India's Middle Classes and the Environment


  • I would like to thank all the delegates of an ESRC-sponsored symposium on India's middle classes and the environment (20–22 August 2003), for their insights and expertise, and Glyn Williams, as co-organizer. The research was initially made possible through a Fellowship from the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs (2001–2), and then the ESRC Environment and Human Behaviour grant, for which I am extremely grateful. The paper would not have been possible without the generosity and insight of the many people I met and interviewed during a research visit in February and March 2002. I would also like to thank three anonymous referees for their helpful comments.


The focus of most analyses of environmental struggles and discourses in colonial and postcolonial India is on rural and forest areas, and on subalterns versus elites. Recently, however, there has been increased interest in urban environmental issues, and, to some extent, in India's (variously defined)‘middle classes’. This article reviews a range of literatures — environmental, social-cultural and political — in order to draw out themes and arguments concerning the relationships between India's middle classes and the complex meanings and materialities of the environment. Three issues are explored in detail: civic indifference and the public sphere; environmental activism; and Hinduism and ecological thinking. The article emphasizes the importance of recognizing diversity and dynamism within the middle classes in relation to the environment. It argues the need to develop situated understandings of what constitutes ‘the environment’ amongst different middle class groups; and underlines the ways in which environmental issues reflect and are often emblematic of wider social and political debates.