Dalit Histories, Dalit Environments: Critical Environmental Studies for the Investigation of Power, Space and Place in the Post-Revolutionary, Secular Democratic Indian Nation-State
Human interactions with natural and built environments and conversely the natural and built environments’ impact upon humans, are both embedded in relations of unequal power in terms of access to both nature and culture. Therefore it is critically important to create, generate and utilize new and rigorous research methodologies that recognize the centrality of non-shared, distributed meanings about nature and culture within and across diverse population groups, all of whom are competing stakeholding polities in the post-revolutionary, democratic Indian nation-state. This new knowledge production will necessarily note disparities and divergences in the lifeworlds and socio-economic trajectories of caste, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, income, occupation, employment, age, locality (dis)ability and other intersecting variables of human group membership. A Critical Environmental Studies is suggested. PRO-POOR JUSTICE is the core outcome for such investigations.
Human Geography and Public History are among relatively recent transdisciplines within the social sciences which seek to study divergent and diachronic human patterns and processes within and across specific natural and built environmental contexts. Critical Environmental Studies may be furthered through these new transdisciplines.
I argue, using census data and other primary and secondary sources, that the social complexity and environmental diversity of the Indian nation-state and its prospects for continuing success as a democracy, necessitates the deployment of a constellation of research methodologies that foreground the social relations of power, oppression, subordination, inequality, inequity, exclusion and creating the necessary conditions for empowerment within and across wilderness, rural, urban and transitional environments.
Therefore a Critical Environmental Studies can foreground pro-poor justice by investigating Dalit histories, Dalit contemporary movements and Dalit environments, more broadly framed as the critical study of oppressed histories, suppressed knowledges and segregated environments, offering possibilities for research leading to public policy. The core aim of that public policy would be environmental justice for the Greater Collective Good (GCG™) of the diverse stakeholding polities of the post-revolutionary, democratic Indian nation-state.
Keywords, keyword phrases: Critical Environmental Studies, Dalits, environmental commons, Greater Collective Good, (GCG™) human geography, public history, stakeholding polities, nature, culture, inequality, oppressed histories, suppressed knowledges, segregated environments.
Dr. Chithra KarunaKaran
Presentation at CPRAF Conference on Environment & Indian History
Note: Intellectual property for unrestricted use with full and complete authorial attribution.
Critical Environmental Studies
My central thesis for this paper is: the unprecedented Gandhian post-revolutionary, secular democratic Indian nation-state urgently needs to establish Critical Environmental Studies.
Contemporary India can and must develop transformative, transdisciplinary syllabi and practical pedagogies of knowledge production that advance public awareness, consciousness-raising and understanding of local- global environmental issues and concerns that affect and are affected by multiple diverse, competing stakeholding polities of the globally positioned Indian nation-state.
Utilizing holistic, rigorous, integrative, multidisciplinary approaches that draw upon the natural sciences, social sciences and technologies, as well as developing cutting edge investigative assessments of government’s environmental policymaking and implementation (or lack thereof) at the local-global levels, our researchers, scholars, educators, students activists and citizens have the ethical, professional and public responsibility to prioritize the competing and converging environmental goals, needs and aspirations of stakeholding polities of the Indian nation-state.
First, let us consider the global. Mindless replication of western-derived environmental models, especially model(s) of predatory, so-called ‘free market”
The world cannot afford another
Second, what constitutes the local? The overarching social, political and economic meta construct of caste continues to reproduce inequalities which are being re-negotiated in the contemporary context. Therefore, equally and perhaps more dangerously, preserving and maintaining the dominant home-grown, caste-dominant status quo of knowledge production about the environment, through eco-romantic notions of an undoubtedly glorious, but blatantly unequal, environmental heritage in which the oppressed histories, suppressed knowledges and segregated environments of subordinated groups was, and continues to be made invisible or insignificant, is not a viable option in our Gandhi-Ambedkar post-revolutionary democracy.
