The Restaurant Putting India’s Disappearing Tribal Cuisine Back on the Menu

India, indigenous food

WHEN ARUNA TIRKEY, A MEMBER of Central India’s Oraon indigenous community, walked into her small town’s glossy new department store almost a decade ago, one product made her stop short: a packet of millet. Known locally among the Oraon as madua, millet was a staple in Tirkey’s family when she was growing up. As the influence of industrial agriculture spread to India’s hinterlands, however, the traditional grain had become increasingly rare. Seeing millet in an upscale store, marketed at a price many indigenous Indians couldn’t afford, Tirkey was shocked. “It was surprising for me to see the product in the store at a premium price, knowing that at the same time it was fast disappearing from our diets,” she wrote.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Featured image: Simon Williams/Ekta Parishad.


The Refugee Women Turning Tastes of Home Into a Food-Delivery Business

Food, India, migration, movements

WHEN FOOD BECAME SCARCE UNDER Taliban rule, Hoor got creative. Since the Mujahideen conflict, trade between neighbors had been periodically forbidden, rations were portioned out to the privileged, and even growing garden plots could be risky. But years of war had taught her how to find food for her family in a pinch. Hoor snuck groceries under her chadari, or veil, stretched poor-quality rice imported from Bangladesh into filling meals, and turned to the black market for meat.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Photo: borosjuli, CC BY 2.0.

Eat Like Royalty With This Cookbook From the Emperor Who Built the Taj Mahal

Food, India

IT WAS THE MID 1600S, and Friar Sebastian Manriquea, a Portuguese priest who had come to visit the Mughal Court, wanted to witness a royal supper. It was a rare sight. The Mughal emperors, who ruled territory across the northern Indian subcontinent, usually didn’t dine with anyone but their wives and concubines. But on this day, Shah Jahan—the Mughal ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal—would be dining with his wazir, advisor Asaf Khan.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Photo credit: Public domain.

This British Colonial Report Offers a Rare Glimpse Into India’s Historic Cannabis Cuisine

Food, India

THICK, SUGARY, AND CREAMY, RICH with saffron and almonds, bhang thandai is so sweet that at first it’s hard to pinpoint the drink’s secret ingredient. After a sip or two, however, the telltale taste lingers: spicy and slightly musky, it’s the signature whiff of cannabis. After a few minutes, the high comes, dreamy as the rainbow play of Holi colors.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Photo: San Diego Museum of Art/Public Domain.

When Indian Hosts Opened Their Homes to Pakistani Cricket Fans


“YOU HAVEN’T BEEN BORN UNTIL you’ve seen Lahore,” says Kanwaljeet Singh. A resident of the city of Mohali in Punjab, India, Singh is quoting a regional saying. Yet Singh has never seen Lahore. While he’s lived all his life less than 150 miles from the Punjabi cultural and literary center, he’s never been able to cross the India-Pakistan border to go there.

Read more at Atlas Obscura. Photo: Naveed Ahmed/Unsplash

Why These Activists Are Protesting Hindu Nationalism in Trump’s America

India, movements, Politics

On Friday, September 7th, six activists from Chicago South Asians for Justice stood up in the middle of the plenary panel of the World Hindu Congress in Chicago to voice their resistance to the Hindu nationalist political movement currently ascendant in India.

Chanting “RSS turn around, we don’t want you in our town!,” the activists—mostly young South Asian women— interrupted speaker Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is a hardline right-wing organization advocating Hindu nationalism or Hindutva, the political and cultural ideology that India is a fundamentally Hindu country. The RSS and other Hindu nationalist organizations have a long history of violence against religious minorities and people oppressed by India’s hierarchical caste system. The RSS is the ideological heart of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently in power in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The current right-wing government has failed to take action against attacks on Indian religious minorities, with senior BJP officials even justifying rising anti-Muslim mob lynchings.

The Chicago South Asians for Justice action was one of a number of protests of the Congress over several days. The Alliance for Justice and Accountability, a coalition of progressive groups, coordinated a campaign against the Congress. Sikh, Muslim, Dalit, and Kashmiri communities led organizing efforts as well.

