Ambedkar and the Environmental Tradition

The 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar was celebrated in April 2016 all around, so much so that the United Nations, for the first time, observed this day with a focus on achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As we know, the 17 goals along with 169 targets and 304 indicators, adopted in September 2015, aspire to transform our world by balancing the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. The ‘plan of action for people, planet and prosperity’ has environment at its core, along with poverty and inequality: to ‘protect planet’, create ‘healthy environment’, and ensure equality, dignity and development ‘in harmony with nature’. And Ambedkar is found in this regard to be an apt and inspiring leader.

Image: The Indian Express

The world can see traces of Ambedkar’s vision in the SDGs and can find his views relevant for environmental sustainability, but not the Indian environmentalists! Indian environmental movements marginalize Ambedkar. From a historical past, environmental scholars have placed Gandhi at the apex of their inspiration. Recently, Nehru and Indira Gandhi too have been constructed through an ecological lens. However, Ambedkar’s engagement with the environmental question has been relatively unexplored, even when his thoughts and interventions on nature, village, land, agriculture, water, community, industry, technology and science are some of the enduring issues of India’s environmental and political traditions. In comparison with Gandhi, credited with having an intuitive critique of modern civilization, Ambedkar has often been criticized for his modernization vision, which it is argued, drew heavily on the west for inspiration (Nagaraj 2010: 56-7)

However, Ambedkar’s ideas and interventions on village, land, agriculture, water, community, industry, technology and science can be brought together to form a collage of his agrarian and environment philosophy – where environment is not disentangled from the ugliness of caste injustices; where development of rural landscape is not disconnected from social relations and structures of power in which it is embedded; and where ecology has to confront the transitions to democracy. Ambedkar also saw modernity differently, where Dalits were outside the ecological space and intellectual universe, as lived by high-caste Indians. Ambedkar’s thought can be seen as heralding a new tradition of Dalit development and environmental thought – a tradition deeply critical to the dominant discourse; and yet characterized by a distinct concern with how the ‘natural world’ can be transformed to address the problems generated in a social world of caste oppression.

‘Castised’ Nature

Ambedkar’s ‘natural’ and social world surrounding the childhood and youth of Ambedkar was cursed by injustice: ‘You must remain in your assigned place’ seemed to be the constant refrain of the rest of the world (Rodrigues 2002: 7), even when Ambedkar lived in the army cantonment in his early age.

For Ambedkar, his Mahar caste and village were inherently unequal for the untouchables, posing physical and moral infirmities for them: every village, almost without exception, in the Marathi-speaking area of west-central India, had its maharwada (Mahar quarters). The traditional role of the Mahar caste was that of the village ‘inferior village servant’ – according to the term coined by the British. Mahars were seen as having no special skills or crafts, and had to perform several ‘necessary’ duties for the villages (Zelliot 2014: 27). For Ambedkar, water had a definite caste, as it turned ‘polluted’ as soon as a Dalit touched it:

From the evening till midnight the boys travelled with their mouths parched with thirst; but nowhere could they get drinking water on the way. Every time people either pointed to the filthy water or asked them to go away. This was the first rude and shattering shock to the budding mind of Bhim. That day he knew that he belonged to a family that was untouchable, degraded to drink and eat filthy things (Keer 2009: 12-3).

For Ambedkar, the built-in environment of rural and urban India – landscapes of office buildings and houses, schools, streets and subways — were the places for caste oppression, as well as Dalit aspiration. In his school, Ambedkar was usually made to squat in a corner of the class on a piece of gunny cloth, which he carried to school. When he came to Baroda, no hotel or hostel accepted Ambedkar and his eldest brother who had accompanied him. When he started working for the Baroda state, his subordinates flung the bundles of files and hurled papers at his desk to avoid his touch. The Parsi inn in Baroda asked him to vacate instantly after knowing his caste. Ambedkar says:

No Hindu, no Muslim would give him shelter in the city. He sent a note to the Maharaja, who referred him to the Diwan, and the Diwan expressed his inability to do anything in the matter. Tired, hungry and fagged out, he sat under a tree and burst into a flood of tears (The Janata: 1936).