In contrast, Critical Environmental Studies in schools and colleges and for the general public, can encourage empirical, data-centered investigation of specific environmental issues that can promote sustainability, development of alternative energies, practices and progressive policy-making by central and state governments, by paying attention to entrenched and unequal social formations in specific environmental contexts. In particular, oppressed, suppressed, excluded, underrepresented, neglected and discriminated stakeholding polities can have opportunities to self-identify and engage in educational and democratic processes that influence optimal, equitable sharing of our Environmental Commons with the core objective of advancing the Greater Collective Good (GCG).
I will now unpack each of the above-referenced, bold-faced concepts in this paper.
What is Critical Environmental Studies ?
First, let us clarify what we mean by environment and also what it is not. The environment is not a static, value-free, abstract entity. The environment is diverse, peopled, inhabited by fauna, vegetated, species-rich, resource-rich, enhanced or degraded, configured and re-configured by human agency (which includes nation-state political action) and natural forces. The environment exists as physical, material, palpable reality, infused with diverse symbolic meaning(s) by diverse groups and is constructed dynamically through natural and human agency in space over time.
Let us keep unpacking this multifaceted concept What is Environment? What are Environments? Together they constitute what I have called the Environmental Commons. What constitutes the Environmental Commons? The Environmental Commons is that shared but frequently segregated space that is the totality of air, water, land, flora, fauna and all natural and social heritage resources therein.
Environments as a plural concept, are both natural and built spaces, environments are shaped by both nature and culture and in turn shape interaction within and across multiple, diverse stakeholding polities in the post-revolutionary, democratic Indian nation-state. The environment of a SUV riding urbanite is not the same as the environment of a rickshaw puller or a cobbler even though their respectively segregated social locations and segregated environments are interactive and their environments overlap and impact each other unequally. Clearly the concepts of environment and environments are interpenetrating, intersecting and inseparable. Further, the concept of environments allows for acknowledgment and recognition of both natural and built spaces as shaped by human interaction and intervention, as having ecological specificity and differentiation of both space and place, with space as material entity and place as social location, and therefore capable of critical scientific analysis, utilizing a spectrum of disciplines, methodologies and knowledges.
The following edited narrative data set will serve to illustrate my point. Much more in-depth data collection for this narrative dataset is obviously necessary to perform an analysis that is part of Critical Environmental Studies.
Student: My name is --- (deleted for purposes of privacy and confidentiality of subjects). I study at ---(deleted for purposes of privacy and confidentiality of subjects)
Critical Environmental Studies
Study: I am in the Botany Department at …. (deleted for purposes of privacy and confidentiality of subjects)
CESM: Wow that’s really exciting. I keep discovering for myself everyday how studying environmental issues needs to be multidisciplinary in order to be rigorous. So what research project are you working on right now?
Student: I am making a taxonomy of the plants in a sacred grove in Cuddalur District in Tamil Nadu.
CESM: I’m jealous. I wish I could go there and observe and record the vegetation. BTW, you described yourself as a botany student. That is fine but it is more important to view yourself and describe yourself as a Plant Ecologist. Your work has important implications for the environment and for the historical and contemporary social relations of that ecological niche which you are calling a sacred grove, a Kovil Kadu, do you understand what I mean?
Student: Well I don’t fully understand….yes.
CESM: I want you think about that. Your role is important. Your perception of your role will shape and influence what you do, how you do your work. This is a proven finding in both cognitive psychology and cognitive sociology. So I suggest you think of yourself and talk about yourself to others as a Plant Ecologist.
CESM: So tell me more about this Kovil kadu in Cuddalur. Who are the people in the Kovil Kadu? What are their caste affiliations and what is their social and economic relationship?
Student: Well the sacred grove has two groups, Vanniyars and Naidus.
CESM: So these are the dominant castes in the sacred grove, yes? Do you know anything more about them?
Student: Yes. The Naidus moved into the area.
CESM: Caste relationships are always significant at the local level. So, the Naidus enjoy co-equal status with the Vanniyars? If you are migrating group like the Naidus in this particular example, you can always reinvent yourself as better, more important, having a glorious lineage etc. than if you stay in the same place. Caste has always had upward social mobility which is also why it has so much power.
Student: I think so. They (Vanniyars, Naidus) are equal.
CESM: If there are dominant caste groups in this particular Kovil Kadu, there’s got to be subordinated caste and outcaste groups. Who are the Dalits in the so-called sacred grove?
