Understanding Metabolic Rift through Assemblage of Land and Intersectional Inequalities in India

Suravee Nayak (suraveenayak@gmail.com) and Mijo Luke (mijoluke@gmail.com) are doctoral scholars at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
2 May 2022

Climate change has become one of the most burning concerns of our living times. Using the Marxian concept of ‘metabolic rift’, we illuminate the complex nature-society relationship in India. We do so by understanding the rift advanced by neo-liberal capitalism through the assemblage of land and intersectional inequalities. We argue that the intersecting inequalities based on social (power) relations are exacerbated during climate change; in particular, the neo-liberal capitalist interventions have created disproportionate impacts of climate change among rural communities shaped by the unequal land relations in India. In the light of the IPCC AR6 report, we indicate few potential mechanisms of healing/repairing the metabolic rift; however, we caution the ineffectiveness of healing efforts without addressing the socio-spatial injustices. We highlight that the equitable redistributional justice challenging the existing socio-spatial power relations remains a critical concern, without which, even in the efforts of repairing the rift, the structural inequalities may still be reproduced in the new landscapes.

Climate change has become one of the most burning concerns of our living times. Recently concluded COP26 points to the urgency of addressing the planetary climate crisis. However, climate change activism has been largely geographically and socially biased, limiting the framing of the climate crisis and its mitigation strategies (Sultana 2022). Existing research also shows that technical approaches to climate change adaptation are shallow (Taylor 2014). Alternatively, the recent political ecology approaches to climate change consider power relations and other inequalities at the core of providing new understandings (Nightingale 2015; Nightingale et al 2020; Sultana 2021). Scholars have also called for the decolonisation of climate change discourses (Sultana 2022). In this direction, the peculiarities of climate change in India throw a different array of questions on the relationship between nature and society, in the context of widespread socio-environmental injustices. For instance, how do we understand the peculiarities of the climate crisis in the context of a global south country like India? To what extent does land shape the narratives on climate politics in the country? What is the relationship between land based inequalities and climate change?


We argue that the Marxian concept of the metabolic rift is a useful lens to understand the underlying socio-environmental injustices in the climate crisis in India. We understand the metabolic rift in India through the assemblage of land and intersectional inequalities. The analysis of the climate crisis remains limited or even flawed if land politics and land-based social inequalities are not centre staged in the enquiries of the climate crisis (Franco and Borras 2021). The current rift in the country can only be healed in its true sense if these intersectional inequalities are addressed and ended.



Metabolic Rift and Climate Crisis


In Das Capital, volume 3, Marx wrote,


Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions which cause an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of the social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country. (Liebig) . . . Large- scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins the labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the latter course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil. (Quoted in Foster 1999: 379)


There is increasing attention to Karl Marx's concept of the metabolic rift in political ecology literature (Napoletano et.al. 2019). This is more so with the intersection of capitalist development and climate change in different parts of the world (Moore 2011). We conceive the view of capitalism as part of a perspective that is known as world-ecology. World-ecology has emerged in recent years to think through human history in the web of life (Moore 2017). Rather than begin with the separation of humans from the web of life, the scholars ask questions about how humans — and human arrangements of power and violence, work and inequality — fit within nature (Schindler and McMichael 2010). Therefore, the idea of capitalocene puts capital as a system of power, profit, and reproduction in a web of life of nature-society relations (Moore 2017). Further, capitalocene suggests an analysis that shows how relations of power, production, and reproduction work through the web of life (Moore 2017).  Every phase of capitalist development is accompanied by a rupture in socio-ecological relations (Moore 2011). Capitalism advances epistemic rifts- a rift in our understanding of how humans are embedded in nature (Moore 2011:8).


The metabolic rift can be used as an ecological, social, and historical concept. As an ecological concept it describes ruptures, or imbalances in natural cycles, as a social concept describes social causes and consequences of different society-nature relations and as a historical concept to describe the historical contingency of social and natural relations (Schneider and McMichael 2010:466). There are differentiated moments of ‘metabolic rifts’ within the historical development of capitalism (Moore 2011). Engagement with the current climate crisis demands an understanding of the metabolic rift advanced by neoliberal capital in the country, which is different from past environmental exclusions. In India, scholarship on the metabolic rift- a rupture in the nature-society relationship could be understood by highlighting the assemblage of land and intersectional inequalities. As Li (2014) conceptualises, the assemblage of land is an alignment of materialities, relations, technologies and discourses around the land, which involves diverse actors, including villagers, scientists, investors, legal experts and government officials. The analytic of assemblage illuminates the various ways the multi-scalar state in the country makes land an investible resource where the land relations shaped by the intersecting inequalities are key to the commodification of land and advancement of epistemic rifts.