Ambedkar’s environmental experiences were distinctive, with many stories of horrors and hardships that passed through generations. Nearly every aspect of his experience put him in contact with the natural environment, bestowing him with practical knowledge. All aspects of his relationship with the environment were necessarily mediated through ties of caste, while also being social and political in nature.

At the same time, Ambedkar’s understanding of nature was more complex, going beyond his personal experience of the natural world. Throughout, he dealt with three broad but complexly interconnected meanings of nature. The first was the External Nature, or the unmediated material world, which, through society’s interaction with nature, provided a strong foundation for basic material production. It converted nature into a purposefully useful process, by transforming it, and impacting society and human relationships. Ambedkar described this external nature as ‘useful material from the earth, the soil or water and take the form of hunting, fishing, stock-raising, lumbering and mining… extract from the physical world useful materials which become the original sources of man’s subsistence’ (BAWS, 1: 455). The second was the Universal Nature, or the all-encompassing ‘natural’ things which dominated society, in which supposed ‘naturalness’ and ‘natural laws’ determined the structure of society, which was often detrimental for the untouchables. This was ‘the Hindu scheme of divine governance enshrined in a written constitution… a divine Code which lays down the rules which govern the religious, ritualistic and social life of the Hindus in minute detail’ (BAWS, 3: 7-8). And the third was the Social Nature, which meant the nature of social exclusion, in which the ‘traditional’ aligned with the ‘natural’, and nature was thus characterized by exclusion, discrimination and injustice. Ambedkar referred to it as the untouchables’ ‘isolation, discrimination and the unfriendliness of the social environment’ (Rodrigues 2002: 235). In Ambedkar, these external, universal and social manifestations of nature deeply impact its interrelationship with humans. In such an understanding, nature, as a contested social reality, is a rich archive for constructing histories of human activities. Simultaneously, the notion of ‘human’ is based here on natural equality, which enables man to make and re-make nature. Unambiguously, for Ambedkar, human encompasses nature, and nature is governed by social relationships. In so far, and in as much, nature has been socialized and converted into human’s social body, it has lead to far-reaching transformations. Such an understanding essentially alters the ‘natural’ course of various processes, including that of the biosphere, or the biological, animate part of nature. Ambedkar was very critical of ideologies of universal and social nature, as they often concealed the past and politics of exploitative casteist relations.

Village and Community

Central to Ambedkar’s relationship with the natural world was the way in which he perceived the village and the community, which according to him, together imposed control on nature and human labour. The influence of the village community concept has been quite pervasive, informing a substantial segment of Indian environmental thought and movement. Influenced by the above, and combined with Gandhian perspectives, they have often romanticised the Indian village, regarding it as an embodiment of tradition, and an ideal place of homogeneity and harmony. The allure of the village has also provided a powerful medium to challenge urbanization and development.

Amidst such perspectives, Ambedkar’s viewpoint provides a divergent understanding of the village. Jodhka remarks that out of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, the three important ideologues and leaders of the freedom movement, Ambedkar was the only one who had a first-hand experience of village life, and that too of looking at it from below as a Dalit child (Jodhka 2012: 57). Ambedkar’s brilliant accounts of Indian villages present them as a model of Hindu social organization, a microcosm, ‘the working plant of the Hindu social order, where one could see the Hindu social order in operation in full swing (BAWS,5: 19). Controlling habitations, natural resources and economy of a village is seen as central, not only to the continuity of the Hindu social order, but also to its political and economic standing. Ambedkar saw the village as not a single social unit, but as divided into two sections – touchables and untouchables — where touchables live inside the village and the untouchables outside it. Economically, the touchables form a strong and powerful community, while the untouchables are a poor and a dependent community. Ambedkar candidly concluded:

In this republic, there is no place for democracy. There is no room for equality. There is no room for liberty and there is no room for fraternity. The Indian village is the very negation of a republic. If it is a republic, it is a republic of the Touchables, by the Touchables and for the Touchables (BAWS5: 26).

