Environment Justice and Caste after Liberalisation

Mukul Sharma (mukul.sharma@ashoka.edu.in) is a Professor at Environment Studies, Ashoka University.
17 March 2023

This article discusses the interrelationship between environmental justice, caste, and liberalisation. The deep natural, social, and cultural processes involved in the making and unmaking of environment and labour in a caste-capitalist economy impact people’s sense of freedom, belonging, and values. It uses the brick kiln industry in the Jhajjar district of Haryana as a case study to explore the impact of liberalisation on the use of labour and the environment, which reproduce or repudiate structures of hierarchy. The article also investigates how migration of people and capital, promoted by liberalisation, affects the rights and dignity of labour and the sustainable use of natural resources. Economic restructuring post liberalisation is not only perpetuating discrimination and disparity in the economy but also aggravating climate injustices, where Dalits are increasingly facing the impact of rise in emissions and heat in their working and living areas.

Justice as Distribution and Recognition

In the past few years, there has been a burgeoning literature on environmental justice. While race, gender, and ethnicity have been frontally recognised as significant categories in its discourse, caste has, to an extent, been ignored or marginalised. Further, the interrelationship between environment justice, caste, and liberalisation has hardly been analysed empirically and conceptually. Historically, the roots of the environmental justice movement among Black people in the United States (US)in the 1980s have been traced back to a fundamental reorganisation of space in the US after World War II and the state-sanctioned racial discrimination and segregation of people of colour in terms of workplace, housing, location of dangerous and polluting-emitting factories, and disposal of toxic wastes (Wells 2018). Scholastically, the environmental justice discourse has focussed on two key concerns: justice as distribution and justice as recognition, and the strong relationship between the two (Schlosberg 2004; Forsyth 2006).

Caste-capitalist Economy

Since the past two decades, caste/Dalit studies and anti-caste and Dalit movements have begun to chart the interrelationship between caste, nature, and unequal distribution of natural resources (Sharma 2017). In the same period, globalisation and liberalisation have played an important role in restructuring economy, work, labour, geography, knowledge, culture, and society. People of lower castes have experienced increasing conflicts over resource and subsistence rights, livelihood rights, extraction of raw materials, alteration of ecosystems, climate change and livelihood, resource prices, and environmental degradation in the cities. It is therefore imperative for the environmental justice scholarship in the post-liberalisation era to recognise the role of caste and the deep natural, social, and cultural processes involved in the making and unmaking of environment and labour in a caste-capitalist economy, which impacts people’s sense of freedom and belonging and values/devalues their use, access, and participation in the naturescape.

The term “caste-capitalist economy” is not a misnomer. Economic scholarship on the interrelationship between economy, caste, and Dalits in both pre- and post-liberalisation India has thrown light on how caste is being restructured to perpetuate discrimination and disparity in economy, with upper-castes at the top and Dalits and tribals at the bottom. This scholarship also highlights that caste-based local economy is oriented to serve the interests of big capital and markets under the new global-liberal regimes that accelerate climate change. Ashwini Deshpande takes a macro, all-India view and uses large data sets to demonstrate the continuing “caste–occupation nexus” and “contours of discrimination in the modern Indian economy” (Deshpande 2011). Based on a detailed field study of caste and business associations in the market town of Arni in northern Tamil Nadu, Barbara Harris-White conceptualises “caste-corporatist capitalism” that explains ways in which “caste is being reworked in the contemporary era to be an instrument of corporate regulation” (Harris-White 2005: xi). Caste works as an economic regulator, and caste system and its ideology “form a significant component in the local structures of accumulation” (Harris-White 2005: 136).

Different Questions and Contexts

Against this background and context, a number of questions, ways, and methods can be identified as being of central importance to develop our understanding of environmental justice and caste in the post-liberalisation era. There are different perspectives and pathways that have serious implications for our analysis of nature-human relations. Some focus on a market-driven society that supports a small number of low caste people, and the solutions proposed within the capitalist system advance only a series of individual entrepreneurial models. Some other expressions focus on “new opportunities” in employment, migration, and mobility, which can be more emancipatory and materially beneficial. There are expressions regarding the deficit of democracy that push people to political power and to use more resources. Modernity and development, scientific and technological progress attract some segments of lower caste population.

