Caste, Climate (In)justice, and the Dalit Distress - MHI




Caste, Climate (In)justice,
and the Dalit Distress

How Unjustified Processes
Create Barriers to Accessing Public Resources

Prashant Ingole and Camellia Biswas


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.


The oppressive nature of the Indian social order continues to keep marginalised masses at the margins. The unequal distribution of resources has strengthened inequality in terms of accessibility of land, water, air, and other important spaces. This piece aims to discuss the distress and psychosocial impacts on the marginalised masses in general and the Dalit masses in particular, in relation to climate (in)justice. In addition, it will also reflect on the difference in reading the lived reality through the marginal as well as the anti-caste lens in context to the mainstream approach to climate justice.

An important study on the effects of climate change indicates that vulnerability and injustice are interrelated and are context-dependent. They are unevenly distributed within and among groups and individuals from socially-disadvantaged communities. Marginalised communities with pre-existing chronic health disorders, low socioeconomic status, and children living on the margins are especially susceptible to the health effects of climate change and may have a limited capacity to adapt. Frequently, these groups lack the social and financial resiliency required to adapt, manage, and recover from new environmental dangers or climate stress. The conventional emphasis on physical health can and should be expanded to include mental health and wellness.

Climate justice is a subset of environmental justice. It explores the relationship between race, ethnicity, caste, class, and gender with regard to the burden of environmental degradation and the dangers connected with technological progress. The climate justice movement, in general, should have been inclusive as it impacts all sections of society, but as our consciousness gets constructed through the hierarchical social order, thereby one would be able to see that our fight for environmental rights is different, our needs are different, and our demands are different. Bramka Jafino, Jan Kawakkel, and Behnam Taebi in their work on procedural justice and climate change elaborate that procedural justice and distributional justice are two fundamental facets of climate justice. Procedural justice guarantees democratic decision-making that includes the opinions of all individuals affected by climate change. Distributional justice ensures that the costs and benefits of tackling the problem of climate change are spread equitably and in accordance with responsibility and capacity. If we see roughly, as Suraj Yengde mentions in his book Caste Matters (2019) – “casteism touches 1.35 billion people. It affects 1 billion people. It affects 800 million people badly. It enslaves the human dignity of 500 million people.” 

The burden of the social order

If one looks at the structure of any village in India, one would see that houses of people from lower caste communities are mostly situated at the end of the village, at the margin. It is also a place where garbage and dirt from the upper caste people’s houses is thrown, and without any other option, the lower caste communities will have to bear the burden of the unbearable smell and the dirt. Similarly, if you look at the jhopadpatti (slum) areas in the cities, they are also places where mostly marginalised people are settled. These areas are generally located near the garbage dumping depot, railway lines, and also factories. There is not much difference between village life and city life for the Dalits and the marginalised masses. The only difference that can be noticed after the migration is that these people can bypass the bonded labour systemic exploitation which still persists in many forms in many villages, and can somehow survive in the cities by doing daily wage labour.

Living through unjustified processes

The everyday reality of caste-inflicted distress remains the same, with an additional burden of class through which the waste from the dominant community houses is thrown near the slum areas. The undignified work and undignified lifestyle factor in at the psychosocial level, which becomes a reason for the creation of distress among the Dalits and the marginalised people. What is common between these spaces is that there is a clear structure of caste and class through which climate injustice is inflicted in various ways. Along with these psychosocial factors, the lack of education, unemployment, an unguaranteed daily wage system, and the consumption of a polluted environment adds to the unjustified processes. The Dalit distress has become mundane, it has also become normalised. Climate (in)justice for the Dalits is not an isolated matter but what impacts the mental and physical health of the community at large.
What we have understood so far is that caste is a major indicator of any kind of affect and effect on, and progress and regress of any community in India. It is also a major barrier in terms of equal access to resources. Mukul Sharma mentions that “while the operational guidelines of the programme (Jal Jeevan Mission, 2024) 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.” Taking a cue from Sharma, Dalit resistance many times is read as a social justice movement but we believe it is a superficial way of looking at the Dalit experiences. To understand the Dalit life, a cross-cultural psychological analysis might be an important approach – the ways in which the distress and psychosocial factors impact the Dalit livelihood inflicted by the upper caste society. What is a more important indicator along with the caste is the Dalit distress that can be added to understand the Dalit socio-cultural aspect, through which discriminatory practices are imposed by the superior castes, and that segregates the lower caste communities from the public access at large.

Concluding remark

We need deliberate efforts to meaningfully integrate the views of marginalised people to avoid individualising and normalising environmental and climate impacts, and to focus on the social and political causes of environmental and climate change. We must facilitate, mobilise, and agitate; hold not only policy-makers, polluting industry, and governments accountable but also the caste system which has created these fissures of injustice. Voices of the oppressed and the marginalised communities against their environmental discrimination are not heard. In order to do so, we must de-centralise the power because doing justice differs when one has unequal rights. The mainstream policy-makers need to change their perspective in looking at the climate justice movement; it should have an inclusive approach.

Cite this Article View all References


  • Ingle, Harriet E., and Michael Mikulewicz. Mental Health and Climate Change: Tackling Invisible Injustice. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4.4. 2020. e128-e130.
  • Jafino, Bramka Arga, Jan H. Kwakkel, and Behnam Taebi. Enabling assessment of distributive justice through models for climate change planning: A review of recent advances and a research agenda. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 12.4. 2021. e721.
  • Sharma, Mukul. Caste, Nature and Their Presence in New India. The Indian Express. 19 April 2020. 
  • Yengde, Suraj. Caste matters. New Delhi: Penguin Random House India Private Limited. 2019.



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