Drishtikon: Beyond Environmental Issues: Climate Change as Social, Economic, and Political Concerns

The Sangyan
12 min readAug 5, 2022

“Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.”[1] Similarly, be it climate justice, ecological justice, environmental justice, or energy justice, we need to understand that these often synonymously should be used and understood in valuing climate, ecology, environment, energy, et al in the right way.

Even when we attempt to locate “Environmental Justice” or “Climate Justice” in the Indian Constitution, there is no explicit mention of it but a closer look and interpretation of the preamble read with other relevant provisions of the constitution and the intention of the framers of the constitution establishes that there are social, economic as well as political aspects to it and thus when the preamble talks about Justice in respect to Social Justice, Economic Justice, and Political Justice, it also naturally inherits Environmental Justice recognizing its various aspects and intersectional nature.[2]

We often come across this clichéd phrase, especially in our news channels debates, that “let’s not politicize at least this” (often used for arenas and events that are considered to be kept away from “dirty politics”, for instance, religion, sports, art et al. But then what we forget when we carter to that argument is that politics is the best way to work towards something that we want to achieve.

In that respect, everything needs to be politicized for a better future by galvanizing “we the people” and building momentum to achieve the desired goal (Climate Change and Environmental justice here). So be it the 1991 genocide of Kashmiri Pandits[3] or Nirbhaya Rape Case[4] or Godhra Train Burning pogrom[5] or Akshardham Temple Attack[6], 1993 Serial Bombay Blasts[7], and the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks[8], everything need to be politicized as “politics” per se isn’t a bad word. Politics is about building movements and campaigns to influence the laws, policies and actions of the government and the state. Whether the politics that is being carried out are good or bad is the thing for another debate but politics is good for society and everything must be politicized for the better. And this same logic applies to environmental issues like climate change, air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, et al. So whether it is Air Pollution in Delhi NCR[9] , or Groundwater crisis[10] or virtual water trade and related agriculture and farming issues[11], everything has a political context meaning climate change is not just an environmental issue but a political one too.

Further, with respect to the economics of climate change and the environment, the Supreme Court-appointed Panel concluded the value of a tree is ₹ 74,500 per year multiplied by the lifespan of the tree which incorporated factors like oxygen provided, bio-fertilizers, micronutrients, et al.[12]

According to the World Risk Report of 2020, India is positioned as a moderately vulnerable country that is exposed to climate change-induced disasters resulting in high Average Annual Loss (AAL) by Hazards (1990–2014).[13] Global Assessment Report predicted 560 — or 1.5 disasters a day — by 2030 based on the current trajectory.[14] India lost about USD 87 billion to climate change-induced disasters in 2020 which was second to China only, which lost $238 billion in 2020.[15] Both of these examples show that climate change is an economic issue as well and not just an environmental one.

The infographic below illustrates the space required to carry out fifty thousand people per hour about private road transportation, public road transportation, and public metro transportation.[16] And let’s see the Aarey Metro Car Shed controversy[17] from this perspective. Given the politics surrounding it’s a political issue. A large number of Mumbai local riders die in accidents who often come from a poor socioeconomic background makes it a social issue.[18] And the economic loss (opportunity cost) consequent o all these makes it an economic issue as well despite the face value it looks merely a “development versus environment” conundrum.

An infographic shows the city space required to carry 50,000 people per hour per direction and that is a 175m wide road used only by cars, a 35m wide road used only by buses, and a 9m wide track for metro.
An infographic shows the city space required to carry 50,000 people per hour per direction and that is a 175m wide road used only by cars, a 35m wide road used only by buses, and a 9m wide track for metro.

Climate Change possesses water crisis, energy crisis, food crisis, refugee crisis, and other integral challenges that possesses a threat to the nation’s security, both in the traditional sense as well as from the economic point of view that makes the nation vulnerable making it a political, social as well as an economic concern.[19]

Climate Change is a Disability Rights Issue, Women Rights Issue, Tribal Rights Issue, LGBTQ+ Rights Issue, Minorities Rights Issue, Livelihood Issue, Farmers Issue, and beyond given the respective capability deprivation it results in and its consequent negative externalities.

A Climate-Conscious Lifestyle is how we all can contribute our bit. As we can have Plan B but No Planet B (though Elon Musk might disagree here given his Mission Mars). In that respect, we need to incorporate the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Refill and Recycle. Refill Culture needs to become an integral part of our life, so be it in our use of pens (using refills rather than using and throwing ones) or water bottles (carrying our bottles rather than using one-time plastic bottles), is what missing and need to be internalized for a Climate Conscious and Pro Planet lifestyle. As even the surgical marks, sanitary pads and diapers that make part of necessary items result in long-lasting pollutants.

