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How COVID-19 Pushed India’s Climate Migrants to the Brink?

In India, around 3.6 million people are expected to have been displaced annually (between 2008-19) due to climate-induced disasters such as floods. Climate migration is often influenced by two types of drivers namely extreme events like storms, floods, and droughts, and slow-onset events like sea-level rise, saline water intrusion into agricultural land, etc. Such migration includes temporary or periodic displacement of people from more climatically vulnerable regions. Sometimes, this migration is also permanent — where climate refugees move to new cities, even countries, in search of a better and safer life.

In India climate migrants can be classified into two types, firstly people who are forced to move from rural to urban areas because of some climate disasters ruining their livelihoods or homes in their place of origin. Secondly, a good majority of people have moved from Bangladesh to India as climate migrants or refugees due to sea-level rise, or increased frequency of climate hazards in their country. Migrants of both these categories lack serious representation in the Indian context. It is estimated that around 20 million migrants from Bangladesh live in India and relocated due to climate disasters.

Uncertain Indian weather patterns, such as deviations in rainfall patterns and temperatures have rendered several regions unsuitable for agriculture and allied activities, which form the livelihoods of people in such vulnerable regions, particularly rural pockets. According to Global Climate Risk Index 2021, India is included in the top 10 most climate change-affected countries. This has led to national-level migration to urban and peri-urban areas around megacities. The recent COVID-19 pandemic added doubly to the pressure of migration, highlighting the apathy of the migrant population struggling to return to native towns. It also highlighted their poor quality of life which continued even after migration. Rapidly increasing population numbers coupled with poor planning have led to mounting pressure on health infrastructure and basic services in cities. This directly impacts migrants living in fringe areas, as they do not often have access to them.

While the pandemic has brought immediate attention to the migrant population’s poor standards of living, manifestations of climate change-induced migration often seen as one-off instances. Migrants may receive immediate support in terms of relief and rehabilitation in the aftermath of these disasters, but there is little long-term institutional support for their needs. Although we lack a proper record-keeping of climate migrants or migrants in general, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in India there are currently about 1.4 crore people who have been displaced due to climate change.

Migration in India can happen due to several socio-economic and structural factors. Rapid or slow onset of climate impacts such floods, droughts or delayed monsoons, water scarcity, etc., also play a crucial role. However, very few studies have tried to distinguish between migration caused due to climate stresses and other factors. According to the Costs of Climate Inaction: Displacement and Distress Migration 2020 report, by 2050 in India the number of climate migrants being pushed out of their homes due to climate disasters will be about 4.5 crore.

This has grave consequences for the poor, with the expected increase in the frequency of climate hazards set to impact them sooner. There are ripple effects of such hazards that can have a long-term impact on their lives, making recovery difficult. For example, the coastal communities and those who depend on the agrarian economy are affected by climate change as they take loans for buying seeds, fertilisers for better yield. Fishermen, similarly, take loans for vessels and nets for a better catch. Such communities will be severely affected by frequent floods, droughts, or even salinity ingress which are direct impacts of climate change, thereby making it imperative for such communities to either climate-proof their livelihoods or move into alternative modes of earning incomes. Moreover, warnings under the IPCC AR6 report on rising sea level and impending submergence of 12 coastal Indian cities by the end of the century add to these woes.

It is ironic then that those least responsible for climate change are most affected. Disasters affect highly vulnerable communities, especially women and children, who pay a bigger price thereby escalating pre-existing demographic inequalities. Different studies over the years have shown how women are more impacted during and after disasters, as rehabilitation camps are not able to adequately accommodate their needs or ensure safety.

Apart from permanent migration, circular or repeat migration is also a concern. Circular migration occurs due to climate variability like the delayed onset of monsoons. According to recent research, large swathes of these climate migrants move to megacities which increases population densities in urban slums. According to the 2011 Census, rural-urban migration has paved the way for a substantial increase in India’s population. This population concentrates marginalised sections of cities and these congested urban slums become breeding grounds for infectious diseases, and more recently, the pandemic. Large portions of the migrant population also end up competing for the same jobs, often ending up as unskilled, underpaid labour at construction sites. Many also live in peri-urban areas due to which there is prevailing jurisdiction and local governance-related confusion.

While the challenge is daunting, it is important to begin to address it as climate migrants or refugees are expected to increase substantially soon. The first gap that needs to be filled is that of missing data — developing adequate records of migrants across states. This includes details of their occupation, income level, basic service provision, etc. This can help outline effective short- and long-term policies and build financial support. Sub-national, district and sub-district governments must develop appropriate policies and mechanisms to provide safe accommodation, healthcare, food, and water to migrants, while also ensuring sustaining livelihood options for them. Appropriate policies for migrants around urban livelihoods, low-cost accommodation, and skill development, are the way forward for economies like India. Migration remains a very real and urgent challenge posed by climate change, and it is time India addresses it along with its other mitigation and adaptation commitments.

Parvathi Preethan was formerly a Senior Research Associate with the Climate Resilience Practice Team at WRI India.

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