The crowd’s reaction to the Chicago South Asians for Justice protesters was violent. According to a group statement, a video from the Alliance for Justice and Accountability, and personal testimony of protesters, the activists were immediately attacked by the crowd. Attendees rose a chant of “Bharat Mata ki jai,” or “Victory to Mother India,” a nationalist slogan feminists have critiqued for its depiction of the nation as a woman. Activists reported being kicked, punched, choked, spat at, and verbally abused. One activist was called a “dirty Muslim” and given death threats. Two activists were arrested, and one Congress attendee was arrested and charged with battery for spitting in an activist’s face. Protesters have been subject to online harassment from Hindutva supporters since.

I spoke to two activists from Chicago South Asians for Justice, organizers Mansi Kathuria and Tara Raghuveer, about the action. (I know Raghuveer from previous organizing.) Chicago South Asians for Justice describes themselves as “a coalition resisting the rise of global fascism in the United States, India, and worldwide.” I asked them why their group decided to take such a visible action against Hindu nationalism, and how they view Hindutva in relation to growing white nationalism in the United States.

“Hindutva doesn’t exist on its own,” said Raghuveer. “It’s actually part of this now-ascendent global trend of nationalism and fascism that has been legitimized in recent years by Trump’s election, by Modi’s election, and by similar formal elections across the world.”

Not everyone is making these connections. While the action was widely reported in India, where similar political violence involving right-wing groups is commonplace, the protest received minimal attention in U.S. media beyond progressive outlets.

According to Kathuria, this information gap was embodied in the reaction of a white police officer who spoke to the protesters after they were taken to the station. The officer asked protesters to help him understand what, exactly, was happening. “To me that was a coded way of saying, ‘Why the hell are these brown people protesting other brown people?’” said Kathuria. “The cops were so confused.”

Raghuveer felt his confusion represented white Americans’ tendency to flatten the diverse experiences and political opinions of Asian Americans. “As a diasporic community we’re treated as a monolith,” she said.

Kathuria explained the situation to the officer using an analogy to political issues any contemporary American would be well aware of. “You know how some people think America should only be for white people?” she asked. “There’s people in India who think India should only be a nation for Hindu people, and it’s very similar. They oppress minorities and we stand against that.”

While Kathuria cautions that Hindu nationalism is specific to the history of South Asia, including the reality of caste oppression and anti-Muslim violence in India, the analogy between white nationalism and Hindu nationalism is certainly relevant.

Both white nationalism and Hindu nationalism express pride in a mythic “Aryan” racial identity, claimed alternately by white Europeans and dominant-caste Hindus. Both ideologies share a virulent Islamophobia, and have a history of anti-Muslim hate speech and violence in the name of a “battle of civilizations” against Islam. And both ideologies have gained prominence in the past few years under the watch of right-wing populist leaders Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.

The connections between these movements go beyond the symbolic. As The Caravan recently reported, many white nationalists have a fascination with Hinduism and India, establishing parts of their organizations in India and meeting with Hindu nationalist leaders. Some Hindu nationalists in India have articulated support for Trump, specifically for his anti-Muslim policies—and a group even celebrated his birthday. These ties are longstanding: it’s not uncommon to find copies of Mein Kampf hawked on the streets of Delhi or to hear RSS leaders celebrate the Third Reich for its “nationalist pride.” Meanwhile, the 2016 Trump fundraiser by the Republican Hindu Coalition had distinct Hindu nationalist overtones, including virulent rhetoric against Pakistan and “Islamic terrorism.”

According to Raghuveer and Kathuria, these beliefs were visible at the World Hindu Congress itself, in materials depicting interfaith marriage as a “silent Holocaust of Hindus.” Considering the frequency of brutal violence against interfaith and intercaste couples in India, this messaging is anything but benign.


A poster from the World Hindu Congress depicting interfaith marriage as a “silent Holocaust of Hindus.”

In the Indian context, upper-caste Hindus vote disproportionately for the BJP. While the majority of Indian Americans lean Democrat, this doesn’t necessarily correspond with opposition to Hindu nationalism.

“A lot of our families in this country are benefitting from caste privilege,” said Raghuveer about dominant-caste Hindus in the United States. “Back in India they would be the beneficiaries of the current political order, but here they are ethnic and racial minorities who are on the other end of the ascendent Trumpist ideology in this country.”

Kathuria agrees. “Unfortunately, there are whole Indian-American communities that are against Trump, that understand why white supremacy is dangerous for them, but when you change the context and frame them in a country where they’re the majority, they’re not able to see the same dynamics.”

statement from the Alliance for Justice and Accountability points to these inequalities and calls on Indian Americans who benefit from caste privilege to take a stand against Hindu nationalism.