“According to the Menstrual Health Alliance India, One sanitary pad could take 500–800 years to decompose as the plastic used is non-biodegradable and can lead to health and environmental hazards. Considering 36% of the menstruating females use sanitary pads, their environmental footprint is high.”[20] Further, “Most pads have over 90% plastic & each is equivalent to 4 plastic bags. Data on menstrual waste management from the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation shows that 28% of such pads are thrown with routine waste, 28% are thrown open, 33% are buried & 15% are burnt openly. The sanitary pads commonly used by women from all classes contain super-absorbent polymers (SAP), which don’t decompose. They gradually break down into what are known as micro-plastics, which contaminate soil, water, and air. They also enter the food chain injecting toxins into the food humans and animals consume.”[21] But here also comes the dilemma that not every woman can afford the costly green pads where Period Poverty[22] (lack of access to menstrual products, sanitation facilities, and adequate education) exists especially among the socio-economically weaker section that are more prone to climate change. These instances also illustrates the socio-economic context to the climate change.

The Capability Approach is a theoretical framework for human welfare that involves two normative assertions: first that the freedom (“substantive freedoms”) to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance and, second, that well-being should be understood in terms of people’s capabilities and functioning.[23] Climate Change hits one and all equally but its adverse impacts are often faces disproportionate and experience worse-off situations and conditions.

Climate Change further has a cascading effect on vulnerable communities and socio-economic weaker sections of the society as it results in income and capability deprivation increases health expenses and cost of living and thus subsequently in poverty.[24]

Illustration I: Women in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, India continuously faces water crisis and drought situations and have to sacrifice other livelihood and other opportunities just to secure water for their household.

Illustration II: Poor old adults in Delhi who couldn’t afford air purifiers and have to suffer from health issues because of air pollution.

Illustration III: A person with Disabilities in Assam who lost his Assistive Technology because of the annual flood and become an environmental migrant and become a beggar in a Metro City.

Illustration IV: A tribal woman (indigenous person) from Bastar, Chhattisgarh who earns her livelihood by collecting and selling Tendu Patta (used for the production of Beedi) now faces the brunt of climate change both in the long as well as the short run which directly and indirectly negatively impact her livelihood. In the short term, illegal mining, forest fire, and deforestation substantively and adversely affect the production of the Tendu Patta.[25] Similarly, in the long term, by way of slow effects of climate change like groundwater depletion and water crisis consequently resulting in droughts and desertification adversely impacts the production of forest resources like Mahua, Tendu Patta, et al further affecting her livelihood despite having the legal right under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 and Biodiversity Act over the natural resources of the Jal, Jungle Aur Jameen (Water, Forest, and Land)[26].

In short, the IPCC Report of Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability states that the best way to protect people from Climate Chaos is by tackling “inequities such as those based on gender, ethnicity, disability, age, location, and income”.[27]

There are many dimensions of Climate Change which are aptly illustrated in the graph below.[28] The graph highlights that there is complex intersectionality between actors and factors like Eco-toxicity, Biodiversity Loss, Poverty, Eutrophication, Water Crisis, Health, Education, Air Pollutants, and Affordable goods and services (inflation), overconsumption, Inequality, Resource Scarcity, Carbon Emissions, et al.

An infographic shows different dimensions of Climate Change that interplays.
An infographic shows different dimensions of Climate Change that interplays.

Eco-ableism can be explained as a “form of discrimination toward individuals with disabilities through an ecological and environmental lens” (Wolbring et al., 2017).[29] The concept of Eco-ableism demonstrates how environmental concerns like the plastic ban have socio-economic consequences for a socially disadvantaged section of the society like the people with disabilities. Below is a table illustrating More Examples of Eco-Ableism: Expectations versus Reality.[30]

More Examples of Eco-Ableism: Expectations versus Reality
More Examples of Eco-Ableism: Expectations versus Reality

Although western architecture has served the purpose of providing affordable housing to millions of socio-economically weaker sections of society, it has also made them more prone/vulnerable to climate change and disasters as Western architecture is making India’s heatwaves worse.[31] Climate Change is eroding a precious resource and that is sleep which affects the people from socio-economic backward classes as they cannot mitigate and adapt.[32]

Nature though doesn’t discriminate against anyone, its impacts are faced by everyone contrastingly different based on their socio-economic conditions and other identifies like sex, location, et al. For instance, a poor person without having the financial capability to buy an air conditioner would suffer the brunt of heatwave harsher than one who is capable and has the financial capability to buy an air conditioner. Similarly, that can be understood concerning the capability to have a private transport mean during heavy flooding which does provide an advantage to people with private vehicles over ones without.

