The Hidden Casteism of Climate Change Reporting in India
Climate change has, today, become one of the most dangerous challenges to life.
The quandary of equitable representation and equality of opportunity is one that has plagued India since it became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth nearly seventy years ago.
The vast expanses of the subcontinent are home to a multitude of people divided, and often times considered separate, by the mechanisms of a strapping, impenetrable caste system.
Rigidity of the Caste System
One of the oldest forms of social divisions in the world, India’s castes and sub-castes number in the tens of thousands, creating a pernicious web of exclusion, presumed superiorities and a vicious cycle of constrained opportunities from one generation to the next.
Caste has a proven track record of restricting social and economic opportunities. Since the lowest castes are also the poorest, education, healthcare and employment are perpetually harder for them to attain.
Climate change journalism has, until recently, remained largely academic and targeted, if at all, towards the urban-dwelling, relatively young middle class. As one would expect, the journalists too have belonged to the same strata of society.
Most of those who have already come across this conundrum in the national context would, perhaps, be familiar with the Cooper-Uniyal inquiry of 1996 that famously tried, and failed, to identify even a single SC or ST journalist among the top brass of the media at the time.
A former reporter with The Hindu said:
The absence of tribals and dalits within newsrooms results in a huge blind-spot for environmental journalism in India. Environmental concerns ... disproportionately affect the poor, who often tend to be on the lower end of the caste spectrum. What passes for environmental journalism in India is often bourgeoisie environmental unfortunately. Air pollution in cities matter, while 300 million Indians who cook in crammed, dark, smoke-filled kitchens don’t matter. Ultimately, it is a question of representation. Whose concerns are addressed or aired depends on who is speaking
Climate Change Conundrum
Climate change has, today, become one of the most dangerous challenges to life. While it is common knowledge that climate change has no bedfellows and affects everyone, it does so unequally.
The reality is that it’s the poorest of the poor who are affected most by climate change.
According to a report by the World Bank, the number of impoverished people in developing economies will increase from about 700 million at present, to over a billion, due to climate change.
Agriculture, which is practised primarily by the poorer communities, is heavily dependent on the weather, and unpredictable changes to weather patterns will cause a shortfall in yields, effectively rendering these communities incapable of earning their living.
Healthcare-related risks will also rise, as the prevalence of certain diseases such as malaria and diarrhea is estimated to increase due to the rise in temperature and water scarcity.
Conflicts Affecting Lives
Innumerable conflicts in the region itself, such as the inter-state dispute over the Cauvery or the international dispute over the Indus on common pool resources such as water have been aggravated, if not entirely caused, by climate change; of this, there is no doubt.
However, what gets missed amidst the flurry of political squabbles is the price that the poorest must pay.
Take, for instance, the communities that are indigenous to the hills and forests. It is the women, as is the case in most other parts of the world, who fetch water for domestic consumption at dawn every day.
When water turns scarce, these women have to travel much longer distances to reach one of the few junctions of water availability. Often, this extra distance doesn’t just take more time to cover, but traversing through the wilderness with only modest daylight is a challenge in itself.
These women then have to resort to making the travel much later in the day, with the consequence that they are now able to work fewer hours per day; in essence, the poor communities become poorer when water shortage becomes worse.
And problems like these go unnoticed until they create ripples in the local economy.
The federal government in India has afforded climate change the attention it deserves and set, for the country, ambitious climate goals while expanding on renewable energy and promising to ramp up solar and wind power.
With the recent ratification of the Paris Agreement and the deepening of ties with the US in combating global warming, Prime Minister Modi has cleared the route for India to remain a regional climate champion.
This should not, however, be misconstrued as an attempt to steer away from fossil fuels overnight.
For a country that is home to almost a fifth of the world’s population, it’s only practical to drive economic development and bring millions above the poverty line before we can shift gears into more expensive sources of energy.
For the 300 million people of India who still do not have access to electricity, fossil fuel-based power, with its terrifying consequences on health and climate, is irreplaceable, even if only for the foreseeable future.
Combating Climate Change
To better combat climate change in India, however, and to develop strategies that can be scaled across the region, it would require collaboration of a kind that the present disposition of the mainstream media may not be open to cultivate.
Adaptation strategies are frequently developed at the regional level, even autonomously, by local communities.
But these indigenous adaptation measures are rarely highlighted in national media since the communities that inculcate them belong to castes that do not get the spotlight in national dailies, especially ones in English.
The Laya Tribe Development Organisation, for example, works with Adivasi communities on challenges such as human rights, women’s empowerment and, importantly, alternative energy and climate change.
By practicing System of Rice Intensification (SRI) – which lowers water consumption and increases yields – encouraging a resurgence in the growth of millets, introducing smokeless stoves to around 6,500 Adivasi households and bringing solar lanterns to over 2,000 families in villages without grids, Laya works with the marginalised and most vulnerable, despite not having its successes documented enough.
Lova Raju Donkina, who works with Laya in Andhra Pradesh, has been implementing Decentralised Renewable Energy Options (DREO) for the tribal communities in Paderu.
The future of successful climate change adaptation in India hinges on the ability of the national media to integrate voices that have been sidelined for far too long.
It is wonderful to imagine the possibility that some of the hardest challenges that climate change might throw at us may already be fiercely battled against, perhaps even overcome, by adaptation strategies birthed in the fields, forests and deserts of our homeland.
The author is a Young India Fellow, Climate Tracker South Asia Fellow, former Campaign Leader for Teach for India and presently, a Googler. He enjoys writing on public policy but rather frequently dabbles in fiction (climate change) too.
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