Ambedkar thus fundamentally questioned the notion of village community as a natural fact, as an innate little republic of Indian civilization. As an untouchable, and from that standpoint, he raised critical concerns on the linkages drawn between nature and village. From his earlier writings on village, to his responses to the debates in the constituent assembly, Ambedkar highlighted a different, less celebratory theme in Indian thought, conceptualizing the Indian rural landscape not as golden, harmonious and innocent but as a land of Hindu oppression and command, which should not be treated as a basic unit of Indian civilization or constitution.

Similarly, Ambedkar offered a critical perspective on community, its condition and meaning in a caste society, and what it should look like for untouchables in a democratic society. Environmentalists have also often located community as a natural preserve of tradition, as outside modernity, as emblematic of egalitarianism, homogeneity and cooperation, and as offering an effective challenge to developmental model. Quixotic imaginations of community are repeatedly reiterated, without interweaving it with questions of caste hierarchies and imbalanced shares in nature.

Ambedkar focused on how caste and untouchability has affected community, and how Hindu society as such is not a community but only a collection of castes. From a political standpoint, his understanding of community can be read as a defence of untouchables, which he treats as critical for the Indian society. Ambedkar is attempting to find a new community. Conversion is proposed by him as one of the means for searching and building this new community for and of untouchables. He states: ‘The one and the only way to end their social isolation is for the Untouchables to establish kinship with and get themselves incorporated into another community which is free from the spirit of caste’ (Rodrigues 2002: 230).

From a philosophical standpoint, however, his ideas are an attempt to understand the meaning of community, a way of life seemingly at odds with the values on which a society should depend. Thus he raises critical questions: What kind of community can be forged in a unified society, where our common activity, communication and consciousness promote a new solidarity? Will conversion spell the end of discrimination, and what other kind of social entity might arise in its stead? Will technology, science and development weaken community and caste society, by freeing and empowering individuals? Simultaneously, Ambedkar explores diverse ideas and visions to forge a new community.

Ambedkar’s Agrarian Visions

Inspired by his life experiences, memories and struggles, Ambedkar devoted considerable energy in pursuing an ‘agrarian vision’: representing deep-rooted aspirations of Dalits to land ownership and land reforms; independence and equality enjoyed by other high-caste farmers; freeing water from the clutches of masters’ control; establishing Dalits’ control over the ‘natural’ world from a position of individual independence, political and social equality. Ambedkar formulated an intelligent and thoughtful agrarianism that encompassed a broad range of values – political, economic, cultural, ecological, spiritual and moral. This was not merely an intellectual exercise for Ambedkar, but an attempt to create a new, politically useful argument with which to press the claims of Dalits in natural and rural environment. Agrarians do not always or necessarily draw on ancient thought and traditionalism. Ambedkar too, often explicitly rejected a romanticized vision of rural life, in favour of a hard-headed social, political and economic analysis. He also usually framed his concerns on natural resources as civil rights issues. These expressed a belief that environmental resources and freedom from environmental inequalities are critical to a good life and should be available to all – an assumption that informs the contemporary environmental justice movement as well. Democratic agrarianism has diverse traditions in India. Historically drawing on what we can recognize as basic democratic agrarian principles – rights over natural resources, moral and economic value of labour, demand for economic and political equality, and value of individual independence – Ambedkar laid the grounds for a democratic rural development, by launching a general attack on caste society and the colours of nature.