Neoliberalism and Environmental Conflicts in India


Dispossession of agrarian and nature-based communities and destruction of ecology has been rampant in colonial, post-colonial and neoliberal India. In particular, the colonial state alienated adivasi communities from land and forest resources (Xaxa 2018). In the post-colonial era, the Nehruvian developmentalist state dispossessed and displaced rural communities and degraded the ecology for dams, mines, steel plants and other public sector projects (Levien 2018). This led to enormous environmental conflicts and politics of rehabilitation and resettlement in rural regions where marginalised communities, including adivasis, dalits, women, and landless peasants, were most affected (Fernandes 2008; Mathur 2013). Under the rubric of public purpose, these developments led to the mass mobilisation of marginalised communities towards environmental justice movements. Different regions of India have witnessed movements such as the Chipko Movement, the Appiko movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan, and the Silent Valley protest (Roy and Martinez-Alier 2019). However, the nature of land dispossession and environmental conflicts took a dramatic shift with the liberalisation of the Indian economy to became known as India’s land wars (Levien 2013). The neoliberal capital has hit the marginalised communities hardest in these land wars (Agarwal and Levien 2020)


Since the 1990s, land and forest resources have been acquired for private speculative purposes, including Special Economic Zones (SEZs), private factories and mines, public-private partnership infrastructure projects, and real estate development (Andreas et al 2020). The neoliberal state turned out to be brokers for private capitalists (Levien 2018). The land acquisitions for non-agricultural use have increased from 19.6 million hectares in 1980-81 to 26.32 million hectares in 2008-09 (Sud 2014 as cited in Chatterjee 2020). These dispossessions and displacements create irrevocable environmental destruction and threaten food and water security and entanglement of the marginalised communities with precarious, hazardous, and exploitative forms of livelihood. For instance, in the case of land acquisition for mining in central and eastern parts of India, it results in air pollution due to mineral transportation, rising temperatures, diminishing forest cover, destruction of soil fertility impacting the productivity of crops, and imbalance of groundwater (Lahiri-Dutt et al 2012). Particularly, land diverted for thermal power plants results in destroying the fertile wetlands and causing water, land and air pollution[1] (Roy and Schaffartzik 2021). It has been also argued that the expansion of Special Economic Zones led to the loss of cropland in various regions (Bhattacharya, 2019). In the case of fisherfolks, they are caught between the land and sea and face massive scale displacement due to coastline erosion and land acquisition for coastline development in coastal regions such as Gujarat[2].



Currently, more than 700 ongoing natural resources disputes affect over 7.5 million people in India, as reported by Land Conflicts Watch. Another database ‘EJAtlas’ reports 283 environmental conflicts in the year 2018 since the 1990s, out of which 85% of the conflicts were either high or medium intensity conflicts as a response to water management, fossil fuel, and climate change, industrial and utilities, and other mineral ores conflicts (Roy & Martinez-Alier 2019: 80).In this era, the environmental justice movements include those against corporate giants in Niyamgiri, Odisha,  Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, Koyla Satyagraha in Jharkhand, anti-bauxite mining in Kashipur, Nandigram conflict in West  Bengal, SEZ protests in Goa to name a few. Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu is a protest by the fisherfolks against air, soil and water contamination whereas Nandigram in the state of West Bengal is a mobilisation by the farmers against corporate industrialisation. Although each movement has its own specificities but common to all the environmental justice movements and the struggle of marginalised communities has been the question of land (often tied with livelihoods). The capitalist operations in neoliberal India have disproportionately affected the marginalised communities in India over land and resource use, particularly dalits, adivasis, women and lower-class peasants at the intersections of power relations who are super-exploited and continue to be at the bottom under neoliberal growth (Lerche and Shah 2018).


The Assemblage of Land in India


Land in India has a multi-dimensional presence and holds multifaceted meanings in the lives of rural populations (Sud 2020a). The multidimensionality of land as enlivened, territory, authority, property, and access and exclusion together organises the social lives around it (Sud 2020b). The assemblage of materialities, relations, technologies and discourses around land makes land as a resource for investment (Li 2014). The materialities of land are often changed from productive resources to speculative (Goldman 2020). This making of land signifies the complex relationships and alignment of actors around land, primarily rural communities, experts, investors, multi-scalar state and local institutions. 


