Environmental Racism Issues in India


Environmental racism is the differentiation among lower and higher income classes and races of societies by offering them different treatment (morally), opportunities, and facilities (Roby 5). Specifically, environmental racism forces the minorities or low income people to work and live in places where it is not healthy or safe. The ethical, health, political and environmental dilemma arises due to the generation of hazardous waste and international movement toxic products (Bullard 3-23). This racism can further be defined as an environmental injustice towards minorities and lower race people, which distinctively implies influence of several factors, such as color, lower race and socioeconomic conditions.

Although it is believed that environmental injustice may bring benefits for the high socio-economic class, in reality, it has been resulting in serious threats for the humanity and economies worldwide. The discrimination ensues in creating health and life threats for the workers as well as the residents of hazardous areas, which in turn reduces their productivity and lifespan. India is among one of the thickly populated countries of Asia, with more than 830 million people residing in the rural areas. Due to the presence of such a large rural population and variety of ecological regions, the environmental racism has become a serious concern for the country. This paper discusses the environmental racism issues faced by India. The examples of the disasters that happened in India due to the practice of environmental racism along with advantages and disadvantages of this type of racism have been described.

Causes and Risks

Environmental racism roots are profoundly developed in countries all over the world in the course of time. The major cause of environmental racism is the unequal power distribution, which leads to racial oppression, economic exploitation, corporate greed and devaluation of natural environment and human life. Over the past decades, various countries have been violating the written policies of OECD and sending the hazardous waste material to their borders.

People subject to environmental racism are exposed to some extreme health illnesses and diseases (Hinze and Taylor 10-13). The extent of racism has become so serious that it becomes more and nore dangerous for their normal survival with every day that passes by. Environmental racism victimizes minorities’ – people belonging to lower races and those earning less and thus contributing less to country or state. They are being manipulated by administration, be it companies, corporations or even state’s government, for their own wasted interests. Environmental racism concept also seemed to emerge on the brink of faction based on idea that color people have enough tendencies to work and survive near toxic areas than people belonging to other classes.

Minorities residing in different countries do not speak or voice out their concern against the environmental racism being faced by them. It is most probably due to non-availability of enough political and financial powers to to draw the attention of concerned authorities to the matter for further action in their favor.

Situations in India

The basic issue of the environmental racism at India rises due to the lack of interest and focus on the environmental justice policies by the governance and institutions. Some racial issues occur due to the state’s policy design (for example, a policy designed not considering the rights of workers and low income people) while other occur due to the lack of efficient implementation of the environmental justice policies. Although the constitution of India has the provisions designed for the economic, social and environmental justice in the country, no appropriate translation (“Environmental Justice” 14) has been made to convert these provisions into the actions, which must be taken by the government to reduce the environmental racism. These provisions deal with ensuring access to healthy environment to everyone, and the compensation has to be made in case of denial by the authorities. A brief overview of the issues faced by the workers of different Indian industries and low income people due to the environmental racism is presented below.

Heat Stress and Pollution

Increased industrialization at India has been considered as the backbone for the country’s economic prosperity. At the same time, the human environment has been worsening due to unplanned industrialization and lack of assessment for having impacts on the environment and society. The industrial workers, specifically those of low income are at the highest risk due to the direct exposure of the industry environment. The most basic problem faced by the Indian industry workers is the heat stress.

Low income workers in Indian textile industry suffer from the health risks due to the long working hours. They have to spend all their duty hours working in the polluted areas, with little or no caution taken by the industry owners for the well-being of workers (Baskaran 381). Another common racism issue found in the textile industry is the child labor, due to which the low income workers are encouraged to send their school aged children to work. The major cause behind environmental racism found in Indian textile industry is the unfair competition.

The mining industry of India is considered as one of the major polluters, and hence, it is responsible for contributing most towards the environmental racism of the country (Muduli et al. 335). After the USA and China, India is the third largest producer of salt, with an annual production of around 230 million tones, out of which an estimated 70% of the production is generated from the Western State of Gujrat. The production of salt itself demands an extensive usage of manual labor; it requires salt lakes to be created by pumping water out of the ground, which involves endless raking in order to craft crystals. Workers defray most of the costs when they have to buy diesel so as to pump water into the salt lakes (Lefond 347). Due to the lack of policies, the salt mine workers have always been facing dangers and high rate of casualties.

