that justice is the foundation of how we organise our world. Solidarity and persistence will be fundamental in the movement for climate justice. Every voice and action matters in this movement.

Pooja Kishinani is a climate activist based in Manchester. She has recently graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. She is interested in the intersection between climate, economic, and social justice, and is keen to explore how public policy can accelerate the transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient, and inclusive cities.

Listen to our interview with Pooja and Climate Emergency Manchester activist Marion Grace here.

Feature image: Piqsels.

Pooja Kishinani
Just As Well Series

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