Climate Change is a “Threat Multiplier” (impacting our lives in ways we can’t even imagine at times) that has fostered the “Era of Consequences” (our collective in-action has kick-started a chain reaction-like event). Climate Change is a great in-equalizer as vulnerable communities like Women, Indigenous People, People with Disabilities, Old Adults, LGBTQ+, et al are at the forefront of its negative impacts because of their lack of capabilities to adapt and mitigate making climate change an environmental, political, social, and economic concern.

[1] MICAHEL J. SANDEL, JUSTICE: WHAT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO? 261 (2010).

[2] Abhishek Kumar, “Economic Development and Environmental Justice: Cruel Conundrum or Symbiotic Relationship? (We Can Have Plan B, but No Planet B!)”, Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 2018, Vol. 21:1, 11–22, DOI: 10.1080/13880292.2018.1439693

[3] Kashmir genocide: What Bitta Karate aka Farooq Ahmed Dar said 31 years ago, India Today, 2022, Available at <https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/kashmir-genocide-bitta-karate-aka-farooq-ahmed-dar-the-kashmir-files-1925979-2022-03-16> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[4] Nirbhaya case: From December 16, 2012 to March 20, 2020 | A timeline, India Today, 2020, Available at <https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/nirbhaya-case-from-december-16-2012-to-march-20-2020-a-timeline-1657663-2020-03-20> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[5] Gopal Goswami, Forgotten 58: Twenty years of Godhra, and here’s the first list with names and details of those burnt alive inside train, Firstpost, 2022, Available at <https://www.firstpost.com/politics/forgotten-58-twenty-years-of-godhra-and-heres-the-first-list-with-names-and-details-of-those-burnt-alive-inside-train-10388681.html> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[6] Akshardham Temple attack: 18 years ago, on this day, two terrorists laid siege on our faith, OpIndia, 2020, Available at <https://www.opindia.com/2020/09/18-years-since-akshardham-temple-attack-2002-baps-swaminarayan-nsg-commando-lashkar-terrorists/> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[7] Prem Mahadevan, D-Company and the 1993 Mumbai Bombings: rethinking a case of ‘crime-terror convergence’ in South Asia, The European Review of Organised Crime, 6(1), 2021, pp. 54–98, Available at <https://standinggroups.ecpr.eu/sgoc/wp-content/uploads/sites/51/2021/05/D_Companyv4.pdf> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[8] 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks: A brief timeline, The Indian Express, 2021, Available at <https://indianexpress.com/article/india/26-11-mumbai-terror-attacks-timeline-of-what-happened-during-64-hours-of-operation-7642091/> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[9] Air Quality Management in Delhi-NCR, Central Pollution Control Board, Available at <https://cpcb.nic.in/air-quality-management-in-delhi-ncr/> Accessed on 10th July 2022.

[10] Abhishek Kumar and Himanshu Pabreja, Assessing the Groundwater Situation in Northern India, The Sangyan, Available at <https://sangyan.medium.com/assessing-the-groundwater-situation-in-northern-india-1cb5b3e46871> Accessed on 13th July 2022.

[11] Abhishek Kumar and Himanshu Pabreja, Ukraine-Russia Conflict and Its Fallouts for the Indian Agriculture Sector and Water Stress, The Sangyan, Available at < https://sangyan.medium.com/ukraine-russia-conflict-and-its-fallouts-for-the-indian-agriculture-sector-and-water-stress-616404d6097> Accessed on 13th July 2022.

[12] Expert committee (2022). Compensatory Conservation in India: An Analysis of the Science, Policy and Practice, Report submitted to the Hon’ble Supreme Court by the 7-Member Expert Committee pursuant to the directions dated 25th March, 2021 in Special Leave Petition (Civil) №25047 Of 2018, New Delhi, India. 2022, Available at <https://imgs.mongabay.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/30/2022/04/25164444/Report-of-the-SC-appointed-committee.pdf> Accessed on 13th July 2022.

[13] Abhishek Kumar, Status of Disability Inclusion in Disaster Risk Management: Indian Perspective, The Sangyan, Available at <https://sangyan.medium.com/status-of-disability-inclusion-in-disaster-risk-management-indian-perspective-aa307007146d> Accessed on 08th July 2022.

[14] UN Disaster Summit Concludes with Bali Agenda for Resilience to Prevent World from Facing 1.5 Disasters a Day by 2030, UN News, June 2022, Available at <https://www.un.org/ohrlls/news/un-disaster-summit-concludes-bali-agenda-resilience-prevent-world-facing-15-disasters-day-2030> Accessed on 11th July 2022.

[15] Jayashree Nandi, India lost $87 billion to climate disasters in 2020: Report, Hindustan Times, Available at <https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-lost-87-billion-to-climate-disasters-in-2020-report-101635272896946.html> Accessed on 08th July 2022.