In this paper I the interrelationship of environment justice, caste, and liberalisation by asking the following questions: How is liberalisation accelerating the use of labour and environment to reproduce or repudiate the structure of hierarchy? Does the migration of people and capital, promoted by liberalisation, mitigate for or against the rights and dignity of labour and the sustainable use of natural resources? How does liberalisation as a distinct economic project and process, which legitimatises certain kinds of people and discourses and de-legitimatises certain others, deal with Dalits and low caste people? I focus on the brick kiln industry in the Jhajjar district of Haryana by using an empirical, qualitative, case-study methodology through field visits, interactions, and observations within the industry and labour in the area of study. The fieldwork was conducted in the brick kilns of Passour, Badli, Kablana, Khungai, and Kanonda villages of Jhajjar district in June-July 2018.

Industry, Labour, Caste, and Environment after Liberalisation: A Case Study

Jhajjar district of Haryana is 50 kilometres away from the national capital of Delhi. A network of national highways and railway stations connect the district to neighbouring cities such as Gurgaon, Rohtak, Bhiwani, and Rewari and to the states of Delhi and Rajasthan. The district is predominantly rural and agricultural in nature. The 2011 Census counts a total of 1,85,334 households in the district, of which 1,36,503 are rural, which are largely engaged in cultivation and agricultural labour (Government of India 2011). Post-liberalisation since the 1990s, districts like Jhajjar, Bahadurgarh, Badli, and Beri also became important industrial sites for large, medium, and small industrial units in diverse sectors like leather goods, sanitary wares, chemicals, plastics, electronics, steel wires, utensils, pharmaceuticals, paper products, and glass wares (Government of India, Ministry of MSME, 2010).

Brick kilns has developed as an important industry in Haryana since 2000. In particular, Jhajjar became known for its large production of bricks—red, fly ash, clay face, handmade, and perforated. The district has more than 400 brick kilns, the highest in the state, which are owned by local and regional manufacturers known variously as Raj Singh Bricks, Mehar Bricks, Sri Sai Enterprises, Shiv Enterprises, Hanuman Bhatta Company, Shiv Bhatta Company, Jai Maa Laxmi Builder, and many more. There are generally medium and large production units (2-10 million bricks every year). The industry now employs around 75,000 local, seasonal, and migrant labourers every year between October and July. The urban and rural landscape of Jhajjar is often identified with smoke-billowing chimneys of brick kilns, tin-roofed sheds stuffed with rows of freshly moulded bricks, and six feet-high shanties of workers covered with plastic roofs and loosely arranged brick walls. Changes in land use/land cover, degraded-dry areas, manual labourers and animals, trucks and tractors, the use of coal and some biomass fuels have become familiar sites in the region.

The employment has gone up in the brick industry. However, brick production process has remained manual and seasonal. It has also become highly energy extensive, with huge environmental footprints. Work process is divided into specialised categories, and labourers too are divided accordingly. Paatla, that is, raw brick-making, is the first process where a brick mixture is made with earth and water and set into a mould to be dried under the sun. This is followed by bharai, that is, shifting the sun-dried raw bricks to the firing kiln for firing; khadkan, that is, arranging the raw bricks in a specific style in a stacked array for proper firing; jalai, that is, firing in the kilns in high temperatures; and nikasi, that is, after cooling, removing the fired bricks from the kiln and transporting them to wooden hand-propelled carts to be finally loaded in trucks for supply. These work processes are labour- and energy-intensive, for which high levels of human energy are required. 

Caste-based Occupation

Brick labourers in Jhajjar are Dalits who belong mainly to Chamar, Dhanuk, Valmiki, Dagi, Deha, Gagra, Sansi, Khatik, Pasi, Od, and Meghwal Scheduled Castes from Jhajjar and other districts of Haryana. Dalit labourers are also now migrating from Punjab, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh for work. Men, women, and children work together; some work categories are male-dominated, whereas others are female-centric. In terms of caste-based occupation, the brick kilns of Jhajjar can be compared to the sanitation sector where only Dalit labourers are found. Though not considered polluted, brick work is seen to be as degraded and lowly as sanitation.

Brick kilns have also been documented extensively for their severe violations of labour and human rights, including of women, children, and bonded labourers (Dharmalingam 1995; Gulati and Gulati 1997). A majority of these kilns belong to the informal sector, operate in an unregulated manner, and employ migrant labourers. Systems of contractors, bondages, advance payments, loans, and compound interests are widely prevalent here. The situation of labour exploitation and human rights violation in the sector has continued. At the same time, the post-liberalisation growth of the sector has made Dalit labourers more and more vulnerable to the impacts of temperature, heat, emission, and climate.

