The plight of climate refugees

Extreme weather events are spurring more migrations within India

Weather incidents like recurring floods render thousands of people homeless in India every year. (Photo: Getty)
Weather incidents like recurring floods render thousands of people homeless in India every year. (Photo: Getty)

Pankaj Chaturvedi

Majuli, an island situated amidst the strong currents of the Brahmaputra in Assam, is being consumed by the mighty river. In 1951, this riverine island had an area of approximately 1,250 sq km and a population of 81,000.

Over the next 60 years, the population of the island more than doubled to 167,000, but the area shrank by two-thirds. Between 1950 and 2016, 107 out of 210 villages in Majuli were partially or completely submerged.

Experts have warned that Majuli could disappear entirely by 2040 due to increasing incidences of the Brahmaputra flooding over, caused by Himalayan glacial melt. It is pushing several thousands of people to migrate every year—first, to a safer place on Majuli, then onwards to Guwahati, Kolkata and beyond.

Majuli is a textbook example of climate change as the cause of massive human migrations within India. In many other parts of India, with rivers rapidly eroding their banks, people are rendered landless in no time. Farmers turn into cheap labour, and affected families are compelled to turn migrant in their search for livelihoods.

It is unfortunate that no policy has yet been formulated in our country regarding climate-triggered migration. The issue was not properly discussed even at the G-20 conference.

Human migration is not just a transfer of labour. It precipitates the end of entire systems of folk knowledge, as well as the indigenous civilisation and biodiversity of affected areas.

The terrible tragedy of the shrinking Sunderbans, famous for the country’s largest mangroves and the habitat of the Royal Bengal Tiger, and its impact on regions as far as the Ganga’s confluence with the sea, has forced people residing here for thousands of years to leave their homes.

Lohachara Island, which was completely flooded in the 1980s, was declared ‘disappeared’ in 1991, while Ghoramara, about 30 km north of the Bay of Bengal, is on the brink. Rapid erosion over the last four decades has reduced its size from 26 square kilometres to about 6.7 sq km. In 2011, its population was around 40,000.

Currently it stands at 5,193. Our coastal areas, home to approximately 17 crore people, are the first line to crumble under the assaults of climate change. The most dangerous erosions are along the sea shores, destroying villages, while rising water levels are threatening metropolitan cities as well.

Extreme weather conditions and the higher frequency of tropical storms and lightning strikes directly impact farming, housing and food availability. Super-cyclone Amphan, the most powerful storm ever to hit the Bay of Bengal, forced millions of people to evacuate their homes.

Globally, women and children bear the brunt of migration due to extreme weather. Floods and storms in India have left 6.7 million children homeless in the last six years. These children can no longer attend school.

A study conducted by UNICEF and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recently revealed that 22.3 million children in India, China and Philippines faced displacement between 2016 and 2021.

The reasons behind children being rendered homeless in these countries include geographical conditions like monsoon rains, cyclones and extreme weather incidents. In India, according to the 2011 census, about 45 crore people migrated internally, of which 64 per cent were from rural areas.

A large share of migrants comes from the low-income states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (36 per cent of the total out-of-state migration). Both these states are in the most cultivated Gangetic region of South Asia.

Some left their homes for temporary jobs, but the bulk of the migration was permanent. It is noteworthy that the Gangetic region is the most densely populated region of India, where about 640 million people live in poverty.

In recent decades, the pace of migration from these areas has increased and this trend is likely to continue. Rising temperatures adversely affect agriculture, increasing the vulnerability of rural populations dependent on marginal agriculture.

Climate change compels them to leave their native place in search of alternatives. Increased migration to metropolitan cities creates new problems of health, potable water, transportation, etc, in already densely populated areas. These conditions are exacerbated by heatwaves in summer and mosquito-borne diseases during the rainy season.

In terms of economics, migration has been an integral part of India’s development. People have long been moving within the country for better economic and social opportunities.

According to the 2017 Economic Survey of India, interstate migration was close to 90 million annually between 2011 and 2016, while the 2011 census recorded the total number of internal migrants at 139 million, or about 10 per cent of the population.

Migration resulting from climate change is different as it is not from choice; it is an enforced and inescapable fallout. Unfortunately, there is no plan in place to deal with our climate migrants. We do not have any provision for those displaced from their homes due to climaterelated threats.

Terms like ‘environmental refugee’, ‘climate refugee’, ‘climate displaced’ and ‘environmentally displaced’ have not yet appeared in our government vocabularies.

What a shame if, on the completion of 100 years of our country’s Independence, we remain immune to the tragedy of millions of people uprooted from their native places, cut off from their traditional occupations, struggling to survive without any help from their people or their governments.

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