Unidentified rag pickers search for recyclable material in the garbage. Photo: Dipak Shelare/Shutterstock

Marginalized Communities Bear the Brunt of Climate Change in India

Dalit Indians are among the least to blame for climate change, but being marginalized they disproportionately suffer its impacts
Dalit Indians are among the least to blame for climate change, but being marginalized they disproportionately suffer its impacts

Farmer Venkatravanna (45) owns 3 acres of land in Kolar district of Southern India’s Karnataka state. He grows capsicum and tomatoes by solely depending on borewells without any irrigation. Like him, marginalized communities bear the brunt of climate change in India. 

He is baffled by the depleting water from the borewell he dug on his land years ago. ‘When there is not enough water for crops, I buy it from other farmers,’ he says sadly.

In Kolar, the main source of irrigation are the nearly 30,000 borewells. A 2020 study found that 42% of farmers in this region believed that overexploitation of groundwater was the reason why borewells didn’t function optimally. In addition, 36% of farmers thought lack of rainfall to be the main reason and 8% stated that rainwater harvesting contributed too.

Three hours from India’s IT city of Bengaluru, lies Gowdathatagadde village, home to 1,800 people. Like Venkatravanna, 90% of these villagers belongs to the Dalit community, considered a ‘low’ caste, according to the 2011 country’s census count.

The caste system in India has determined an individual’s place in society by virtue of birth and occupation for more than 2000 years. Those on the lower end of the ancient social hierarchy including scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) constitute, respectively, 16.6% and 8.6% of the population. These groups typically take up low-income occupations and agricultural labour.  

As crop yields declined over the years in Gowdathatagadde, most villagers left the farming sector here and took up jobs as daily wage labourers in Bengaluru. Venkatravanna is one of the few people left behind.

Why? Kolar district has a semi-arid climate and no water bodies. A study declared the district perpetually drought-hit. This classification is given to districts with either 60% rainfall deficit or 33% crop loss for three weeks.

Women farmers work on a rice field. Photo: Nandalal Sarkar/Pixabay

Climate change-driven water scarcity

As a result, in addition to discrimination, climate change affects ‘low’ caste people disproportionately.

In 2017, a project led byDr M. Balasubramanian of the Institute for Social and Economic Change studied the impacts of climate on marginalized communities in four villages in Karnataka state using a household vulnerability index. 

From 305 households in Yarjanthi, Bhoovanahalli, Shiriyara and Gowdathatagadde villages, 65% acknowledged that they were highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change and in need of emergency help.

“The IPCC’s fifth assessment report evaluates vulnerability in terms of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. We did this study based on the international criteria of climate vulnerability,” said Professor Balasubramanian.

Among villages studied, 70% of the SC and STs respondents said total agricultural productivity came down in the last decade. “Agriculture production has a positive and statistically significant association with climate change,” the study said. 

One of the primary reasons for this is water scarcity. In Gowdathatagadde and Bhoovanahalli villages, at least 75% of surveyed households had insufficient water

Between 1971 and 2007, 630 mm was the lowest rainfall in Kolar region. According to the aforementioned analysis, the region dried up from 2007 to 2017. During early Karnataka monsoons in 2008, 23 mm was the lowest rainfall, while the highest in 2016 was 176 mm.

Income of marginalized groups impacted 

Venkatravanna complains: ‘State or central government officials never help. Whenever I do have water, pests attack my crop and I don’t get enough tomatoes. If all does go well, I still don’t get the right price.” 

Unable to make a profit, he took a loan of $4,646 to make ends meet. “I expect $2 for 16 kgs of tomatoes. Middlemen take huge commissions, leaving me with little,” he said.

These sentiments on low prices resonate with country-wide farmers’ protests against the new farm bills. “What else can a farmer do? We can only depend on agriculture as we have no other source of income,” Venkatravanna adds. 

Out of 181 countries, India ranks seventh on the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Due to heat stress from rising temperature, Indians may lose 5.8% of work hours or 34 million full-time jobs by 2030,  the International Labour Organization pointed out.  

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh/India-September 16, 2020: People of the Dalit community held a protest outside the HP Vidhan Sabha over exploitation, widespread caste discrimination and violence. Photo: Madan Sehgal/Shutterstock

Waste pickers and climate change

The majority of sweepers, manual scavengers and waste pickers belong to SC/ST communities. Waste picker Saira Bhanu, 30, lives opposite a slum near Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill. 

Being the sole breadwinner of a family of seven is challenging during the ongoing pandemic. Bhanu’s average income of $163 dropped by half. 

In addition, rising temperatures could further hurt the income of waste pickers like Bhanu. “High daytime temperatures and precipitation, would restrict their activity in terms of time spent collecting waste. This would have a serious adverse impact on waste pickers’ earnings,” said Dr. Samraj Sahay, an independent researcher of climate change adaptation and sustainability at the Institute of Economic Growth.

The IPCC’s fifth assessment report adopted the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP) or five scenarios to climate adaptation by 2100. Sahay takes account of how the scenarios could play out locally. “Living next to the landfill exposes waste pickers to the risk of water-borne and vector-borne diseases. In the SSP framework, the risk faced by the waste pickers would be very high under scenario three, marked by an increasing unequal society, and scenario four, which reflects major challenges to adaptation.”

Ultimately, for people like Saira and Venkatravanna to have a fair shot at life, “State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC) have to serve the needs of specific communities like the ST/SCs,” Prof Balasubramanian concludes. 

* This story has been updated on April 13th 2021 to include the most up-to-date figures