Land and agriculture were crucial in Ambedkar’s thought, for the transformation of Indian agrarianism. Since his early political activities till the very end, he was a prominent proponent of a set of ideas and actions designed to change systems of land holdings, revenue, distribution, records and forest land from the perspective of landless, farmers and untouchables. Ambedkar’s focus on land ownership developed and strengthened a major strand of Indian intellectual and agrarian tradition, reworking the basic economic and moral thoughts underlying the agrarianism he inherited from his Indian past. For example, he made various efforts in the assembly and outside, through meetings, resolutions and legislation, to abolish the oppressive Watandar Mahar system in Maharashtra. Similarly, he began to challenge the khoti system, a land tenure system in the Bombay Presidency.

Ambedkar developed complex political and economic arguments on issues of land revenue, land holdings, land acquisition, land records, forest land, small farms and farmers, and cooperative farming, which taken together can be read as his future vision for a rural society with an ecological sensibility. For instance, regarding the problems of scattered and small farms, Ambedkar had serious concerns about the excessive sub-division and fragmentation of agricultural holdings, which according to him, must be met by a comprehensive scheme of consolidation. However, he also stated that whether the farm is economic or uneconomic does not necessarily depend upon its size. The economics varies with other factors of production like labour and capital. He stated:

Ours is an agricultural country and our soil is exhausted.… the salvation lies not in increasing the size of farms, but in having intensive cultivation that is employing more capital and more labour on the farms such as we have (BAWS2: 130).

He raised his voice on the acquisition and improvement of land for village sites. He wanted the tracts of forest land to be allotted to the depressed classes. He was concerned about the availability of grazing land. He emphasized the necessity of land records. He questioned the advent of chemical fertilizers and artificial manures, and complained about the insufficiency of useful cattle and organic manures. He advocated that state should own the agriculture sector, where farms can be cultivated as collective farms, and the state can finance cultivation through the supply of water, implements, manure and seeds. His legacy was counted upon in the massive land satyagraha and ‘anti-starvation’ protests in Maharashtra during the late 1950s and 60s (Zelliot 2014: 200-01). His quest for agrarian justice centred on land, so much so that it led to political action for revitalizing society:

The Untouchables should leave the villages and wherever they find fallow land, they should capture it and start farming. If anybody tries to stop them they should resist… This way they should live with dignity in their own new society (BAWS18 (3): 464).

Mahad satyagraha and the burning of Manusmriti are emblematic of Dalits’ and Ambedkar’s struggles with water. Mahad satyagraha, at the core of which was the assertion of untouchables’ rights to take water from the public watering places, was one of the defining moments in Ambedkar’s political thought and action. Thought provoking interpretations of Mahad satyagraha, however, can be complimented through the lens of ‘democratic agrarianism’ and environmental egalitarianism. This struggle also symbolized a marriage between untouchables, agrarian ethos and environmental traditions. The centrality of water for untouchables, and the abuse and misuse of public water bodies became a converging point for divergent traditions, putting forward a humane theory of democratic agrarianism.

Ambedkar’s Quest for a Modernist Development

Ambedkar both incarnates and transcends machine and modernity, combining the aspirations and promises of development with moral and spiritual charisma. Ambedkar’s democratic agrarianism is also closely connected with a democratization of development, where development is seen in the context of gaining a language of rights — equality, freedom, dignity, self respect and recognition. Devoid of land, labour and dignity, Ambedkar’s point of entry into the natural world was usually framed by access, and often related to inequality, production, planning and distribution in intense ways. Because untouchables encounter nature through caste and inequality, for Ambedkar, their resolution was contingent upon an alteration of natural power relations, production practices, systems of meanings and relations, and economic structures. To comprehend Ambedkar’s views on modernity and development, we need to take the broader historical, social and political contexts within which such texts are produced. The immediate context was provided by the independence movement and the march towards freedom, democracy and development.

Ambedkar wrote extensively on industry, science, technology, modernization, urbanization, development and planning. He participated directly in the formulation of an objective, and a strategy for post-war economic plan, and planned development of water and electric power resources in the country. Some of the important present day major and minor river valley projects like Damodar, Mahanadi and Sone, and schemes for the rivers of Deccan are said to have been significant contributions of Ambedkar.