Protestors called on Indian-American politicians, many of whom are Democrats, to demonstrate their commitment to minority rights by rejecting Hindu nationalism. The Alliance for Justice and Accountability called for a boycott of the World Hindu Congress. Democratic State Senatorial candidate Ram Villivalam, Chicago City Alderman Ameya Pawar, California State Assemblyman Ash Kalra, North Carolina State Senator Jay Chaudhuri, and U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard eventually pulled out of their scheduled appearances. Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi did speak at the Congress, for which he’s received criticism and continued demands from organizers to denounce the event and the violence against protestors. Finally, Chicago South Asians for Justice demanded that Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar oppose Chicago’s proposed $95 million police and fire training center. Chicagoans have protested the center, arguing that money would be better spent on people-oriented programs.

For Kathuria, protesting the police academy and protesting the World Hindu Congress are both part of a global struggle against state and state-sanctioned violence. That’s what came through most clearly in my conversation with the Chicago South Asians for Justice activists: while violent nationalisms may be global, so is resistance. “Standing against state violence means standing against it everywhere,” Kathuria said.

Read the original piece at Feministing.

Cover photo: Vice President of India M. Venkaiah Naidu addressing the World Hindu Congress on September 9th. Press Information Bureau of India, Wikimedia Commons.

Indian Supreme Court Decriminalizes Queer Sex, and Everyone Celebrates!

India, Sexuality, social justice

HAPPY 377 READ DOWN DAY, EVERYONE! In a rare piece of absolutely fabulous news, on Thursday, September 6, the Indian Supreme Court officially decriminalized homosexuality.

Technically, the Court “read down” Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to exclude consensual sex. Implemented in 1860 under British official Thomas Macauley, Section 377 outlawed “carnal acts against the order of nature”—meaning any sexual activity that isn’t heterosexual, penetrative vaginal sex. For 158 years, the law has been used in India to harass, persecute, and imprison queer people, especially transgender and third gender people, and sex workers.

That is, until now! In a landmark decision, the Indian Supreme Court, in the form of a five-judge Constitution Bench, declared that it was unconstitutional for Section 377 to criminalize consensual sex between adults. The ruling does preserve the part of Section 377 criminalizing bestiality and sex with children. The Judges’ opinions touched upon the constitutional right to equality before the law, the fundamental right to autonomy and privacy, and the right of minorities to equal citizenship regardless of popular morality. Opening up the possibility of future rights guarantees for the LGBT community, Justice DY Chandrachud wrote in his opinion:

Members of the LGBT community are entitled, as all other citizens, to the full range of constitutional rights including the liberties protected by the Constitution. Members of the LGBT community are entitled to the benefit of an equal citizenship, without discrimination, and to the equal protection of law.

This decision comes as a result of over a decade of struggle by the queer community, feminists, and rights activists, reflecting the much longer legacy of feminist and queer struggle in India. It’s been a windy road. Section 377 was initially “read down,” or decriminalized, by the Delhi High Court in 2009. That decision prompted severe backlash from conservatives, notably from many members of the Hindu nationalist political establishment, including one politician who labeled homosexuality “illegal, immoral and against the ethos of Indian culture.”

In a major blow, a 2013 Supreme Court judgement reversed the 2009 Delhi High Court judgement, drawing on popular prejudice to once again render queer sex a crime. “While reading down Section 377, the division bench of the HC overlooked that a minuscule fraction of the country’s population constitute lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals or transgenders [sic],” the decision read. That “minuscule minority” responded with protests and a curative petition, or a petition seeking to return the case to the Supreme Court for review by a five-judge Constitution Bench.

The Supreme Court’s reading down of Section 377 is a beautiful, historic, vastly important moment for LGBT Indians. It also, hopefully, will set a precedent for future affirmations of the rights of minorities. One sentiment from the judgement in particular has come to the attention of rights activists: The judges cited a line from the ruling in the Supreme Court’s 2017 Right to Privacy case that reads, “The guarantee of constitutional rights does not depend upon their exercise being favourably regarded by majoritarian opinion.”