The Agariyas (saltpan workers) have to contend with extreme temperatures up to 50C in summers that drops to 3C in winters. The majority of the saltpan laborers have an average income of Rs.50-Rs. 100 a day, which is far less than the minimum wage limit. The widely held ailments met by the locals arise out of the individualistic nature of their occupation: skin and eye diseases, high blood pressures, Vitamin B, A and D deficiencies, accelerated ageing, and deprived night vision are some of the many problems faced by the residents of the Western Gujarat due to intense sun glares and salt-laden winds (Padhi 1019-1031). In addition to all this, fatal exposure to sharp salt minerals causes chronic illnesses such as dermatitis (skin ulcers), particularly on the hands and legs of the workers (Lefond 347).

Lack Toilets/Sanitation

Nearly 60% of the entire world population practicing open defecation are found in India.

The majority of the low income rural population in the country have no access to toilets. Most of the homes do not even have the toilets built; even if built, they are often used for storing tools, grains or building materials. Open defecation has been a common problem and habit of Indian people for centuries. This habit raises not only health and hygiene concerns but also safety issues. For example, women are often raped and even killed as they go for defecation in dark.

The government has been taking initiatives to build the community toilets thus encouraging their use since they can meet the need of large populations with the minimum investment. However, the social norms of the country do not allow the people to use these community toilets. Even the people of same village do not prefer to use the community toilets as they come from different castes, social statuses and religions.

The major challenge for government to overcome this aspect of environmental racism in India is unwillingness of the rural people to use the toilets even if they are built for them. As mentioned above, people who have toilets built in their homes do not use it because they believe that open defecation is more natural and healthy for them. Therefore, the difference in the income level has been resulting in creating lack of awareness and misleading beliefs about the health and sanitation in the majority of Indian rural population.

Lack of Clean Water

Providing access to clean drinking water has been one of the major environmental challenges faced by the country over the past few decades. This main reason for this is the large population residing in the country. In addition, the low income, lack of awareness about health and sanitation, rituals, socio-economic development and the poor lifestyle also contribute to the wastage of clean water (Water Aid 2). The poor sanitation and lack of access to clean water for millions of Indian people have been resulting in the issues such as malnutrition (Worley). Thus, a great damage to the health low income people in India has been occurring due to the lack of access to clean drinking water. The clean water provision is a priority in the Indian constitution. However, due to the increasing population at the alarming rate, it has been estimated that the country would become a water stressed nation by 2020.

Use of High Pollution Fuel

The low birth weight and high neo-natal mortality rate is significantly higher in the low income classes of India, the main reason of which is the use of highly polluted cooking fuels. The rural households heavily rely on using the fuels made up of kerosene, coal and biomass (Epstein et al. 523).

Residing Near Garbage

The increasing population of the country results in a list of unsolved problems. Lack of appropriate accommodation locations has become an issue for the urban populations of India. Thus, the environmental racism poses threat not only for the rural population for the country but also for those who live in thickly populated urban cities. In addition to the increasing population, increasing rates of posh area’s homes and apartments is another reason, due to which people with low income are forced to live near the garbage dumps. Along with the people who cannot afford to live in posh or cleaner areas due to low or no income, the garbage sites are also occupied by the illegal immigrants from other countries.

There are numerous health issues associated with residing near the garbage dumps, first of which is the lack of fresh air to breathe in. The most common method used for waste management in India is to burn the massive wastage collected mostly from homes, offices, schools, hospitals, restaurants and other public places. For example, the hills covered with garbage and the smoke rising from them can easily be found in cities such as Calcutta (Steele). An alarming situation occurs when people do not only live near these areas but also spend major portion of their day collecting “valuables” from this garbage. Women of the families are involved in rag-picking while men are involved in the garbage farming so that they can fertilize their crops.

Therefore, the waste management is one of the major issues faced by India. The situation is expected to get worse by 2047 when the waste produced by the country is expected to grow by 5 times (it will reach 260 million per year).

Bhopal disaster, which has been the major example of environmental racism is India, is exclusively described further.

Bhopal Disaster

Bhopal’s gas tragedy was the catastrophe termed as the world’s worst industrial disaster with a gas leak exposing 500,000 people to methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxic chemicals (When the gas leaked, Arjun flew away to pray, The Telegraph). The biochemical plant responsible for the highest casualty of the 20th century was owned and operated by Union Carbide (India) Ltd. (UCIL) partially owned by the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). The official and privately estimated death tolls varied significantly, with the former announcing an approximate of 3,787 deaths while latter sources evaluated a number around 16,000 (Eckerman, “Bhopal Catastrophe”). An official announcement stated 558,125 injuries including 3,900 disabling damages and 38,478 partial injuries.