[16] UITP, Twitter, Available at <https://twitter.com/UITPnews/status/1469607942324461569?s=20&t=G5XqrOXm6gcrGBHOMkLw2A> Accessed on 12th July 2022.

[17] Omkar Gokhale, Explained: The long legal battle over Mumbai’s Metro-3 car shed, now shifted back to Aarey by Maharashtra’s new Shinde Govt, The Indian Express, 2022, Available at <https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/aarey-metro-3-car-shed-maharashtra-uddhav-thackeray-eknath-shinde-govt-explained-8003358/> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[18] Mrityunjay Bose, More than 2,500 die every year on Mumbai’s railway tracks, Deccan Herald, 2020, Available at <https://www.deccanherald.com/national/west/more-than-2500-die-every-year-on-mumbais-railway-tracks-812317.html> Accessed on 12th July 2022.

[19] Emyr Jones Parry, The Greatest Threat to Global Security: Climate Change Is Not Merely an Environmental Problem, “Green Our World!”, Vol. XLIV, №2, June 2007, Available at <https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/greatest-threat-global-security-climate-change-not-merely-environmental-problem> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

[20] Swati Singh Sambyal, Sonia Henam, & Fiola Tariang, Is green menstruation possible?, Down To Earth, Available at <https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/waste/is-green-menstruation-possible--64796> Accessed on 07th July 2022.

[21] Arvind Mayaram, A case for environment-friendly sanitary pads, Hindustan Times, Available at <https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/a-case-for-environment-friendly-sanitary-pads-101617113330182.html> Accessed on 08th July 2022.

[22] Menstruation and human rights — Frequently asked questions, United Nations Population Fund, 2022, Available at <https://www.unfpa.org/menstruationfaq> Accessed on 15th July 2022.

[23] Ingrid Robeyns and Morten Fibieger Byskov, The Capability Approach, Available at <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/capability-approach/> Accessed on 28th June 2022.

[24] Abhishek Kumar, Climate Change, Disability, and the Capability Approach, The Sangyan, Available at <https://sangyan.medium.com/climate-change-disability-and-the-capability-approach-916a2fdfae41#_ftn1> Accessed on 07th July 2022.

[25] Pragati Singh, , Karuna Yadav, & Rajesh K. Upadhyay, Impact of Climate Change on Tendu Leaves Production of Sonbhadra District Uttar Pradesh India, ResearchGate, 2018, Available at <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343230566_Impact_of_Climate_Change_on_Tendu_Leaves_Production_of_Sonbhadra_abstract> Accessed on 07th July 2022.

[26] Tendu leaf changing the life of India’s poorest communities || Madya Pradesh, Gaon Connection, Available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9ddzH-OB1I> Accessed on 06th July 2022.

[27] This climate crisis report asks: what is at stake? In short, everything; The Guardian, Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/feb/28/what-at-stake-climate-crisis-report-everything> Accessed on 052th July 2022.

[28] The Sangyan, Available at: <https://twitter.com/thesangyan/status/1540605696185487360?s=20&t=PwDpPYiv3VIYOx-GtnZjXg> Accessed on 29th July 2022.

[29] Alexandra Aladham, Eco-Ableism in the Zero Waste Movement, Sustainability Initiatives, Available at https://sustainability.emory.edu/eco-ableism-in-the-zero-waste-movement/ Accessible 05th July 2022.

[30] Eco-Ableism Examples, Climate Xchange, Available at <https://climate-xchange.org/2021/08/12/climate-justice-for-all-including-the-disability-community/eco-ableism-examples/> Accessed on 06th July 2022.

[31] Western architecture is making India’s heatwaves worse, Time, 2022, Available at <https://time.com/6176998/india-heatwaves-western-architecture/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=social-share-article&utm_term=climate_adaptation> Accessed on 07th July 2022.

[32] Climate Change is eroding a precious resource, National Geographic, 2022, Available at <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/climate-change-is-eroding-a-precious-resource-sleep?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=twitter::cmp=editorial::add=tw20220525env-climatechangeerodingsleep&linkId=166610248> Accessed on 14th July 2022.

About the Author

Abhishek Kumar, NCPEDP-Javed Abidi Fellow on Disability.

The author can be reached at abhishek.ncpedp@gmail.com

This article has been submitted as an assignment for the Summer Course on “Climate Justice and Climate Law: South-North Perspectives” Organized By: National Law University, Delhi and SOAS, University Of London, 27 June — 8 July 2022.

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The Sangyan

Law. Environment. Disability | Curator ~ Adv. Abhishek Kumar | Working on the 'Impact of Climate Change on Persons with Disabilities' | thesangyan.in | 🇮🇳 |