In the contemporary global political climate, it’s a desperately-needed reminder. Under the current Hindu nationalist government in India, mob lynching of minorities has increased, as members of the dominant population target mostly Muslim and Dalit (members of the most oppressed caste) people. Majoritarian morality or “tradition” have also been cited to limit women’s dignity and autonomy and persecute couples who marry across religion or caste, as in the 2017 Hadiya case, in which the right of an adult woman to choose her spouse was eventually affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the “collective conscience,” or majoritarian morality, has long been cited by the Supreme Court itself to substantiate capital punishment, including in cases, like the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, that some rights activists still believe to be wrongly decided. As human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover wrote in response to the 2017 hanging of the men convicted of the 2012 Delhi Gang rape, which was condemned on principle by activists opposed to the death penalty, “If ‘collective conscience’ is invoked as a reasonable ground, how will communal attacks, fake encounters, public lynching of Dalits and now Muslims, all enjoying social endorsement, be held unlawful?”

For me—and many of the friends and activists I’m talking to—this point resonates most. Queer people, all queer people, are entitled to the right to life, dignity, and equality regardless of what the majoritarian morality thinks of us. That’s not because we’re special: that’s because all people—all people—are entitled to the right to life, dignity, and equality. Regardless of who we are, what we’ve done, where we come from. Regardless of how the majority feels. The point of rights—and the thing that makes both the Indian and the American Constitutions tools in the struggle for social and economic justice despite their many flaws—is that rights are not based on majority rule. They are inalienable. And they are for everyone.

Of course, there is always more to do. Hierarchies of class, caste, religion, and gender identity haunt the Indian LGBT community as they do communities worldwide. And the framework of privacy falls short when it comes to issues of economic justice and public space—what does the right to have sex in private do for the many queer Indians who live, and have sex, on the streets?

But right now, as joy and color fill the streets across India, it’s time to celebrate.

Read the original post on Feministing. Cover photo: Delhi Pride 2017, courtesy yours truly.

Letting Go of American Exceptionalism, One Harvard-Educated Banker at a Time

India, Politics

It has, as the New York Times reports, been the year of the lynch mob.

Amid the increasing hysteria of a blatantly Hindu-supremacist, anti-Muslim, and anti-poor government, mob lynchings have been on the rise in India. Since 2015, reports The Quint, 68 people have been lynched, most of them Muslims or Hindus from oppressed castes. Stoked by vote-hungry politicians and exploding local social tensions, these lynchings have created a palpable terror for Indian minorities.

India is not alone in this trend. If the past three years of American politics have taught us anything, it is that ethnocentrism scores political points – and has real consequences. In recent US history, after all, white people lynching black people were politically-condoned and celebrated, with a legacy that persists today. While liberals decry Trump for sounding like “a third-world dictator,“ many recent domestic U.S. policies have simply brought the violence of long-standing American policy into glaring view.

I was reminded of the urgent need to look for these transnational connections by a recent New York Times articleon India’s lynching epidemic. The article explores a particular lynching in the state of Jharkand, where a Harvard-educated banker turned right-wing politician, Jayant Sinha, caused rightful outrage by congratulating the lynching-accused in a ceremony. (Though to be sure, this is not particularly surprising in a political climate where elected officials are supporting the rapists and murderers of children.)

While coverage of this case should provide an opportunity for us to reflect on how racial and religious violence are globally interconnected, the article instead depicted this violence as completely alien to American readers’ lives. As the article, titled “Seduced by Hate, Indian Politician Embraces a Lynch Mob,” opens:

Jayant Sinha is a Celtics fan. He graduated from Harvard. He worked for McKinsey…His American friends say his politics were moderate, maybe even progressive.

Then he returned to India.

He ditched the suits he had worn as a partner at McKinsey & Company, an elite management consulting firm, in favor of traditional Indian kurtas. He joined the governing Hindu right political party and became a member of Parliament and then a minister…

This opening already sets up a dichotomy: the West is liberal, tolerant, pluralistic, a world of erudite finance and boutique education. The postcolonial world, meanwhile, is a place of religious fanaticism and murderous mobs. There are hints of a Heart of Darkness-style primitivism as the article asks whether Indian politics are “so poisoned by sectarian hatred and extremism that even an ostensibly worldly and successful politician can’t resist its pull.” Swap out a Western suit for kurta pajama, this intro suggests, and you may swap out moderation for violence.

But what if being a Harvard graduate employed by McKinsey is not necessarily radically opposed to being a right-wing politician lauding a murderous mob?

