Social Justice

Pollution and Patriarchy in Tribal India

In tribal India, violence against the environment and women are connected and part of the country’s dispossession-driven capitalism.
The capitalist extractivist logic, embodied by development projects in tribal India, highlights how patriarchal and environmental violence are intertwined. The struggles against them must also be joined: no feminism without environmentalism, no environmentalism without feminism.
The capitalist extractivist logic, embodied by development projects in tribal India, highlights how patriarchal and environmental violence are intertwined. The struggles against them must also be joined: no feminism without environmentalism, no environmentalism without feminism.

Mining projects in India are worth many millions of dollars, and the industrialists that benefit from them are some of the wealthiest people in the world. These projects are responsible for rapid environmental degradation and are built on violence against millions of lives – many of them women. This combination of crises – the environmental and the patriarchal – are neither coincidental nor mutually exclusive in the “development” agenda.

Indian capitalism depends on fossil fuels to run the national economy, and both the public and the private sectors have coalesced to exploit lands, forests, rivers and people. Since the country’s independence in 1947, more than sixty million people have been displaced from 25 million hectares of land, including 7 million hectares of forests.

A lot of this displacement has happened in Chhattisgarh, a densely forested state in central-eastern India. The state has high deposits of iron ore, coal, limestone, diamond and tin ore, and is also home to about 10 million Adivasis, one of the largest indigenous communities in the world. Once an agricultural region, the state is now a hub of large-scale mining projects. Several case studies have demonstrated that, because of these projects, many parts of the state have seen excessive forest depletion, wildlife destruction and an alarming rise in the pollution index. On the other hand, annual reports by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and petitions by the Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression show that incidents of violence against Adivasi women – be it in the form of bodily violence, unjust compensation for land, repression of female activists and moral policing of women’s mobility and labour – have also increased in the region.

In this context, the logic of dispossession-driven capitalism has created an environmental crisis and exacerbated the patriarchal crisis. This is a logic that derives and accumulates capital from the combined commodification of land and women’s bodies — a capitalist logic sustained, in other words, by patriarchy and environmental destruction.

Commodifying Land and Women

Historically, Adivasis collectively owned the land and forests. Caring for the commons had symbolic and material significance and was woven into the livelihood of these populations. Silvia Federici’s phenomenal work on the role of women in maintaining and organizing commons is remarkably applicable to Adivasi lives. Similar to her findings, Adivasi women played an important part in life-making activities in these commons, including caring for land, rivers, animals and forests.

Mining projects, however, have turned land into a commodity, denying the way Adivasis have historically used the land or the symbolic meaning they’ve attached to it. Drilling and extracting from the earth requires delegitimizing it as a provider and nourisher of livelihoods. Like other commodities under capitalism, land is objectified and governed by the market logics of open trade, private ownership and profit-making.

Supported by neoliberal policies, several partnerships between industries and the government have ensured that trading of resources is open, legal and justified as a necessary part of development. Hundreds of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) worth billions of dollars, alongside additional subsidies to private companies, has ensured that regions like Chhattisgarh attract several investors and industries.

The predatory dispossession of the Adivasis from their land requires private ownership of these lands and forests. Since the Constitution of India mandates states to consider the “protection” of Adivasi lands and forests, several post-independence Acts have been enacted that effectively force the local population to claim individual ownership over this otherwise collectively-held land as the only way of staying on it. For instance, when the Forest Regulation Act of 2007 first came into force, an extraordinary 4.2 million people were forced to claim 14 million acres of forest land nationwide, as per the Ministry of Tribal Affairs Report (2018). Worst still, those submitting individual claims aren’t guaranteed titles. The same report, for instance, shows that only 1.8 million have actually been given the land. Chhattisgarh topped the list among these claims and, though nearly 1 million claims were made in the state, only less than half were actually granted. The rest of the claims were rejected, and the population was effectively evicted.

Scholars like James Ferguson and Tania Li have argued that, contrary to the claims of the “development” narrative, those dispossessed from the land are not absorbed into wage-labor. Without land or work, the dispossessed have a hard time finding a source of livelihood. Though this may be partly true for Adivasi women, it is also the case that many are able to find work, albeit precarious and underpaid work, in India’s major cities.

Chhattisgarh, which tops the list for land title claims, also contributes to the highest share of rural to urban migrants in the country. After their family’s dispossession, women, who seldom own property and experience violence at various levels, are forced into migrating to urban areas to secure a livelihood. Their desperate search for work also often leads them into oppressive gender relations. Unsurprisingly, Chhattisgarh is one of the largest “suppliers” of Adivasi women’s labour in the form of caregivers, domestic workers and sex workers to cities like Delhi and Mumbai, as well as neighbouring towns within the state. Most of this work is carried out in precarious and unsafe work conditions.

