By Spogmay Ahmed, PISA Staff Assistant
To many, climate change is simply another story in the news, a phenomenon left for the experts to solve. Rather, it is a harsh reality that exploits the already existing social and political discrepancies that mark everyday affairs. In South Asian countries like India, Nepal, and Pakistan, parts of society are organized according to a caste system. This form of social order permits little mobility and subjugates those individuals comprising the lower ranks of society. To add to the institutionalized inequality that low-caste communities face every day, climate change only exacerbates their vulnerability. When natural disasters strike, these people are left homeless, defenseless, and are even exploited for their labor. With the unpredictability of climate change threatening all populations, low-caste communities are left neglected and in dire need of political attention.
The “Equality in Aid” report recently released by the International Dalit Solidarity Network analyzes the pernicious impact of caste-based discrimination on Dalits, or ‘untouchables’ at the undermost level of the caste system in South Asian countries. For example, though untouchability was outlawed in India’s 1950 constitution, discrimination against lower-class individuals persists. Without proper accountability mechanisms in place, the government cannot be sure that laws are being effectively implemented at the local level. Therefore, structural inequality leads to the marginalization of these communities. Dalits are typically landless, and the few assets they own are often not formally recognized. During times of crisis, Dalits are disposed to lose everything they have, and their untouchable status leaves them at a loss for receiving emergency aid. To add to this maltreatment, Dalits are even taken advantage of with complete disregard for the trauma they may have experienced themselves. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, for example, Dalits in India were forced to remove corpses and debris with little or no compensation received. Dalits have been denied fundamental resources, such as health care, shelter, and access to clean water. Additionally, their lack of documentation leaves them ineligible to claim their land and property rights. Priority is offered to higher-class people, while discrimination against Dalits often goes without retribution. The structural repression Dalits face as a product of their low social status is only aggravated by administrative ignorance and governmental limitations.
The report lists a number of recommendations to address the problems caused by caste-based discrimination. First, humanitarian actors must ensure that the issue is publicly recognized. To promote disaster prevention and response, they must engage directly with low-caste communities to advance their needs. Second, humanitarian actors must agree to a common approach that fosters consensus and encourages stronger response mechanisms. Last, they must support laws and policies at all administrative levels that recognize the situation of marginalized groups, advance accountability, and adequately address the effects of caste-based discrimination. These steps are fundamental to effectively tackling the social barriers low-caste communities regularly face.
Climate change has been attracting increasing attention around the world, but some of its effects have been utterly overlooked. As environmental concerns make their way onto the international stage, regional concerns need not be neglected. Inevitably, climate change impacts both developed and developing countries. It is important that these countries do not fall along dividing lines, but recognize the realities that are really at stake. Among these realities is the pending exploitation of regional, low-caste populations. Since natural disasters can strike unexpectedly, it is crucial that preparedness and response be carried out in an effective, equitable fashion.