Subject: Why dalits dislike enviromentalists 

> Tuesday, June 24, 1997
> SECTION: Opinion
>               Why Dalits dislike environmentalists
>               Date: 24-06-1997 :: Pg: 12 :: Col: c
>               By Gail Omvedt
>               There is an alienation between two of the most powerful
>               social movements in India - the anti-caste movement and
>               the environmental movement. The reasons for this have to
>               be analysed seriously.
>               THAT Dalits (Adivasis and others) dislike
>               environmentalism is a fairly well- known but little
>               discussed fact. It was first brought home to me at a
>               large NGO conference, when several Dalit activists
>               stated defiantly, ``we should go into their cities and
>               pollute them.''
>               Similar sentiments have been heard from Adivasis: ``if
>               you like the forests so much, why don't you come and
>               live here and give us your city flats?'' There is in
>               fact an alienation between two of the most powerful
>               social movements in India - the anti-caste movement and
>               the environmental movement - that has to be seriously
>               analysed.
>               Last year in Orissa, where I have been employed by a
>               Dalit/Adivasi-oriented and rather chaotically run NGO,
>               NISWASS (it not only has village level developmental
>               work, but also BSW and MSW social work courses), I saw
>               more of this. Coming to Bhubaneswar, I had quite
>               naturally wanted to see the nearby Lake Chilka, famous
>               in movement circles for struggles against Tata-
>               sponsored prawn cultivation. I did not quite anticipate
>               the indifference, if not hostility to the cause in
>               NISWASS circles, but nevertheless we got the use of an
>               institution vehicle and organised a one-day visit to
>               three fishing communities, with both our main guides
>               being local Dalits.
>               The visit itself was quite interesting - the people
>               described not simply their battle with the Tatas, now
>               long gone, but even more their problems with ongoing
>               government restrictions about where they could live,
>               where they could fish; they complained about
>               ``outsiders'' coming in to seize fishing rights, and
>               expressed an urge for their earlier freedoms before not
>               only companies and encroachers but before the top-down
>               government cooperatives had come into their lives.
>               Fishing communities in Orissa, as in Bengal, are
>               classified as ``Scheduled Castes'' and I had been told
>               by Bengali friends that theirs was indeed a ``Dalit
>               struggle.'' In Chilka itself, at least one vocal
>               spokesman identified himself as ``Dalit.''
>               It was only later, in discussions with a NISWASS leader,
>               that this identity became problematised: ``They only got
>               themselves included in the SC list recently. Don't worry
>               about them, fishermen are very well organised and have a
>               lot of people to speak for their cause.''
>               Not so difficult to understand! In fact, the Keutas, the
>               main fishing community on the Orissa coast, are
>               classified as Scheduled Castes but were never
>               untouchable, never considered polluting. The
>               ex-untouchables in the area are the Hadis, and as one
>               Hadi graduate later explained, the Hadis are socially
>               not really allowed to fish: there are no ``legal''
>               sanctions as previously but they are not given access to
>               the skills, and are not really ``good'' at it.
>               Hadis are village servants, doing ``polluting'' tasks,
>               and their perspective on the whole issue is different.
>               According to the Keutas, ``outsiders'' were claiming the
>               benefits of the increasingly prosperous business of
>               fishing; according to the Hadis, they were excluded from
>               the benefits currently being gained by castes like the
>               Keutas. This kind of problem is never, to my knowledge,
>               discussed by environmentalists talking about reliance on
>               ``traditional fishing techniques'' as opposed to
>               ``modern'' fishing. There is indeed much to learn from
>               traditional knowledge here, as in all other cases of
>               caste-based artisan techniques, but can this be done
>               without dealing with the practices of caste exclusion
>               that went along with these?
>               That the ``traditional'' producers of any type should
>               have an exclusive or primary right to that production is
>               not an innocent demand either; Dalits in Punjab were
>               excluded from land ownership by a British law that
>               forbade land transfer to ``non-cultivating castes.''
>               Much today is written about traditional water harvesting
>               systems. One example of these is the phad system in
>               Maharashtra, and it seems to be what all
>               environmentalists say it was: ecologically sustainable,
>               and providing equal water access to all cultivators.