Student: The Dalits are allowed to go into the scared grove on special religious festivals.
CESM: First you should make a list of all the dominant and subordinated caste and outcaste groups in the Kovil Kadu. The fact that the Dalits need permission from the Naidus and the Vanniyars obviously confirms their subordinated status. The plant taxonomy of the sacred grove cannot be fully understood unless you understand the political economy of the sacred grove.
Who is the deity of the Vanniyars and the Naidus?
Student: It is a god called Agni Veeran.
CESM: Hmm Agni Veeran. A dominant, powerful god. I’m betting the Dalits have a different, inferior god. Who is the deity of the Dalits?
Student: He is called Nondy (lame) Veeran.
CESM: There you go. In other words, every Dalit adult, every Dalit child from earliest childhood all throughout their lives, in that so-called sacred grove, gets the powerful cultural caste message that they are inferior, that even their God is defective, misshapen, inferior. That is a powerful message that reproduces and affirms social inequality, using religion as a tool. You see, caste inequality is being reproduced and affirmed, today in the year 2008. That is very important.
Obviously I am not suggesting that differently abled persons are inferior. But in this data, the Dalit gets a powerful outcaste-based message of social and cultural inferiority. Do you see how social relationships shape the ecology and environment of the sacred grove, segregating it and rendering it unequal?
Student: OK, I’ll try to understand your point.
CESM: Now your job is to demonstrate, through your data, that the plant taxonomy is socially constructed. Ask yourself some critical questions to help you make sense of your data. Q.Which group(s) own the most economically valuable plants?Q. Which plants are sacred? Who made them sacred? Who controls the economic resources of the sacred grove? Keep asking questions and keep collecting data. Your project has just begun. Now you are beginning to undertake Critical Environmental Studies.
(end of edited narrative dataset)
Critical Environmental Studies therefore necessitates a multipolar, multidimensional appraisal of environment and environments.
No single discipline or field of inquiry or theory or methodology will be adequate or sufficient to capture the environmental and social complexity of the Indian nation-state and its increasing strategic interfaces with world environmental systems. The environment and environments are not private property to be exclusively appropriated by historians or sociologists or engineers or policymakers but each may contribute their specific expertise (which is admittedly narrow) to a combined and comprehensive understanding that is both critical and transformative, of current unequal access to and participation in our common environment.
Therefore, we need to develop comprehensive, dynamic and specific approaches that allow for investigation and analysis of environmental spaces, contexts, niches, localities and their related issues and concerns.
More than ever, it is important to be able to develop Critical Environmental Studies for comprehensively studying human interaction vis a vis natural and built environments in spatial-temporal contexts that are wideranging and involve the local-global nexus simultaneously. For example global climate change (now proven to be caused by human action,despite claims to the contrary, by powerful U.S. Govt. and corporate interests, ) is on one end of the spectrum and at the other end of that same spectrum, is the recent local introduction in India, of the so-called “people’s car”, the Nano, as a policy priority over grossly inadequate mass public transportation. Much has already been written and said on global climate change and it is now recognized as an existing phenomenon with immediate disastrous mid- and long term consequences for our planet. Let me instead focus on the local implications for a Critical Environmental Studies in the case of the Nano.
In Critical Environment Studies, which continually intersect the local with the global, the questions to be investigated, among others, might be:
Q. Which stakeholding polities -- urban elites, multinational corporates, politicians, consuming classes who are also the disposing classes) both global and local, demonstrated unequal power of access to nature and culture in exercising their respective options on global climate change and local transportation that favored their own narrowly defined, self-serving constituencies, not constituencies working for the Greater Collective Good?
Q. What public needs assessments and what environmental feasibility studies, if any, were conducted as a basis for formulating a policy to favor production of a particular private car, over public buses, underground mass transit and expansion of passenger rail services? No public needs assessments? Why?
Q. How did the otherwise vocal Chairperson of the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Policy on Climate Change (IPCC) who performed admirably (but without personal accountability) by telling entire nations what to do about climate change, become strangely silent, right in his own backyard, on the potential environmental impact of the Nano?