Hazard and Heat

“It is hot as hell”; “it boils inside”; “these are dog days”; “living to death”—these are some of the expressions of Dalit labourers working in the brick kilns of Passour, Badli, Kablana, Khungai, and Kanonda villages in Jhajjar district. Radiant heat from the kilns in which bricks are fired and the overall working conditions are worst between May and July, when temperatures climb to 45°C. It is a “fate worse than death,” as excessive heat has severe adverse effects on Dalit labouring bodies and their function, capacity, and capability is impacted in visible-invisible ways. Heat shocks and strokes, sometimes fatal, are regularly reported. Dalits complain of heat rashes, cramps, exhaustion, dizziness, eye and body burns, headaches, fever, and injuries, which are exacerbated due to poor cooling options and high workloads. The information gathered from the fieldwork suggests that even amidst heat stress, there is no slowdown of work, break, or limit in the number of working hours; also because workers are paid on piece and time-rate basis.

Coal and other biomass fuels in brick kilns result in emissions of particulate matter (PM), including black carbon, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. These emissions have a severe impact on health, climate, and vegetation. In the recent past, high-ash, high-sulphur coal, industrial waste, and loose biomass fuels have also been increasingly used in brick kilns (due to higher cost and shortage of good quality bituminous coal), thus resulting in new air emission challenges. In our interviews, labourers repeatedly stated regular respiratory problems, often leading to serious illnesses like bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma and pulmonary disorders, and lack of medical facilities. It is worth-mentioning that in 2019, the National Green Tribunal ordered to close the brick kilns operating in the National Capital Region (NCR) districts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan because the brick kilns fuels were contributing to the worsening PM load in the Delhi-NCR air quality, beyond their carrying capacity. The Central Pollution Control Board was asked to carry out a study on the location to determine the emissions coming out of brick kilns and how and when alternative ‘Zig-Zag’ technology can be applied to the polluting brick kilns (National Green Tribunal 2020). Labourers specifically mentioned the heat wave season that they are frequently experiencing since the past few years. The 2015 heat wave finds special mention. In the summer of 2015, from late May to early June, north-western, central, and coastal India experienced severe heat waves when the maximum temperature exceeded 45°C for many days and caused the loss of thousands of human lives (Pattanaik et al 2017). According to the labourers, women workers suffered exceptional heat stresses in 2015. Heat, sun strokes, and dehydration were extremely high among all labourers. However, there has been no reporting of specific heat wave-related issues in brick kilns.

The heat risks for migrant workers at brick kilns have been analysed elsewhere. It combined occupational conditions and climate change and suggested local technical solutions and appropriate technologies that can be applied to mitigate the worsening heat stresses (Lundgren-Kownacki et al 2018). Another report strikingly studies heat risks in brick kilns for labourers and animals together, amidst hazardous and tough situations, and states unambiguously that

It’s hard work for both equines and people who work there. For equines, the harsh environment causes serious health problems such as disease, injuries and lameness, and with temperatures exceeding 120°F, heat stress is also an issue. It’s a serious condition which, if left untreated, can lead to life-threatening heat stroke. (Brooke 2017)

From Human Rights Violation to Climate Injustice

Jhajjar has been overwhelmingly agrarian, where the dominant caste of Jats own a majority of the agricultural land, including big, marginal, and small holdings. Due to a relative availability and facility of irrigation, water, electricity, road, transport, and market in the region, crop intensity in the district is 152%, and every major kharif and rabi crop is grown here (NABARD 2017). However, Dalits, who are 17.78% of the district’s population, have virtually no agricultural land. Post-liberalisation since the 1990s, increased industrial, trade, and business activities have radically changed the landscape of the district. Jat farmers have diversified their land use. They have used their non-irrigated and far-away agricultural land for brick kilns to create another source of income with minimum expenditure and least risk. There is another story here of how Jat farmers in Haryana have also been going through the impact of agrarian crisis since the past few decades, leading to several economic and social developments in the state (Jitendra and Ghai 2016). Brick manufacturing companies based in Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi, with their networks of local contractors and suppliers, have flourished in these Jat lands, who have either leased their land to these companies or have acquired licenses themselves. This has transformed the process of brick-making that was hitherto mostly maidani bhatti (awa)—small, scattered field structures used for firing bricks, in which neither a chimney was used nor was slack coal consumed as fuel. Local-level manufacturing and consumption of bricks also required lesser amount of ordinary clay, which was even possible to procure sometimes from village ponds and wastelands. For these reasons, till the early 1980s, manufacturing of bricks in kilns of Haryana was covered by the Food and Supplies Department, which was under the Haryana Control of Bricks Supplies Order, 1972.