However, the persona of Ambedkar associated with modernity is normally characterized by his distinctive set of attitudes towards the West, knowledge, science, and authority. At the centre of modernity stands his figure of an enlightened man, who achieved knowledge, rights and power through the development of his capacity to reason. It was reason, and not religion, culture or tradition, which enabled him to see through society. Hence for Ambedkar, modernism is committed to reason, rationality, scientific knowledge and democracy.

Social Reconstruction

In his development imagination, Ambedkar was unequivocally recognizing that the key to a cardinal solution of the socio-economic problem lies in a social reconstruction of the existence and occupation of Dalits on principles of collectivism and planned development, in ending the exploitation of one part of society by another, and in orienting the efforts of human society on a truly rational interaction with nature and its resources. Given the nature of scientific and technical progress, Ambedkar was equally emphatic in his understanding that the transformation of nature by powerful economic and technological forces was not only having a living impact on separate components of landscapes, but was closely associated with the possibility of changing society altogether, and with it, its inseparable biosocial organ, i.e., human and humanity. Thus Ambedkar spoke of the ‘human person’, where he was arguing to sacrifice ‘our most precious possessions and our lives to defend the rights of the human person’ (BAWS, 3: 95-6).

Ambedkar’s Buddha leads man to the path of rationalism – to free man to go in search of truth. His Dhamma advocates free mind and free thought, where reality must rest on proof, and thinking must be based on rationality. Buddha and his Dhamma are teaching prajna (understanding as against superstition and natural order), to create karuna (empathy) and samata (equality). In this new universe of cause and effect, with its corollaries, nothing is infallible and nothing can be final. Everything is open to re-examination and re-consideration. With new knowledge and investigation, with equanimity and mindfulness, his Buddha is equally concerned with the use a man is like to make of knowledge, rather than knowledge in itself. In the path of virtue, Ambedkar could thus say:

Never in the history of the world had a scheme of salvation been put forth, so simple in its nature, so free from supernatural and superhuman agency, so independent of, even so antagonistic to, the belief in a soul, to the belief in God and to the belief in life after death! ( 125)

Ambedkar had a complex approach to modern man, resting on the important principle of unity of knowledge, which served as a basis for uniting social, natural and technical sciences, in his efforts at elaborating the problems that were vital for the untouchables. In an unequal and caste-driven society, Ambedkar was for anchoring and strengthening the interaction of nature, society and science. It has been aptly analyzed that for Ambedkar:

The modern establishes the setting for the triumph of reason, emancipating it from magic and rigid religious worldviews. He often suggested a three-stage historiography to correspond to them. The triumph of reason led to the assertion of the human person and his unique value. Reason is the attribute of the human being manifested in understanding, evaluation, discernment and judgement; and concretised in science and technology, the rise of modern institutions and in man’s interaction with nature (Rodrigues 2002: 18).

Ambedkar questions the idea of ‘a return to nature’. For him, a return to nature implies a rejection of material production, and a merging of society and nature. He is persistently concerned that the realization of such a situation would lead to a liquidation of existence and development of untouchables as labourers, because the main thing that distinguishes them from high caste touchables are precisely the possibilities of labour as individual and social units. This difference, moreover, also conditions all other important differences between social and natural phenomena. As he mentions: There are many occupations in India which on account of the fact that they are regarded as degraded by Hindus provoke those who are engaged in these occupations. There is a constant desire to evade and escape from such occupations (BAWS, 1: 60).

In this conception of the relation between society and nature, the untouchable labour becomes an important category that mediates, controls, and changes the exchange of matter between man and physical environment. The untouchable labour, through the agency of industry and production, gets in a reciprocal relation with nature. The liberation of labour from the clutches of caste has two interconnected trends: 1) a positive one, linked with the possibility of fulfilling individual’s material and spiritual needs; and 2) a negative one, whose realization leads to the breaking of entry and work barriers for Dalits.