Q. Did the fact that he is employed (at an undisclosed salary as Director-General of TERI, the Energy Resources Institute, alternatively and perhaps more accurately referred to as Tata Energy Resources Institute, its forerunner) for which Tata is a primary founding corporate sponsor and multinational corporate player, prevent him from taking a proactive vocal stand for mass public transportation and against the private automobile? Was Pachauri bought by Tata so that the conglomerate could attempt to manufacture and sell the Nano?
Q.Is TERI, an institute constructed on the
Q. Which stakeholding polities of public mass transportation – office workers, agricultural laborers, farmers, children, the poor in general – were not represented, and whose stakeholding interests in mass public transportation were not taken into account?
Q. Was the decision to locate Nano production in Left-dominated
Q. What specific environmental impacts will be the consequence of a corporate-government (Tata/UPA) collusional policy decision to favor and develop private automobile transportation over public mass transportation?
The datasets and databases for investigation on the above Critical Environmental Studies topic would be: the text of the Tata Chairman’s own statements; TERI as corporate-financed think tank structural model; Singur as ecological niche; agricultural and landless stakeholders in Singur; central and local Government policy; High Court rulings; activist mass struggles; media coverage; environmental and economic feasibility of the Nano in urban and semi-urban environments; private vs. public transportation investments; and other related areas of research.
Critical Environmental Studies can study the dual impact of 1) central and state environmental policy and 2) national and multinational corporate activity, on marginal workers, landless agricultural laborers, sex trafficked women, child laborers, the disabled, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, ecological refugees, the elderly and other vulnerable groups. These vulnerable and largely voiceless groups are disproportionately and negatively impacted by both central and state environmental policy and national and multinational corporate activity No environmental study, whether historical or contemporary or both can afford to ignore the relations of unequal power between dominant and subordinated social groups who are an integral and instrumental part of the natural and built environment.
Clearly, as in the above examples, Critical Environmental Studies may make possible unflinching, rigorous independent environmental assessments based on data, not wealth and political influence, that foreground social, political and economic relations of unequal power over natural and built environments.
My mention above of narrowly defined, self-serving constituencies at both the local and global levels permits a seamless segue into a discussion of my concept of the Greater Collective Good (GCG).
What is the Greater Collective Good?
The Greater Collective Good is a quantifiable measure of a desirable outcome on any specific environmental issue. The GCG can be deployed both as a research and a policy tool.
As a specific and concrete example, to measure the Greater Collective Good, let us investigate the social location, economic marginality, ecological niche, government environmental policy implications, within a specific environment, in this case the Chennai urban environment, of a Dalit male of about 45 years, who can be readily observed in any Chennai locality, collecting discarded empty plastic Govt. of Tamil Nadu Aavin milk sachets, so that he can bring them in a large sack slung over his shoulder, to a private waste recycling business owner and be arbitrarily paid a pittance for his daily subsistence.
Critical Environmental Studies would ask the following questions as part of a research study:
Q. How many stakeholding polities are identifiable in the above-referenced data sample?
Q. Does this Dalit, knee-deep in garbage hazardous to his health represent a stakeholding polity?
Q. Who generates this trash of ever expanding volume and non-biodegradable variety, without public accountability? The urban middle class? (another stakeholding polity)
Q. What about the role of the state Govt.? Is it another identifiable stakeholding polity? It is both a producer of the waste product and a policy maker on this specific issue. Is there a conflict of interest here?
Q. What about the private recycling business owner, yet another stakeholding polity?
Q. Any other stakeholding polities that researchers may have missed? Who are they?
After identifying all the stakeholding polities on this particular environmental issue, some critical followup questions with environmental policy making implications are needed:
Q. Does the govt. whether local or national recognize this Dalit plastic trash picker as a Primary Ecologist who clearly makes a valuable contribution to the economy and the environment, or as a disposable human being whose birth and death are merely statistics for the municipal and census records and are only given lip service at election time?
Q. Does the govt. whether local or national, have a policy to subsidize this Dalit’s ecological contribution by paying his wages and meeting his socio-economic and health needs?
Q. Does the govt. have a policy to tax middle-class polities who disproportionately consume and generate waste from the product?
