No Place to Call Home – India’s Forced Climate Migrants

Climate change is intensifying forced migration across India. Source: IOM.

Climate change is a large-scale, long-term shift in the planet’s weather patterns or average temperatures. We are witnessing the negative impacts of changes In average temperature, rainfall, onset of sea levels, sea ice and glaciers etc. globally.

When compared to weather which is more dynamic, climate change is a much slower process. Hence, we generally perceive it to pose minimal or no threat, especially to an individual over his/her lifetime. However, through technological advancements over the past few decades, it has become apparent that climate change is disproportionately affecting lives across the planet, especially in the global south i.e. countries like India.

Climate-related threats are growing world over and they need to be acknowledged and addressed appropriately by governments and communities at large, across the world. After all, climate change is not only altering human existence forever, but it is also inflicting irreversible damage on the planet. In the context of India, the larger dilemma remains: whether we focus on development backed by industrial growth and contribute to climate change, or whether we address problems such as forced climate migration in the region, adopt long-term sustainable practices and possibly forego the promised “vikas” in a certain time period.

As it worsens, anthropogenic climate change is predicted to exacerbate issues of droughts and desertification, rise in sea levels, coastal erosion, salinisation of freshwater reserves in low-lying coastal zones, storms and flooding, and forced climate migration. Forced Climate Migrants are referred to as the human face of climate change. Pre-existing and related vulnerabilities, or those that are introduced due to climate disasters such as a cyclones, are likely to force migration from a region. However, the relationship between migrations patterns and vulnerabilities caused by climate disasters is highly complex; it needs further dissection to be better understood. 

Two examples can help understand the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ aspects of the relationship in the Indian

First, this research paper demonstrates that apart from the disaster itself, the regional and indigenous contexts also help determine how a climatic event is responded to. The paper gives the example of the 2004 tsunami which devastated large parts of the Indian Subcontinent in 2004, when relatives of those affected were reported to have moved to the area to care for them, demonstrating the ‘pull’ factor of disasters and complexity of migratory patterns. Hence it is important to ascertain the nature of the migration i.e. short term, long term or seasonal in all cases along with the reasons for migration, if forced.

Second, forced climate migrants from West Bengal, who migrated due to cyclone Aila that devastated the region in 2009 further illustrate the complexity of this relationship. The cyclone rendered thousands homeless, salinised land and forced migration from the Sundarbans. A 2018 report documented the lives of a few seasonal, forced climate migrants from the Sundarbans in Kerala. Such migrant groups have been working in Kerala as labourers, unable to earn a living in their home state. These vulnerable migrants were reported to have also been affected by the recent
floods in Kerala, forcing them to migrate back to West Bengal temporarily.

Also, reverse migration is seen in the case of migrant workers from the Sundarbans who were residing on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during the 2004 tsunami. This case illustrates the ‘push’ factor of climate crises. As climate change is predicted to worsen the conditions of low-lying coastal systems like the Sundarbans, these systems are already vulnerable to climatic disasters. Additionally, reports of the devastation during the Cyclone Aila era in West Bengal and comparatively in Orissa during Cyclone Fani in 2019, show that while the response to and
preparedness for such events has improved, the local resilience that needs to be built in the region is largely lacking.

Lastly, vulnerabilities are not limited to immediate physical threats which impact an individual, much like in the case of the forced climate migrants from the Sundarbans. The vulnerabilities that manifest due to unsuccessful recovery from climatic crises are also economic, social and political in nature. As time passes, they magnify if they remain unaddressed, especially in the case of women and children. Weak familial ties and social systems, for example, can lead to higher instances of structural and societal inequality and vulnerability.

Such forced climate migration can be better dealt with policy and administrative interventions. These interventions can make local systems more adaptive, as well as reduce the vulnerabilities of migrant workers and locals within those systems. Women, children, SCs and STs, especially in rural zones prone to climatic disasters, can benefit immensely if social and economic support systems for them are strengthened, and the administrative delivery of government programmes and benefits is streamlined. Health systems and economy-focused planning of vulnerable zones are required to deal with forced migration scenarios better.

Reports suggest that livelihood security in the form of land ownership, having a bank account, and access to credit and insurance better equip individuals to deal with climatic crises. People-to-people cooperation between urban and rural populations, building of networks, and empowerment of vulnerable communities at a socio-economic level are a must for India to tackle this internal crisis. It is these processes which will maintain harmony and balance within demographics, and control forced and other forms of migration from rural to urban spaces, thereby empowering the rural economy and the vulnerable systems.

Trans-local resilience strategies help establish effective linkages pertaining to flow of resources, ideas, aid networks etc. These would be the ones enabling adaptation and helping reduce possible vulnerabilities, in the face of adversity caused by climate change.

Niharika Sharma

Niharika Sharma is a sustainable development and policy professional skilled in community development, research and analysis.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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