Abstract: Places of Change: Environmental Justice and Chronic Inequity in India (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Places of Change: Environmental Justice and Chronic Inequity in India

Friday, January 17, 2020
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
John Mathias, PhD, Assistant Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: Historically, environmental justice (EJ) emerged with recognition of the disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards upon racially oppressed and economically disadvantaged populations (Bryant, 2003). Thus, EJ interventions—from protest movements to scientific reports—are one means of redressing chronic social inequities that have long concerned social work (Teixeira and Krings, 2015). Yet EJ interventions are also often tied to specific places—whether neighborhoods, villages, regions, or nations—and they tend to refract geographically dispersed vectors of inequity, like race and gender, through place-based lenses (Rast, 2006). This paper examines a common Indian mode of EJ organizing, “people’s struggles,” in order to understand how a place-based focus may contribute to addressing and/or perpetuating racial, class, caste, and gender inequity.

Methods:  This presentation reports findings from twenty-five months of ethnographic and historical research on “people’s struggles” (janakiya samarangal) a widespread form of environmental organizing in Kerala, India. Ethnographic research focused on a campaign against a polluting factory, and consisted of 49 formal and 111 semi-structured interviews conducted concurrently with 1600 hours of participant observation. Historical research consisted of archival study of newspapers and magazines published from the 1940s onwards, together with oral history interviews (N=12). In-situ coding employed MAXQDA qualitative analysis software to identify emergent themes, which were iteratively refined based on further analysis of fieldnotes, recordings, and interviews.

Results: Historically, “people’s struggles” emerged in the 1990s as a convergence of post-Marxist leftism and environmentalism. As such, many participants in these campaigns explicitly hold strong commitments to combating caste and class inequity within India as well as global racial inequity. However, in the campaign against the polluting factory, aims were primarily framed in terms of place, pitting the village against the multinational corporation that owned the factory. While this framing foregrounded global racial and class inequity, it also tended to obscure caste, gender, and economic disparities in the impacts of pollution as well as hierarchies within the campaign. This tendency was rooted in the historically and culturally specific way that EJ emerged in Kerala.

Implications: This study shows that, even as EJ intervention opens up opportunities to address chronic social inequity, it can also obscure or perpetuate inequity in some settings. Though the findings are specific to Kerala, there is reason to think that similar dynamics may be found elsewhere. Thus, scholars and practitioners should attend carefully to whether EJ intervention may, in practice, hinder attention to some forms of inequity. The author proposes that a revised concept of “intersectionality,” attending to how vectors of inequity meet in specific places, may be helpful in this regard.