Elite Western universities and financial institutions, after all, backed and benefitted from Western imperialism and slavery. Meanwhile, Harvard graduates and bankers are responsible for some of the worst economic and human rights abuses of our times. How many high-ranking members of the Bush, Obama, and Trump White Houses were Harvard graduates? How many Harvard graduates and bankers were behind the 2008 recession? Behind lethal, global economic and social inequality? Masterminding drone strikes that kill civilians? Imprisoning people without hope of fair trial at Guantanamo? Letting people die and be piled into mass gravesat the US-Mexico border? Championing the imprisonment of migrant children? Promoting or masterminding torture?

It is necessary to condemn mob violence. It is also relatively easy. It is more difficult, but equally urgent, to condemn structural violence, especially for privileged people who benefit from it . Privilege, after all, works precisely by hiding the violence it runs on; the more privileged we are, the less aware we have to be of the resource extraction, economic inequality, and structural racism that sustain us. This selective ignorance has brutal ramifications. As Malcolm X famously said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Put another way: a black child in a hoodie may be killed. A war criminal in a suit may be President.

I got my BA from Harvard. I knew people there who came from myriad political and corporate dynasties responsible for far-reaching violence. Worse than that (because you can’t control where you come from but you can control where you’re going), I went to college with many people who went on to work for such dynasties. I’ve done corporate things I’m not proud of to turn a buck. Everyone’s gotta eat, and people with privilege may turn quite a few bucks taking up polite, suit-and-tie, nice-paycheck work that fills our bank accounts by exacerbating structural violence.

But having privilege does not mean we have to do evil; privilege can give us, in fact, a unique opportunity for disruption. Google and Microsoft employees who have been protesting against their employers’ complicity in the American security regime did something about it. Other people in similar positions can, too.

Which brings us back to the Conradian flavor of the New York Times article intro. Heart of Darkness is in many ways a racist text, but it does conclude with the reminder that the seat of evil is the seat of empire. Indian politics are unique from American politics, and lynchings have myriad social, economic, political, and cultural causes which are local, national, and regional in nature. But world politics have always been connected, and this has only sped up since those first colonizing European ships set sail. Follow the trail of what causes anti-Muslim lynching in Jharkhand far enough and some of the many social, political, and economic pathways will undoubtedly lead you back home.

Featured image: Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Indian Express.

Harsher Punishments Won’t Keep Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse: The Death Penalty in India

$4 Wine, India, Sexual violence, social justice

When rape makes the headlines in India, talk of hanging begins. Commentators blare from news screens; politicians pledge death. These stories of brutal crime and brutal punishment, all in the name of protecting women and girls, tell us something  important about contemporary Indian responses to rape. They also tell us about a fundamental flaw in our thinking about sexual violence and punishment across contexts: a mistaken idea that the primary threat to women and children is from the “outside” or the “stranger” rather than our own homes.

The death penalty has emerged as a response to rape in India two major incidents in the past few years. After the horrific rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, known in the international news as Nirbhaya, “the fearless one,” on December 16, 2012, demands for the death penalty clamored. Five years later, the Indian Supreme Court, which recently has been restrained in its approval of the death penalty generally, approved the hanging of four of Jyoti Singh’s murderers (one had killed himself in prison; one, a juvenile, had already served his time).

The death penalty has emerged again following the disturbing rape and murder of Asifa. Asifa was a Muslim nomadic child, gang raped and killed in a Hindu temple by a group of Hindu men who wanted to send a gristly, unthinkable warning to the Muslim nomadic people to cede their traditional land use rights. In the outpouring of grief and anger afterward, the Indian cabinet approved the death penalty as punishment for the rape of a child under twelve.

This is precisely opposite the response to rape advocated by Indian feminists. Following the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a group of Indian feminists were appointed to the Justice Verma Committee constituted under the former Chief Justice of India to draft a proposal for improvements to India’s rape law. The report’s suggestionsincluded criminalizing marital rape, which remains legal; reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which gives the military impunity in contested regions of India, and which has been used to prevent prosecution for military sexual violence; and a Bill of Rights for Women, which would specifically ensure women’s sexual autonomy in relationships. The Justice Verma Committee Report was specifically opposed to the death penalty. Yet none of the previous three recommendations have been made law; the death penalty, meanwhile, nearly has been.