Beyond being in “high demand” for care-work and pushed into a deeply gendered labor market, these women also end up trading their own bodies. Trafficking of Adivasi women’s bodies and gaining capital by subjecting their bodies to “flesh trade” is another way these women are commodified. “Black diamond brothels”, a name which reflects the deeply intertwined connections between women’s bodies and the land they’re evicted from, are prevalent sites of exploitative sexual labor in India’s cities.

As women’s bodies are commodified and objectified, it also normalizes the violence meted out against their bodies in the larger agenda of development. By delegitimizing land as a source of livelihood, the state is able to justify the erasure of associated natural resources such as plants, animals and water. Such violence against nature and women is central to dispossessory capitalism.

Violence Against Nature and Women’s Bodies

Several mining projects have been built on lush forests and wildlife. One recent case of environmental violence is a project involving approximately 30 coal blocks, jointly owned by the government and private industries, which were set to replace 170,000 hectares of the Hasdeo Arand forest region in Chhattisgarh. Associated with this was the loss of habitat for wild elephants and the consequent human-animal conflicts.

Adivasi women and allies in Chhattisgarh have, for decades, constantly resisted these forms of state and corporate-led dispossession. Adivasi women and men have, time and time again, shown to be obstacles to the desired commodification of land and associated private accumulation of capital. Thus, their resistance is almost always met with state repression.

Although all Adivasis, including Adivasi men, are the target of this repression, Adivasi women have it particularly bad. Cases of brutal violence against Adivasi women have been rising, and which include collective and repeated attacks on their bodies. This brutality is a tool to silence women and undermine their resistance to dispossession.

Statistics from the recent NCRB reports show that violence against Adivasi women in Chhattisgarh is particularly prominent in the region’s mining districts. These reports indicate that between 2016-2018, about a 1000 reported cases have come forth where Adivasi women have been raped, sexually assaulted and murdered. In particular, the districts of Korba, Sarguja, Jashpur, Raigarh, Sukma and Koriya account for most of this violence. These are the districts where major mining projects are located – districts that are also sites of anti-dispossession movements. Although the same NCRB reports does not provide any details on the perpetrators of this violence, reports by local legal-aid groups and the media do. They reveal that the armed forces, the police and the “company goons” safeguarding the mines are the primary perpetrators of this violence.

This “handbook violence”, as Federici terms it, is not superfluous to India’s dispossession-driven capitalism, but a necessary part of it — carefully planned to silence women and hinder any resistance.

This process has also been facilitated by a supportive legal regime.

Legalizing Violence Against Land and Women

Despite the fact that corporations have inflicted immeasurable damage to land and livelihoods, their activities go unchecked – and are even facilitated by – a legal regime that has existed in India since the colonial era.

The Land Acquisition Act of 1857 and the Indian Forest Act of 1927 were the brainchild of the British Empire to legitimize the displacement of Adivasis and grab lands and forests for capitalist development. Even after independence, these legal provisions were not abolished. Instead, these Acts were amended several times to suit the democratic, liberal and now neoliberal garb of the state.

Similarly, violence against women has often gone unpunished. Daily violence against women – be it in the form of street harassment, custodial violence by the police, assaults on anti-dispossession female activists and witch-hunting to deny women property ownership – all conveniently escape the judicial claws and the otherwise high surveillance capacities of the state in this region.

Movements against this legal regime – be it struggles against Forest Rights Act of 2006 or against the recent Land Acquisition and Resettlement Act of 2015 – have all been met with a heavily militarized repression.

Relational Solidarity

For all this to change, what needs to be challenged, at the outset, is capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels. Environmental violence in mining regions can be reduced if we look for alternative, and more sustainable, sources of energy. As extraordinary as the challenge may seem, it is certainly possible.

However, the violence inherent in this project against both nature and women has deeper roots and connections that needs to be exposed and become part of the larger discourse on development.

Feminists like Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies have long emphasized the mutual relationship between the outbreaks of patriarchal and environmental violence. Repeatedly extracting the life out of the land until it is dead and repeated violence against women’s bodies until their resistance is dead are both processes that coexist in the “highly productive” mining regions of India. Dispossession in Chhattisgarh, as we have seen, is dependent on the destruction of both the commons and the women who overwhelmingly maintain these commons.

Since patriarchal and environmental violence are intertwined, the struggles against them too must be conjoined. Popular discourse has conventionally segregated the environmental struggle against climate change from the feminist struggles against patriarchal violence. But we need to articulate their mutual imbrication: no feminism without environmentalism, no environmentalism without feminism. What we need to forge, in other words, is a relational solidarity, without which our struggles will remain fragmented and ineffective.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Asmita Bhutani
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