In India, state coercion has been argued as the explicit feature of contemporary land grabs (Levien 2013, 2018). The use of intersecting strategies such as law, coercion and consent are the mechanisms deployed by the multi-scalar state in organising land markets across the country. Laws such as the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition and Development Act of 1957, Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act 2005, Land Acquisition Act 2013 are used by the state to gain land rights over agricultural, homestead and forest land as a first step towards the rift by separating the rural communities from productive resources. Forcible land acquisition for capitalist development is seen in different parts of the country (the most recent example is the struggle against the acquisition of paddy lands and betel vineyards in Odisha’s Dhinkia[iii]). The most extreme examples of conflict are the Nandigram conflict in West Bengal, where 12 villagers were killed and even the Kalinga nagar massacre, where 13 adivasi lost their lives in police firing. At times, the state also persuades the communities using local networks of brokers and generates consent, as was the case in Mahindra World City, SEZ in Tamil Nadu (Subramanyam and Kudva 2021). The collective action of communities is also fragmented by the state using welfare strategies such as compensation, where the experience of dispossession is differentiated based on pre-existing socio-spatial inequalities shaped by access to land and natural resources (Nayak 2020a,2020b).


Contests over land as access and exclusion are germane to politics as a struggle for power, resources and place in a social order (Sud 2020b:56). The social relations around land shaping the agrarian politics of the regions are at the core of the assemblage of land in India. The unequal possession of land shaped by the intersections of gender, caste and ethnic hierarchies is questionable (Jahnavi and Satpathy 2021). Evidently, caste, ethnicity and gender are the major axes of social structure shaping the land relations in the country. However, women in India have been tilling on the land and denied ownership or inheritance of land (Agrawal 1988; Levien 2017; Rao 2017). Their husbands often mediate their access to land. Dalits are exploited on the lands possessed by dominant caste groups as landless agricultural labourers in varied regional contexts of the country. However, the recognition of caste as an aspect of land relations in the country is long overdue and needs immediate attention for understanding the agrarian and ecological realities in the country (Jodhka 2021). Similarly, land alienation among the forest and natural resource-dependent adivasis has significantly increased over the years, explosively leading to their vulnerability in the country (Kujur et.al 2020). On the one hand, these processes of exclusion of the marginalised communities from the ownership of land, facilitate commodification of land for capitalist growth and, on the other, make dalits, adivasis and women endangered with little to no say in the decision making of the land commodification process. Consequently, these intersectional inequalities further disadvantage them in earning dignified livelihoods in these dispossession processes (Levien 2017; Agarwal and Levien 2020; Nayak 2020a). 


Intersectional Inequalities and Climate Change


We argue that these intersecting inequalities based on social structures are exacerbated during climate change and an understanding of the differentiated precarity of the climate crisis is central to any alternative narrative. Climate change has disproportionately impacted rural communities and regions across the country (Agarwal and Narain 1991; Nightingale et al. 2020). The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report identifies India as one of the most vulnerable countries getting severely impacted by extreme climate events such as deadly heatwaves, rising sea levels, frequent floods and droughts. The impacts of climate change could result in a loss of 2% of GDP in South Asian countries by 2050. The IPCC report suggests that in the Indus and Ganges river basins, “deadly” heat waves could cross the limits of human survivability, with some regions already experiencing such conditions. Exposure to extreme heat is expected to become more frequent, intense and long-lasting in South Asia, increasing the likelihood of droughts in arid areas[iv]. By the end of the century, South Asia will be one of the regions hardest hit by heat stress, with outdoor workers seeing the number of “climatically stressful” work days increasing to 250 a year. It will lead to water scarcity and food insecurity for already vulnerable communities.


The existing pattern of an increased number of natural disasters in different parts of the country has shown that the marginalised sections such as dalits and adivasis, including women, have been burdened with risks of climate change (Raman 2020). We attempt to show how this operates through intersectional inequality, drawing from different cases. The exclusion of dalit communities from access to land resources has forced them to live in the peripheries of the settlement or ecologically sensitive areas. This is further increased by the growth of urban informal labour and slums (Coelho 2016).  For instance, the case of extreme weather events in the states of Assam, Karnataka and Kerala revealed that dalits are more vulnerable to climate risks compared to privileged caste people due to their marginalized social position, location, their vulnerable livelihoods (NCDHR 2013; CSSC 2019). The fisherfolk in the country are also facing multiple risks from climate change which affects their livelihood. For instance, the continuous cyclones year after year are threatening the lives and livelihoods of the coastal people across East Indian and South Indian states[v]. The temporal power relations made them disproportionately burdened with natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, sea-level rise, and land erosion.  On the other hand, the adivasi communities are facing the challenges of mining in the country's resource-rich central and eastern regions. The socio-environmental impacts of mining regions are well explored in the Indian context (Lahiri-Dutt 2014; Oskarsson and Bedi 2018). Largely adivasi and dalit communities are the bearers of coal pollution in eastern and central India with hardly any adaptation and mitigation strategies. With growing reproductive and care burdens, the intensity of the impact of climate change on women within dalit and adivasi communities, landless or economically insecure groups, is more profound than in other privileged women (Rao and Raju 2020). In the coming days, frequent droughts and heatwaves will increase workloads and stress for women. Climate-induced food insecurity in South Asia will result in a host of adverse birth outcomes for pregnant mothers – including undernutrition, stunting, and childhood mortality[vi]. The IPCC report finds that climate-induced soil salinization is burdensome for women responsible for obtaining clean drinking water in the Sundarbans. Also, the migrants endure intersecting forms of environmental marginality in urban cities such as Bengaluru and Surat in the country (Chu and Michael 2019).