The incident occurred on the night of 3rd December, 1984 at Madhya Padesh, Bhopal. The calamity raised some serious ethical issues as well as the factory was situated in the heart of a thickly populated area (Eckerman, “Chemical Industry”). The property damage mainly involved contamination of the adjacent areas and defoliation of trees. UCIL was eventually deemed as the sole responsible for the leakage because of the lack of staff, disabled cooling system, and no training of employees. The wreckage was a result of decline of general productive measures during the last few years. The work force was reduced to half in the plant as a part of UCC’s drive to restrain costs; the refrigeration and cooling systems were shut down for the last five years due to a UCC’s global economy drive, and at the time of the incident, the MIC gas was packed up to 87% of its capacity despite the fact that the extreme permissible quantity was 50%.

One of the many consequences of the event was the passage of the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985 permitting the Government of India to legally represent all the affected citizens (Kidwai). Settlements were sought while the US-based company managed to disassociate itself from its local subsidiary, and the Supreme Court ruled a compensation of $470 million.

Environmental Justice System at India

The environmentally biased treatment in India is based on the intent of individuals, groups, organizations, corporations, ruling political parties, lobbies or even state itself against minorities or lower race color people. When there is no such negative intent to suppress minorities or lower race people residing in that particular low land value place, the mere reason for creation of such toxic sites in vicinity of their area is the availability of only place to bury dump on immediate basis. Environmental justice refers to the guarantee of livelihood security and a safe and healthy environment for workers and residents of every country. In addition, this system is responsible for ensuring that the judicial system should be accessible to everyone in case an individual needs to report any incident of discrimination or the denial of rights. In environmental law, access to justice is ensured by initiating a worldwide movement. This movement has been dedicated to communities and individuals, through which they can access the legal resources in order to avoid the environmental harms (Lau and Cha 9).

As far as any assistance is concerned for fighting against the environmental racism situations present in India, be it the governmental authorities, banking sectors or NGOs, only NGOs seem to be playing their part (Padhi 1019-1031). The banks do not aspire to offer loans to the poor residents of this region, so they have no choice but to opt for small-scale money lenders, with interest-charges as high as 48 % (Khullar 630). The government silences the mounting criticism on occasions by initiating welfare campaigns to improve conditions of education, health and food, but sadly, their efforts are concentrated on outlying villages such as Kharagodh, and never reach the distant worksite itself.

In essence, the justice system is not accessible for the majority of people suffering from environmental racism issues. There is a number of barriers for them to access the court or legal authorities in case they are a victim of a hazardous situation; the most common barriers include geographic, psychological and economical (“Environmental Justice” 10). The low income people cannot often engage in the litigation due to high cost involved; In most cases, the cost of litigation is higher as compared to the gain that victims expect to have as a result. The geographical barriers compliment the economical barrier as the majority of victims do not live in the close proximity of the central court (they are from rural areas), and hence, they do not have the facilities to access the system. Finally, certain phenomena provoke psychological barriers for the environmental racism victims: language barriers, unfamiliarity with the legal system and formality of the settings of the courtroom contribute to enhancement of the psychological barriers. Therefore, the state, industries and other authorities need to work collaboratively in order to improve the implementation of the environmental justice policies.

Efforts Made to Reduce Environmental Racism

Some of the steps taken by the government in the past towards making the environment safer have also been criticized by the public and the workers. For example, in 1980’s, when the industries were displaced outside the boundaries of Delhi (the capital), the workers complained that the target is only to provide healthy environment to the rich and there is no room for the poor in the country’s policy (Martinez-Alier 239). However, the situation has now changed and the government is now involved in developing and implementing the policies for the well-being of all its citizens.

In order to raise awareness about the benefits of using toilets, the government has been running various campaigns including broadcasting television advertisements. The national sanitation program has been revamped in the country according to the statistics collected by UNICEF. The state has taken the initiative to offer subsidy to families for building the toilets (Worley). The other aspects are also ensured by the government supporting the building and usage of toilets: these include proper water supply, compatible soil type and changing use of land (O’Reilly and Elizabeth 43). The Swachh Bharat Mission has been launched last year aiming at building 110 million toilets in order to make the country “open defecation free”.

Improving the waste management process is another aspect, for which the government of India has established rules. In September 2000, the policy of solid waste management was designed. Some of the aspects of this policy are to stop littering to avoid dumping garbage in open space and not to mix the solid and waste garbage in order to increase the recycling capacity of the country.

The industries have been contributing to improve their social image and corporate social responsibility by establishing workplace policies as well as implementing the state regulations (Muduli et al. 335). For example, some of the steps taken by the mining industry include the implementation of efficient systems for ensuring cleaner production, environment management system and green supply chain management. These activities would not only result in reducing the manual labor and offering them a better workplace environment but would also offer benefits to the industry: the wastage would be reduced resulting in better management of energy and resources.

