The Moderating Effect of Democracy on Climate-Induced Social Conflict: Evidence from Indian Districts

AuthorAnoop Sarbahi,Ore Koren
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211034572
The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of
research on the relationship between environmental stress
and violent conflict (e.g., Bretthauer 2015; Gleditsch
2012; Gleick 2014; Koubi et al. 2012; O’Loughlin et al.
2012; Theisen 2008). The insights provided by this strain
of research notwithstanding, there are two important lim-
itations that still persist and limit our ability to understand
how climate impacts local conflict. In this study, we
address both limitations, discussed below, by focusing on
how the intersection of environmental stress and local
institutional arrangements affect social conflict.
First, limited attention was given to localized societal
conflicts, which lack the militarization associated with
organized armed wars and are often rooted in socioeco-
nomic divisions that can be affected by environmental
stress and then potentially feed into existing armed con-
flicts or escalate into new ones.
Indeed, several studies find the effect of environmen-
tal stress is more likely to manifest as low-level inter-
group conflicts rather than large-scale civil wars, at least
in Africa (Benjaminsen et al. 2012; Meier, Bond, and
Bond 2007).1 Second, until recently, climate–conflict
nexus research paid relatively little attention to the polit-
ical context where violence takes place, even though
contextual social structures and political institutions
likely play a significant role in moderating the effects of
environmental shocks (Buhaug 2010; Salehyan 2008).2
Indeed, political science research has long recognized
the centrality of institutions in shaping a host of political
phenomena, including conflict (e.g., Coleman and
Mwangi 2015; Przeworski 2010). Hence, there is a need
for geographically restricted analysis of the contextual-
ized effects of environmental stressors on social conflict
(Bernauer, Bohmelt, and Koubi 2012), especially outside
of Africa (Adams et al. 2018).
Building on recent literature on localized social con-
flict (e.g., Detges 2016; Mustasilta 2019), we bring evi-
dence from South Asia, a highly vulnerable region in terms
of food and water security yet largely understudied, to shed
light on the impact of environmental stress on social con-
flict. We examine the effect of droughts on violence against
underprivileged social communities in India—lower castes
or untouchables (dalits) and Indigenous ethnic groups (adi-
vasis), officially designated by the Indian government as
34572PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211034572Political Research QuarterlySarbahi and Koren
1University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Minneapolis, USA
2Indiana University, Bloomington, USA
Corresponding Author:
Anoop Sarbahi, Department of Political Science, University of
Minnesota, Twin Cities, 267 19th Avenue S #1414, Minneapolis,
MN 55455, USA.
The Moderating Effect of Democracy
on Climate-Induced Social Conflict:
Evidence from Indian Districts
Anoop Sarbahi1 and Ore Koren2
Do political institutions moderate the effect of environmental stress on social conflict? We posit that while the
frequency of social conflict in developing agrarian states can increase during drought, democratic competition
reduces conflict and can facilitate cooperation, reversing this effect. This hypothesis is tested on a sample of all
districts in India over a period from 2001 to 2014. The dependent variable captures the number of crimes perpetrated
against scheduled castes—so-called “untouchables”—and scheduled tribes—India’s Indigenous groups—during a
given district-year. When the effect of drought is moderated using a local electoral competition index, findings
show that although droughts increase the frequency of social conflicts where political institutions are weak, they
reduce it where political institutions are strong. The results are robust to alternative operationalization choices.
Our findings, thus, have relevance both to scholars of the climate–conflict nexus and to policymakers working to
address climate change’s effects.
electoral competition, environmental conflict, caste violence, democracy, droughts, India
2022, Vol. 75(3) 892–905

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