Q. Are there private-public partnerships that recognize their joint social responsibility since they are consumers of the abovementioned product but make no ecological contribution, in this particular example?
Therefore quantifying the Greater Collective Good as an environmental measure requires negotiating tradeoffs with competing but often socially, culturally and economically and unequal polities, but with a clear and rational data-centered, policy-specific commitment to those who are making ecological contributions (in the above-referenced case the Dalit plastic trash picker) and who gain little or no socio-economic return on their vital ecological contribution. The Greater Collective Good Measure of Environment challenges and dismantles supremacist, hierarchical caste-based ideology that is pervasive and has no empirical support when submitted to rigorous scientific methodology on protection and optimization of the environment for the benefit of ALL users.
Who and What are Stakeholding Polities?
Stakeholding polities, like all of the groups discussed in the above example, are indispensable human constituencies of the Post-Revolutionary, Democratic Indian nation-state. They are multiple, diverse, structurally unequal human collectivities with unequal access to, and participation in, both nature and culture. Stakeholding polities are assemblages of populations who inhabit multiple, diverse environments, they are groups of persons with unequal caste affiliations, distinct ethnic heritages, disparities and divergences in the lifeworlds, socio-historical and socio-economic trajectories of language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, income, employment, occupation, age, locality (dis)ability and other intersecting variables of human group membership.
In my presentation I set out to investigate the relationship between stakeholding polities and environments with the following core objective: to demonstrate that the study of environments must proceed as multidiscipline, interdiscipline and transdiscipline without privileging and valorizing any one field of inquiry such as history or environmental history.
Let me be specific -- If a scholar undertakes a study of Sacred Animals in Indian History, some critical questions must follow:
Q. Sacred to whom? Q. Made sacred by Whom? Q. What are the social consequences of sacralization? Q. Consequences of sacralization are experienced by whom? Q. If animals were/are sacralized, whose diet and socio-economic position are negatively affected, the collectivity with power over natural and cultural resources or the collectivity without power over natural and cultural resources?
Q. The historian is studying sacredness from whose perspective, the dominant or the oppressed?
Q. If history continues to be a master narrative of dominant castes and elite classes, what other disciplines and knowledges, especially oppressed and suppressed knowledges, can challenge, contest and dismantle the master narrative trajectory of history?
Such research questions and the answers they elicit may enable critical analysis of social relations of unequal power that shape both natural and built environments within and across wilderness, rural, urban and transitional spaces.
Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Public History, Human Geography, Corporates, Governments, Technologies in the Construction of Critical Environmental Studies:
I have tried to make the case above for a rigorous transdisciplinary approach to Critical Environmental Studies. I have tried to show that a natural science, example botany that generates plant taxonomies, is inextricably connected to the sociology of caste orthodoxy in a specific ecological niche example a sacred grove. Again I have illustrated above that government policy can negatively impact the most marginalized workers in my example, marginalized workers who are making ecological contributions.
Clearly the so-called free market and globalization has important implications for Critical Environmental Studies. Corporates are amassing wealth and other resources and playing an increasingly significant role in controlling and directing the Indian economy. Finally rapidly changing technologies can be deployed to advance the greater collective good or they can be manipulated by government and corporates to limit the access and participation of subordinated stakeholding polities in the environment.
Environmental History or Critical Environmental Studies?
A focus on the historical past of dominant groups, written by dominant groups, cannot logically gather evidence about subordinated groups who are present in any ecological niche or context. That account must generally be advanced by those who have membership within that subordinated group, with possible strategic allies from dominant groups. The narrative evidence of history including its sub-field, environmental history is that it is a master narrative, the narrative by dominant groups of the lifeworlds of dominant groups. In
Below, I have paraphrased existing definitions of Public History and Human Geography for their possible use in constructing Critical Environmental Studies in the Indian context.
