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Climate-displaced labor, waste work, and environmental (in)justice in Tiruppur, India

By Nidhi Subramanyam

The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.

“I came to Tamil Nadu just before the duṣkāḷa,” recalled Rani in Marathi when I asked her when she migrated. Rani was referring to the duṣkāḷa (or drought) of 2014 that had gripped the Marathwada region in central India for nearly three years. News of farmer suicides grabbed national headlines. The situation had become so dire by 2016 that the Maharashtra State administration dispatched ‘water’ trains to the region. Meanwhile, Rani and hundreds of other men and women from her Dalit caste community started traveling to other states in search of work and wages, leaving aging parents and small children behind. “Not like the situation had been better before,” clarified Rekha, another climate-displaced worker, whose family had sunk further into debt. “We’d get work for one day on someone’s field and then nothing for the next eight days. We’d barely make 15 or 20 rupees a day. Here, we make about ten times as much and get work for about 25 days a month.” I looked around the workers’ informal settlement and struggled to picture Rekha’s situation back home. Dozens of tiny tarp sheds stretched as far as my eyes could see. A few electric wires dangled over my head, but the settlement had no drinking water and only a handful of toilets. Moreover, the settlement was cut off from the rest of the city, unlike any other settlement I had visited during my six-year-long research in Tiruppur – a medium-sized city in Tamil Nadu state in southern India. This brief essay provides an overview of the economic and environmental injustices that climate-displaced laborers like Rani and Rekha confront as they seek livelihoods in distant cities. I also discuss how progressive planning can identify and address these growing injustices to build sustainable, climate-resilient futures.

Rani, Rekha, and every one of the 500-ish adults in that informal settlement was a municipal sanitary worker in Tiruppur, a city famous for manufacturing over half of India’s annual t-shirt exports. Sanitary workers like Rani, Rekha, and their kin members were recent additions to the city’s essential (sanitation) workforce. In 2014, Tiruppur’s municipal government entered a public-private partnership (or PPP) with a private waste management company to collect, transport, and dispose garbage from thirty of the city’s sixty municipal wards. A severe sanitary worker shortage prompted this move. Prevailing municipal staffing norms dictated that the city have at least 3000 full-time sanitary workers to service its population. Still, it had just 726 workers on its books. Neoliberal statewide hiring freezes had curtailed the municipal government’s ability to fill this gap even as the population (and garbage) kept growing. Privatization was the lower-cost alternative for Tiruppur and many other cities aspiring to be clean for business. In Tiruppur, private contractors employed out-of-state ‘climate migrants’ like Rani, who were desperate, cheaper, and easier to control than the in-state sanitary workforce. The latter was organized because of a rich history of statewide struggles for Dalit workers’ rights. Whereas the private companies charged the city 663 rupees per worker per day in 2021, workers reported receiving only 300 rupees a day. They also received no benefits except for employee quarters in the form of tin sheds. In contrast, temporary in-state workers earned 400 rupees daily and permanent municipal staff received over four times the daily wages with additional employee benefits.

Migrant workers slogged for their meager wages. Each morning, they reported for duty at 5 a.m. sharp. They walked door-to-door in assigned neighborhoods, collecting garbage in small pushcarts or battery-operated tricycles, and dumped it in large bins or designated points on the city’s main streets, from where it would be picked up and transported to disposal sites by the city’s garbage trucks. These workers labored till about 2 p.m., after which they returned home to make lunch, eat, recuperate, sort trash, and sell the recyclables for chai-paanee (incidental expenses).

Saravanan, a Tiruppur-based union leader, who had been organizing in-state sanitary workers for decades, reflected on these demographic shifts in the city’s sanitary labor force. He explained that out-of-state migrant workers were mainly introduced to “discipline” any organizing by local labor (and unions) for fair wages and just work conditions. Saravanan noted that sanitary workers in general (all Dalit across Tiruppur) faced multiple environmental injustices since they handled trash, suffered occupation-related health impacts, and experienced social untouchability. However, he found the conditions that migrant workers labored in especially dehumanizing. “Unlike permanent-locals, migrants quietly bear multiple injustices. They neither receive fair wages nor does the contractor pay them on time. Have you seen where and how they live? Their kids are also denied their right to education in local schools. In short, they do essential work but go socially unrecognized.” He and other activists found it extremely difficult to organize migrant workers and build solidarities not only because of language barriers, but because the contractor swiftly fired anyone who tried to unionize.

As Saravanan noted, sanitary workers confronting environmental injustices is neither new nor a Tiruppur-specific phenomenon. However, the environmental injustices faced by migrant workers reveal that the extra dehumanization of the climate-displaced ‘other’ is central to Tiruppur’s cost savings goals and efforts to build a clean city for textile business operations. Moreover, these injustices and the migrant workers’ experiences reveal an insidious local operation of global racial capitalism, which profits through the devaluation of particular bodies, identities, and the labor associated with them. Recently, geographers Pallavi Gupta, Malini Ranganathan, and their colleagues have argued that global racial capitalism gets furthered in India through the exploitation of Dalit-Bahujan caste and tribal labor. Similarly, Tiruppur’s brand of racial capitalism creatively seeks new ways to profit off migrant labor as the local, Tamil-speaking Dalit workforce becomes unavailable and intractable thanks to statewide anti-caste struggles for welfare provision and affirmative action. Here, climate displacements aid racial capitalism, compounding environmental injustices.

I argue that climate crises like the droughts in central India present opportunities for progressive planning praxis just as they do for racial capitalism. They prompt radical activists to learn new languages and forge radical, cross-ethnic Dalit solidarities so that climate-displaced workers are not ‘othered’ to serve racial capitalism in their destinations. They also force activists and progressive planners to question the pervasive but ultimately racist/ caste-ist - logic of cost-savings that drives municipal service planning and demand contracts that ensure fair wages, housing, and working conditions for all essential workers regardless of their geographic origins or caste. Since labor exploitation is a key dimension of environmental injustice, environmental justice struggles are ultimately labor struggles. Therefore, a progressive planning praxis confronting climate crises must also leverage decades-long anti-caste mobilization in the region to organize and demand legislative reforms that extend state welfare to out-of-state, Dalit essential workers if it hopes to realize a sustainable and environmentally just future.

Nidhi Subramanyam is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Her research investigates how planning, policies, and governance intersect with and enhance water security and adaptive capacities for socially marginalized communities in rapidly urbanizing regions.




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