Ambedkar is sour about ‘the resuscitation and reanimation of India’s dread, dying past’. According to him, ‘it is conservatism in excelsis. So far as India is concerned, it is a reactionary creed blazoning on its banner the call of Return to Antiquity’ (BAWS, 1: 165). Ambedkar was sure that a return to past and to nature go together, though different point of views expressed at his time were also suggesting pre-industrial or rural modes of material production, rather than its total rejection. In Ambedkar’s world, the machine becomes only the beginning point for Dalits, in the whole movement from dispossession to power. However, there are some crucial moments in this interaction of Ambedkar’s man, machine and modernity: 1) untouchables’ identity, since the work is at the same time their signature of introduction, freedom and movement; 2) their intermediation, since one is accomplished by the touch of the other; 3) their individual and collective transformation, since work generates the fulfilment of basic human needs. In the end, a machine/man/modernity chain, in a given social and natural environment, is a life-changing process that can, in theory and practice, be unlimited. However, it has also been argued that Ambedkar, in search of a new economic and social space for the Dalits, was muted in his critique of modernity, and constantly vacillated in his assessment of modern capitalist economy. As comments Suhas Palshikar, ‘He might have looked upon forces of modernity as cutting at the root of caste society and therefore was not convinced of the “evils” involved in modernity’ (Palshikar 1996: 2070-2).

Ambedkar got involved in many branches of natural, physical and social sciences. Economics, agriculture, water, power and food are basic to him, for an understanding of ecology of humans and ideas. Ambedkar’s interventions can be classified at least under four heads: 1) economic, which comprises a wide range and variety of phenomena, such as an emphasis on the nature and organization of industry and occupation; 2) technical and scientific, which includes the application of technology, knowledge and management; 3) political and administrative, such as inter-states initiatives and rules governing resources; 4) geographical, which includes areas, resources and climatic conditions.

By developing a fundamental category of cognition, Ambedkar creates a series of ideas and tools, in the format of which a vision of the world for untouchables in various branches of economy and society can be formed. The abiding principles of each concrete step — economic planning, river valley projects and establishment of technical institutions – are inseparably linked with his vision of equality, justice and freedom. Ambedkar was certainly not seeing science and technology, and its related development projects, as purely a systematization and galvanization of progress, but also as a challenge to its social disposition, of its interaction with other social institutions and spheres of public life, and with the moral, spiritual and natural aspects of new knowledge. Ambedkar did not deal with the ecological problems of the present-era; nor did his concern for nature and natural resources filter into politics at the cognitive and administrative levels during his time. Yet, since the beginnings of his political activism, he cautioned the untouchables about the reality of wealth as the economic foundation for their emancipation.

Wealth is an effective tool for the progress of any nation. For this, it is essential that it should be accumulated. But if the same wealth is used to enslave the poor population or to dwarf their growth; and when wealthy people use their wealth to show off their status, and superiority then such wealth becomes the devil’s wealth as per religious texts. Such wealth is a sham! (Jadav 2013: 31)


Attempts at understanding Ambedkar’s views on environment and development not only provide layers and nuances to Indian environmental thought, but also help to partly explain some of the roots of environmental justice movement in India, which involves Dalits’ rights over natural resources, and their cry for a right to development. The language and rhetoric of environmental justice movement was not invented only in the 1980s.

While looking at Ambedkar through an ecological lens, it is pertinent to recognize the relationship between the social, material and natural worlds. For him, development is both destruction and construction of natural and social worlds, because he believes that ‘human nature is, thus, fortunately, provided by its very make-up against a one-sided development leaving no doubt as to its promise for an all-round development in a congenial environment’ (BAWS, 1: 490).

(This article is part of a larger research on ‘Caste, Nature, Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics’.)

This article was first published on Kafila



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