Topographically and climate-wise, Jhajjar forms a part of the Indo-Ganga alluvial plain and is dotted with sand dunes, small isolated hills, and flat lands. Hot summer, cold winter, and meagre rainfall are the main climatic characteristics of the district (District Disaster Management Plan Jhajjar 2018). A long-term analysis of temperature trends in Haryana shows an increase of 1.0 °C to 1.2 °C in mean maximum and minimum temperature. Many parts of the state, including Jhajjar, show a decreasing trend in monsoon rainfall. It is projected that by the 2050s, climate change in Haryana can lead to a mean maximum temperature increase by 1.3 °C, and mean minimum temperature by 2.1 °C, which will severely impact water resources, forests, agriculture, and livestock (Government of Haryana 2011). There are clear warnings that the increase in air temperatures and heat waves, combined with air pollution, will lead to an escalation of deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in the future.

Jhajjar figures prominently in increasing the minimum and maximum temperature, variations in climate, decreasing monsoon rainfall, and heat wave projections. However, the underlying caste dynamics of this climate change finds no mention in various studies. While traditional production of bricks through small-scale, decentralised kilns and using natural resources of the village dates back to the post-independence history of Haryana, brick kiln as an industry and brick as a big source of money and revenue evolved during the 1980s. Jat landowners became heavily involved in the industry, and the Jat-Bania-Brahmin combine took control of the brick industry of the state. Under them, the quantum of brick production sky-jumped, and the production itself became more extractive, polluting, and hazardous, leading to high greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Dalit labourers, who faced social discrimination, labour and human rights violations, violence, and repression, had to also bear the brunt of increasing temperature. They are more exposed to carbon emissions and heat, which are part of the new liberalised industrial order. Labour and environment are trapped in caste and capitalist paradoxes that also underline the reality of labouring within a hierarchical social order.


Liberalisation and globalisation promised to upscale economic activities across nations, companies, and people through effective use of natural, human, and industrial resources. The possibilities also included high growth and employment; better access to new goods, services, and culture; equal and dignified integration and interaction among people and society; and subversion of traditional power hierarchies. To a large extent, such promises and possibilities have been crushed in the present era under the dominance of capital, coercion, forced migration and displacement, inequality, environmental degradation, and climate crisis. The benefits of growth have continued to be limited for a few, thus shrinking the economic and social base of equality and dignity and reproducing structures of hierarchy. Growth in joblessness and migration has destroyed the world of labour where the vast majority of vulnerable people are working in hazardous situations without any recourse to human rights. Autonomy, plurality, and rationality of people, societies, and communities have been taken away by the dominant forces of liberalisation.

The case study of growth of brick kiln industry in the post-liberalisation period highlights quantifiable accounts of production, labour, technology, and emission, which are implicitly tied with caste and power relations. While the brick kiln sector has changed massively in terms of increased number of units and labourers, working area, and market outreach, it has also got further aligned with deep structures and ideologies of caste. This has been true of other industrial sectors as well; for example, leather and sanitation where liberalisation-led industrial acceleration has aggravated the labour and environment crisis and also increased indignities in people’s lives and livelihood situations. Thus, in a post-liberalisation world, a caste perspective on environment justice seeks to foreground the knowledge of the working of caste structures amidst new economies, power, science and technology, and their role in subjugating people behind a rhetoric of development. This frame of reference focuses on the nature and structure of production of goods and services and the organisation of economies to create specific work profiles along the caste lines.

Historians have pointed out that the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, held in Washington DC in October 1991, represented a historic moment in the environmental justice movement. Among the delegates of African American, Native American, Asian American, and Latino origin, Dana Alston, an African American environmentalist, delivered her now-famous speech, ‘the environment, for us, is where we live, where we work and where we play,’ which was a shift from mainstream environmentalism (Mayer 2003: 2). David Harvey (1996) concretised ‘the environment of justice’ by positing nature as internal to society and all ecological projects as political and social projects. Nature would not have existed in its present form had humans not been mixing their labour with the land all along. For him, the present and the future of nature—the new earth and the new humanity—should be understood through labour and spatial and social change. In a similar manner, concerns of dignified labour and living, rights and justice—in a contemporary crisscross of environment, caste, democracy, participation, recognition, occupation, climate, commons, imaginations, hopes, and struggles in the everyday lives of Dalits and low caste people—give environment justice its specific character in India.


Mukul Sharma (mukul.sharma@ashoka.edu.in) is a Professor at Environment Studies, Ashoka University.
17 March 2023