Advantages of Environmental Racism

Environmental racism is believed to have advantages for the higher classes of society. (Ard 375). For example, the racism helps the elite to refrain from stress and depression as the toxic facilities are entrenched far away in some land areas with very low cost. Similarly, the high socio economic classes are secured from all lethal diseases and illnesses that they might have been subject to due to close proximity of toxic sites or facilities. In addition, environmental racism renders other advantages of access to quality resources including clean water and air. Thus, the elite are given access to environmental benefits against the payment, which they need to build homes in cleaner and environmentally safer areas.

Disadvantages of Environmental Racism

There are more disadvantages of environmental racism as compared to the advantages it brings. The policies are often designed such that they benefit the elite or desired race while the cost is paid by people of low income. The people of low income or low social class do not get access to healthy and safe working conditions, and they cannot even access clean natural resources including water and air. The consequences of the racism pose health and life risks to the victims. Clearly, the health status of the workers significantly degrades due to the exposure to hazardous and toxic materials. This aggravates health and life condition of these workers resulting in their low productivity. The situation of the people who have to compromise continues getting worse because their social problems enhance due to the unequal access to education, employment and health facilities

The disadvantages for the poor being victimized due to the environmental racism are two-fold. Firstly, they are exposed to a great number of threats. Secondly, the poor cannot afford to avail the healthcare facilities, which could assist them to get rid of the illnesses and diseases that they face due to the exposure. Therefore, low income people generally have no chance of getting out of the situation until they are offered medical assistance by the state or the industry they work for. At present, this is not possible in many countries including India because people are not aware of their rights, and do not have enough money to sue the responsible.

In turn, the decreased productivity of large sector of the experienced workers would have negative consequences for the industry and for the entire country’s economy. In addition to the workers, environmental racism also poses threat to the life and health of millions of families that live near the areas where toxic/hazardous materials and industrial wastages are dumped and poisonous leakages take place.

The states need to understand that providing benefit to the elite class due to their money and not providing the same to the poor is not a solution. It is the responsibility of the state to offer the basic environmental facilities regardless of the money the residents of the country can pay to avail them.


Environmental racism prevents people of low income or minorities from accessing the healthy natural resources, safe workplaces and living environment. In most cases, the elite class enjoy the benefits of living in safe environment and having access to healthy natural resources. In addition, the consequence of environmental racism is lack of access to the legal system for the low income people. Lack of environmental justice results in increasing environmental bias in countries, which poses serious risks to the health and lives of the victims. Although the rich classes of a country can be claimed to get opportunities to live at safer places and have better health due to the environmental injustice, the situation becomes worse as the majority of the workers supporting the countries’ economy are exposed to work with hazardous and toxic materials. Thus, environmental racism causes more risks and disadvantages as compared to a few benefits for the privileged class.

This paper described the issues faced by the people of low income in India due to environmental racism. History of environmental racism has been long in India. The Bhopal gas leakage and the issues faced by the salt mine workers have been illustrated as the examples of lack of governance and institutions’ interest for developing and implementing policies for the benefit of every individual living in the country. Low income workers and their families have to face poor working conditions being exposed to extreme heat, long working shifts, child labor, no access to toilets and clean drinking water, and work with hazardous and toxic materials. The neo-natal death rate is largely associated with the poor sanitation conditions and the use of high pollution domestic fuels.

Although Indian government did not expend efforts to improve the environmental sustainability conditions initially and focused only on providing the safe environment to the elite as the state displaced the industries outside the capital city, the situation has largely changed now. The major reason behind the changing state’s attitude towards developing environmental justice policies is the increasing threat for the people as well as increasing awareness in them. Over the past few years, Indian government, NGO’s and industries have been taking actions to ensure safety for everyone through implementing equal environmental policies for everyone. Building toilets for everyone has been one of the state’s strategies. Similarly, the government has been taking actions in relation to industries/organizations that not maintain safety on the workplace for the workers of all levels.

The social justice system and policies need to be carefully designed and implemented in India in order to prevent the high number of casualties that happened in the past. A clear policy should be adopted, which will determine what environmental rights need to be protected in the country and what kind of legal or court access should be granted to low income people. Furthermore, it is recommended that all the workers and low income people who are the victims of environmental racism should be explained all their legal rights and should be given the opportunity to surpass the barriers to report any incident. The environmental racism in India can be avoided by reviewing and redesigning the existing environmental justice system in the country.

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