Public History can be described as a field of inquiry in which we present and interpret history in a wide variety of dynamic venues, ranging from street performance events to festivals to museums to public television to digital libraries. Students, scholars and activists can work as archivists, manuscript curators, documentary editors, oral historians, cultural resource managers, historical interpreters and new media specialists. The extensive and growing Public History of Race, Slavery, the
“Dalits Spaces, Dalit places” might well be the subject of Public History. Such a critical focus immediately raises the possibility that Brahmin (dominant-caste spaces) and Dalit spaces have very little in common but the crucial fact is that they unequally intersect in the natural and built environment. Similarly a Public History of the Narmada Bachao Andolan would highlight compelling evidence that ecological refugees are among the most marginalized and vulnerable stakeholding polities in the in the post-revolutionary secular democratic Indian nation-state. The list of potential topics for Public History is long and in
Human Geography foregrounds humans in their natural or built physical settings; Human Geography studies humans’ relationship with those specific multiple environments as well as humans’ activities/ plans in adapting themselves to it (and adapting to other socially located humans who form part of their environment) and in transforming their environment to their needs. Human Geography may in turn be subdivided into a number of fields, such as economic geography, political geography and geopolitics (its 20th-century offshoot, social geography (including urban geography, another 20th-century ramification), environmental perception and management, geographical cartography, geographic information systems, and military geography. Historical geography (which reconstructs geographies of the past and attempts to trace the evolution of physical and cultural features) and Urban and Regional planning are considered branches of geography. The Human Geography of ecological refugees, dislocated peoples, disabled populations, and topics like water and water sharing, credit and farmer suicide, invasion, occupation and ethnic strife can be considered legitimate fields of inquiry. The role of policymakers in shaping and determining these events is equally legitimate inquiry. Because Human Geography foregrounds humans in their natural and built settings it is strongly allied in intellectual inquiry with the constructions of Public History.
Critical Environmental Studies as detailed above in this paper, studies both natural and built environments from multiple diverse intersecting perspectives that are concurrently historical and contemporary, investigating unequal power, unequal access, unequal resources, unequal social locations within and across natural and built physical spaces.
Dr. Chithra KarunaKaran
Note: Intellectual property for unrestricted use with full and complete authorial attribution. Any other use without full and complete authorial attribution shall constitute plagiarism.
Almost 50 years ago, British scientist and author C.P. Snow touched a nerve when he wrote about the split between the “Two Cultures” of academic and intellectual tradition: the scientific culture and the literary culture:
“There seems to be no place where the two cultures meet… The clashihg point of two subjects, two disciplines, two cultures — or two galaxies, as far as that goes — ought to produce creative chances. But there they are, in a vacuum, because those in the two cultures can’t talk to each other. It is bizarre how little of 20th century science has been assimilated.”
Snow argued that the condition was dangerous.
“In a time when science is determining much of our destiny, that is, whether we live or die, it is dangerous in the most practical terms… [The ‘two cultures’ gap should be closed] … for the sake of intellectual life and … for the sake of Western society living precariously rich among the poor, and for the poor who needn’t be poor if there is intelligence in the world.” These ideas resonated deeply within the academy, leading to widespread debate over the role of scientific communication (See this wiki article).
Around the same time, British scientist Jacob Brownowski made perhaps the most eloquent argument for scientific literacy and communication across cultural chasms:
“If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed. And that distance can only be closed if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not in isolated seats of power.”
Before Snow and Bronowski, the basic idea of science communication usually involved enhancement of public appreciation for the benefits of science. But after the Two Cultures debate emerged in the mainstream, a strong polarization emerged, with the scientific culture considering itself “in favour of social reform and progress through science” while literary culture was composed of ‘Luddites’ intrinsically opposed to advanced industrial society.
Ironically, this polarization occurred in the 1960s, just as Silent Spring awakened the environmental movement from the long slumber of Conservationism. Environmentalists certainly did not see themselves as opposing science and progress, but rather as advocating rational science and the precautionary principle. One does not “progress” until one is certain of the direction one is taking.
But certainly the bitter attacks on Rachel Carson by the petrochemical industry and affiliated scientists were ample evidence that reform and science were not married to the hyper-industrial vision of society.
More recently, we have observed an obvious need to understand environmental science for the apparent sake of our long term ecological survival.
Yet it is important to remember that in previous decades, despite perhaps less than dire circumstances, there seemed an urgent need to share the logic and perspectives of science, for the benefit of human values shared with the literary culture, and as a simple component of the democratic process.
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Ethical Democracy As Lived Practice