This intersectional inequality forming various environmental justice movements in India should be at the core of policy innovations towards healing the rift that can provide attention to the most burdened with the climate crisis. The IPCC report warns that without adaptation measures, India’s GDP losses from sea-level rise will be second only to China by 2080. The report recommends a few adaptation strategies, including nature-based protection of shorelines, insurance to farmers against weather related losses, and the public distribution system (PDS) to relieve immediate survival pressures on climate change victims and threats to cities.


Healing/Repairing the Rift


The neoliberal capitalist interventions have created disproportionate impacts of climate change among rural communities in India. We need to create climate resilient development pathways as an alternative imaginary in policy-making as warranted by the latest IPCC AR6 report in our efforts to heal the rift at the earliest. Equity and justice should be at the core of climate resilient development pathways. The report identifies that indigenous knowledge systems and local solutions are the key to addressing the present climate crisis. Unlike the global discourses on climate change influenced by the ‘power matrices of control’ [global north] (Sultana 2022), climate politics is very much shaped by unequal land relations in India, which we explained through an assemblage of land reflecting intersectional inequalities. This is true in the case of other global emergencies as well, such as recent ongoing COVID-19 pandemics. Therefore, we need to think beyond depoliticised technical solutions (Sultana 2022) and quick fixes for climate change-related problems (Taylor 2014) and we need to move towards locally curated solutions and indigenous knowledge systems immediately.


For instance, the grassroot environmental movements of adivasi communities for ‘jal, jangal and zameen’ (water, forest and land) in the country are fundamental collective actions towards resisting and healing the metabolic rift. Many of the issues of ecological crisis and metabolic rift can be potentially addressed by striving to incorporate them into environmental decision-making. In this direction, decentralisation offers the potential to ensure the participation of the communities in shaping mitigation and adaptation strategies to offer local climate policies. As we know, the decentralization campaign in Kerala is internationally acclaimed and has offered many successive local solutions to many pertinent problems (Heller et.al. 2007). This can be developed in the light of the suggestion offered by the IPCC AR6 report by formulating locally curated solutions and paying attention to who benefits and who fails to benefit in mitigation and adaptation strategies. Besides, central acts like PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas) 1996 and FRA (Forests Rights Act) 2006 provide a window to healing the rift in adivasi-dominated areas of the country. However, the PESA-FRA governance structure is made defunct for the capitalist growth (Bhattacharya et.al 2017), which needs to be addressed immediately. Recent discussions on energy transitions away from fossil fuel, particularly coal in the country, point to the right direction of repairing the rift provided a bottom-up approach of community-centric policy making and implementation is adopted.

The inclusion of land based intersecting inequalities in the framing of climate policy is the preliminary step towards the larger agenda of transformative justice in the country. Importantly, equitable redistributional justice challenging the existing socio-spatial power relations remains a critical concern, without which, even in the efforts of repairing the rift, the structural inequalities may still be reproduced in the new landscapes. Although the IPCC sixth assessment report calls for immediate action and local solutions to the climate crisis, it is largely silent on the role of neoliberal capitalism in this present climate emergency (Borras et.al 2022,11). We argue that we cannot heal this metabolic rift and achieve transformative actions without addressing and ending the land based socio-spatial injustices exacerbated by neoliberal capitalist growth in the country.




Thanks are due to Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma for reading the earlier draft and providing insightful comments. We are grateful to the reviewers for their critical comments and suggestions.

Suravee Nayak (suraveenayak@gmail.com) and Mijo Luke (mijoluke@gmail.com) are doctoral scholars at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
2 May 2022