>               What is usually not said is that only ``cultivators''
>               had the right to water - Other Backward Class artisans
>               and untouchable service castes of the village, who were
>               socially excluded from cultivation, were also excluded
>               from water rights. Raising questions of equal water
>               rights or land to the tiller entails challenging
>               tradition as well as the current capitalist structures
>               of domination, but the silence of most environmental
>               descriptions here is disturbing.
>               Indeed, reading environmentalist descriptions and Dalit
>               descriptions of pre-British Indian villages reveals
>               entirely different worlds. One is a world of harmony
>               with nature, of different caste specialisations
>               resulting in sustainable filling of ``ecological
>               niches'' (as Madhav Gadgil and Ramchandra Guha have put
>               it) and non-competitive (i.e. peaceful) relations with
>               each other, almost the autonomous ``little republics''
>               described by the British. The world is a picture of
>               domination and tyranny, with significant sections of the
>               village excluded even from its human membership and
>               almost all forced into narrow fragmented lives, closer
>               in fact to Marx's comments about the imprisonment of
>               human minds. Mahatma Gandhi had spoken of ``Ramraj'' and
>               Ambedkar of ``cesspools''; the contrast between these
>               perspectives remains as stark today as they were 50
>               years ago.
>               Is it an accident that these issues are not discussed?
>               Nearly all of those writing on environmental issues in
>               Orissa are upper caste people. The ex-student leader of
>               the Chilka campaign in fact comes from a Brahmin
>               community in Orissa, the one that provides priests for
>               the Jaganath temple (they forbade even Indira Gandhi
>               from entering the temple on the grounds that she had
>               married a Parsi). Coming from such a caste cannot of
>               course disqualify any individual from taking part in a
>               movement or becoming a leader. But from Phule to
>               Ambedkar, anti-caste movement activists have laid down
>               one condition for Brahmins joining them: renounce the
>               shastras and puranas, the ``sacred'' scriptures which
>               legitimise caste. But this is precisely what is not
>               being done; on the contrary, in Orissa and elsewhere a
>               large section of the environmentalist leadership is
>               trying to base itself on these scriptures.
>               What of Maharashtra, where there has been historically a
>               much stronger anti-caste movement and much discussion in
>               leftist circles recently, of ``Brahminism''? Here one
>               might expect upper caste environmentalists to be much
>               more savvy. Unfortunately not. Sanjay Sanghvi and other
>               representatives of the Narmada Bachao Andolan recently
>               attended two seminars at Pune University, one on ``New
>               Social Movements'' and one on the ``Post-Ambedkar Dalit
>               Movement.'' Their journal Andolan reported only on the
>               second seminar, congratulating Dalits on their growing
>               self-criticism, but giving a Brahminic misspelling of
>               Jotiba Phule's name and never mentioning the explicit
>               challenges to the NBA put in the social movement seminar
>               by Adivasi leader Waharu Sonavane.
>               Waharu's question was: ``Why are there no adivasis in
>               the NBA leadership?'' Sanghvi could have replied: Well,
>               we recognise the problem, we want to deal with it, let's
>               discuss it, etc. But he did not. Instead he made the
>               insulting and dismissing response, ``Our village level
>               leaders are all Adivasis.''
>               The question of leadership and the question of identity
>               are two important issues being raised today by the
>               anti-caste movement. Kancha Ilaiah, one of the leaders
>               who has raised both these issues, has argued in ``Why I
>               Am Not A Hindu'' that Dalit-Bahujan social, cultural and
>               religious practices are entirely different. In fact, the
>               popular devatas in Maharashtrian rural culture are
>               Vithoba, Khandoba, Bhiroba, Jotiba and the like.
>               Phule takes his name from the black peasant devata
>               Jotiba, not from ``Jyoti.'' The spelling of his name is
>               a clear Brahmin-non- Brahmin marker in Marathi. Getting
>               this wrong means not knowing people's names. Thinking it
>               sufficient to say that village leaders (of Adivasi
>               villages!) are Adivasis while ignoring the issue of the
>               upper-level leadership means not even understanding what
>               their complaint is. And thinking that only the Dalit
>               movement needs ``self-criticism'' is not only
>               patronising, but harmful to the development of a unified
>               people's movement in the country. This is why Dalits
>               dislike environmentalists.
>               (The writer is Surendra Jhondale Chair Professor, Pune
>               University)
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