It’s almost cartoonishly clear where the state’s priorities are: tough, even fatal punishment rather than the promotion of women’s rights and autonomy and the checking of state impunity.

But who is this tough punishment for? Contained within the notion that people who rape children should be killed is a set of assumptions about who these people are—and who these people aren’t. This mistaken idea should be familiar to Americans living in a “tough on crime” landscape of sex offender registries and life-long jail sentences: that people who rape children are strangers, recognizably dangerous and sinister, and that the problem of sexual violence and the sexual abuse of children can be snuffed out like someone’s breath at the end of the rope.

This is false. While the media focuses on the figure of the evil stranger abuser, and while cases of stranger sexual violence like Jyoti Singh’s and Asifa’s are especially brutal and deserve all the outrage they got, these cases are not representative of sexual violence as a whole. In India, according to the the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau report, 94.6% of girls and women are raped by people known to them. In the United States, 93% of children who are sexually abused know the perpetrator, and of the thousands of cases a year investigated by Child Protective Services, 80% of perpetrators were a parent, according to RAINN. Most of these cases happen in private; most are covered up or go unreported.

In this context, the death penalty is not only archaic, evil, and a violation of human rights—it is utterly ineffective. As Indian human rights groups, feminists, the Delhi High Court, and child rights groups have already argued, the death penalty and similar lifelong punishments against rapists would be ineffective as a deterrent and unequally applied. Even more disturbing, in the Indian case, imposing the death penalty for rape possibly incentivizes a perpetrator to murder a victim, as the punishment for murder is life in prison rather than the death sentence.

The proposal that rape should be punishable by death—when murder in India, in contrast, is punishable by up to life in prison—suggests several ideological assumptions about rape and rape victims. It suggests that rape is worse than murder; that being raped is worse than being killed; and that if a child is raped, they are, to use the Hindi phrase bandied about by conservative politicians after Jyoti Singh’s murder, a “zinda lash”—a “living corpse.”

The death sentence also implicitly denies the actual conditions and likely perpetrators of child sexual abuse: family, caretakers, or acquaintances in private spaces. There is evidence that permanent punishments (like the sex offender registry in the American context) actually serve as a disincentive to report perpetrators, who may be the victim’s caretaker, material provider, or relative. In a context where targeting of rape victims by the family or even murder to cover up a rape is not uncommon, drastic punishments would incentivize family members to cover up the crime and shun the victim.

For most of us who are opposed to the death penalty anyway, it seems easy enough to reject the punishment for cases of child sexual abuse. It is more difficult to confront the underlying reality that our “safe” homes and communities may be deeply violent. Sexual violence is not a monster in whose heart to drive a stake; it is a social and political problem, and it can only be solved through social and political means. Actually supporting survivors means centering their need for safety and healing, encouraging family accountability, and intervening to prevent people at risk of perpetrating, like pedophiles, from perpetrating in the first place. It means being willing to confront the reality that what we fear out there is often, in fact, contained within the intimate.

Read the original article at Feministing. Cover photo: anti-sexual violence protest on 22 December, 2012. Nilanjana Roy, Wikimedia Commons

As the Future of Climate Change Becomes Daily Reality, Poor Women Feel the Heat

environmental justice, India, social justice

The more privileged residents of the Global North have a strange sense of time. Even as the storms get fiercer and the forest fires burn, climate change is often seen as the reality of a cataclysmic future.

At the same time, many Global North people—particularly the rich, the white, and those without much contact beyond more developed parts of the United States and Western Europe—view Global South cities as stuck in the past. Delhi and Dhaka, Kampala and Jakarta are living history—the “developing” cities of “traditional” countries, implying a relentless forward movement away from “primitivism” to “catch up” with their Western counterparts. The idea that the Global South is stuck in time is decidedly colonial, derived from imperialist nations’ justification of territorial and economic conquest as part of a relentless “forward” march. Of course, the notion of the “developing” city implies that there is something to develop toward. This something is, inevitably, the American and Western European vision of modernity.

Yet for many, climate change is a present-tense issue, and “developing” cities are the stage on which this futuristic drama unfolds. Like most social and environmental problems, women—particularly, poor women of color in the Global South and less-developed regions of the Global North—bear the brunt. In numerous cities, this takes the form of a banal, yet murderous environmental oppressor: heat.

