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Climate-induced displacement: A new normal for India's vulnerable communities

Tue, 04/07/2023 - 15:26

Climate change is uprooting lives and communities in India, leaving behind a trail of destruction that is hard to ignore. The lush terrain that once sustained millions is now turning into barren wastelands, as climate change continues to ravage the country. The scorching heat waves, erratic rainfall patterns, and devastating floods are leaving no stone unturned in upending the lives of millions of people, particularly those in rural areas. As climate change destroys livelihoods (think of scorched farms, rough seas and dead livestock) individuals are being forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in crowded cities. The climate-migration nexus is a harsh reality that India is battling with, as it continues to bear the brunt of the changing climate. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre's Global Report on Internal Displacement 2021, extreme natural disasters triggered 40.5 million new internal displacements across 149 countries and territories in 2020. India is mentioned as one of the countries that record some of the highest numbers of new displacements in the world every year, the vast majority of them triggered by disasters.

Extreme climatic events can trigger displacement either gradually, such as by means of sea level rise and desertification, or abruptly, through events like floods and storms. In fact, the 'Costs of climate inaction: displacement and distress migration' report estimates that by 2050 over 4.5 crore Indians will be forced to migrate from their homes due to climate disasters. Displacements of this nature can have detrimental effects in areas such as social well-being, economic stability, and environmental sustainability, leading to nations suffering significant setbacks across all areas of development as set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Some of these consequences include:

Human rights infringement: As a result of the displacement caused by climate change, individuals are facing a range of challenges. These include obstacles in rebuilding their means of subsistence, limited access to essential healthcare and education services due to frequent relocations, inadequate governmental support in meeting their basic needs and providing alternative job prospects. The Human Rights Council (Resolution 48/13)  in 2021 has acknowledged that climate change and environmental degradation have caused harm to millions of people globally, especially those who are vulnerable, and recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a fundamental human right.

Exacerbating existing inequalities: In India, climate change is amplifying pre-existing inequalities of a social and economic nature, particularly affecting marginalised groups like women, children, and the elderly. Furthermore, communities, such as indigenous people, low-income groups, and people living in coastal areas, are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to factors such as lack of access to resources, historical discrimination, and lack of political representation.

Rapid urbanisation and associated resource crunch: Another major consequence of displacement is the rapid urbanization associated with slum growth. As people move into urban areas, they often settle in informal settlements or slums, which can quickly become overcrowded and unsanitary. This can lead to the spread of disease, crime, and social unrest, adding to the challenges faced by displaced individuals and communities. Moreover, the increased demand for essential resources and services like food, water, housing, healthcare, and education can strain local and national resources and result in higher service costs. This can strain already stressed finances affecting India’s economic progress.

Disruption in Agricultural and fishing productivity: When families relocate, they have to leave their land behind, which means they can no longer rely on farming practices to support themselves, leaving them without a source of income. Similarly, displacement from coastal areas due to the loss of traditional fishing grounds can have a significant impact on the livelihoods of fishing communities. This can lead to a decline in overall productivity resulting in increased food prices which can have far-reaching implications for India’s economy, including impacts on food security, employment, and trade.

Threatens national and regional security: Climate change-induced displacement is a looming threat that can potentially destabilize national and regional security. Migration can exacerbate existing regional tensions, as countries may lack the capacity or willingness to manage a significant influx of displaced populations. In such situations, the displacement of people due to climate change can create resource-related conflicts, leading to a rise in regional tensions. Moreover, the movement of people across international borders can create new security challenges and potentially trigger conflicts between countries. 

Conclusion: To meet the challenges posed by climate-induced displacement, a comprehensive and multifaceted approach is required that includes mitigation and adaptation measures. Mitigation measures, such as curbing greenhouse gas emissions, are indispensable to prevent the exacerbation of this problem. The recent report from the Power Ministry reveals that putting up coal-fired power plants at Rs 8.34 crore per MW is a costly affair. This realisation is one added positive indication that the Indian government is moving in the right direction towards adopting cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.

However, given the already substantial impact of climate change, it is equally crucial to adopt adaptation and resilience-building measures, such as investing in robust infrastructure and services that can help communities withstand and bounce back from climate impacts. Early warning systems, flood control measures, and drought-resistant crops are some examples of such measures. On the adaptation front, India is doing commendable work in disaster resilience, with a focus on building community resilience and strengthening early warning systems. The government's Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), with an annual budget of $13 billion which is equal to nearly one lakh crore rupees, prioritizes natural resources management, water management, and infrastructure development to address climate adaptation priorities. This Act also promotes livelihood security and inclusion for marginalized communities. India's efforts in strengthening multi-hazard early-warning systems are aimed at addressing the unmet needs of the most vulnerable populations in climate risk hotspots. 

Apart from adaptation, the formulation of effective legal and policy frameworks is also of utmost importance to address the issue of climate-induced displacement in India. India must develop laws and policies that recognize the human rights of climate refugees, provide legal protections, and promote sustainable and equitable solutions. 

International cooperation is equally critical, as climate change is a global problem that necessitates a concerted effort. In essence, the challenge of climate-induced displacement in India is rooted in the fundamental issues of social justice and human rights. To tackle it effectively, the root causes of this phenomenon must be addressed, and the adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities enhanced. By adopting sustainable and equitable solutions, India can minimize the impacts of climate change and safeguard the rights and well-being of its people.

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