“Jakarta sucks in futuristic ways,” wrote Jakarta-based journalist Krithika Varagur in a December 2017 Tweet. “Meaning a lot of problems here (traffic, vanishing green space, climate vulnerability) will be problems in all cities soon enough.”

Krithika Varagur@krithikavaragur

jakarta sucks in futuristic ways, meaning a lot of problems here (traffic, vanishing green space, climate vulnerability) will be problems in all cities soon enough

Delhi, where I’ve lived for the past three years, sucks in futuristic ways, too. From November to February, from the pop and crack of Diwali fireworks until the bougainvillea blossoms return to spill through the trees, the city is a gas chamber. The rich sport air masks. The poor sport respiratory infections. Travel in the city in an open rickshaw and you may go through patches where, cough and sputter as you might, you literally cannot breathe. Delhi’s level of air pollution exceeds the available classificatory scheme. If you return to the city after some time away, you feel the familiar ache of homecoming as your nostrils begin to burn.

Air pollution is not the only environmental hazard which renders Delhi a city of the future. Water is scarce and the ever-falling water table taxes already-shoddy infrastructure and unequal distribution. The city eats up surrounding agricultural land with haphazard hunger, rendering an entire class of formerly-agricultural people urban and landless as dystopian high-rises sprout from now-barren farms. And the heat—oh, the heat. Blasting in after Holi, it melts the asphalt by May, hovering above the road in an evil mirage. You keep Oral Rehydration Salts in your purse; you wake thirsty.

As Varagur points out, these are not problems of some “undeveloped” past which will be solved by adopting North American-style infrastructure, if such a thing were even possible. (North American-style infrastructure means petroleum, and petroleum means, of course, climate change.) The problem of heat in Delhi is important in its own right. It is also a window onto the future.

Like the rest of the world, India’s temperatures have increased since the beginning of the twentieth century, by 1.2 degrees Celsius in this case. Every year is a record. This year in Delhi, it hit 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Farenheit) by late May. Rising temperatures are fatal: while public health measures have reduced heat-related deaths in the past couple years, India is currently 2.5 times more likely to suffer a deadly heat wave now than half a century ago. In this city of urban displacement where landless laborers migrate for wages and find only the street to live, heat is increasingly lethal. Without cool cement walls and ceiling fans (not to mention AC, which is a luxury of the rich) to retreat to during the hottest hours of the day, homeless people bear a particularly high risk.

For homeless women, dangerous weather comes with a double burden. Homeless women are already subject to the gendered indignities of poverty and social neglect, including high rates of sexual violence, harassment, and abuse from the police. The soaring mercury adds another danger, as tin-roofed women’s shelters become unbearably hot, reports Scroll, during the day. They retain heat, making it impossible to sleep even at night when the dark rolls in with a sigh. It’s cooler, women in the Scroll article report, to sleep on the sidewalk; but of course, the risks of sleeping in the open make the situation an impossible double bind.

Models indicate an anticipated spike in heat-related deaths in the United States and the United Kingdom as well. In these cold countries, the coming heat—like any other resource—will be unequally distributed, with the poor and people of color bearing the burning burden. In the United States, while the cooler North will perhaps even benefit from rising temperatures (some friends in New Jersey, editing out the trauma of Hurricane Sandy, speak of beach resorts), the South, more agriculturally-dependent, will be hard-hit.

There is already one group of Americans for whom heat death is a serious issue: non-citizen immigrants. With ICE agents purposely sabotaging vital water supplies and migrants vulnerable to abuse and neglect in transit, those who cross the United States’ southern border are already in peril from the sun. After arrival, the risk persists. In one study examining data from 2005-2014, non-citizen workers were 3.4 times more likely than US citizens to die from heat, with Latino non-citizens 3.6 times as likely. More likely to perform physical labor with less labor protections, and to live in neighborhoods without green space, non-citizens with heat stroke are literally worked to death.

The homeless women sweating in Delhi’s shelters are disproportionately migrants, often rural people who have been displaced and come to the capital seeking jobs and stability which rarely materialize. Increasingly, these people are climate refugees, fleeing debilitating drought and other crop-destroying scourges. In this aspect, the hot politics of Delhi and cities like it are not a historical crisis from which the American city has  emerged, but a harbinger of the future. As Trump builds walls along the US-Mexican border, an increasing number of people come to the United States as climate refugees. In the land of the free, they may be murdered by the heat.

Feature image: Drought in India. Puskhar V., Down the Earth.