Updated: Aug 24, 2021
A review of migratory patterns and public developmental policies
“Climate change now displaces more people than war, and India should be worried,” reads the title of an article published in February 2020 by Quartz India.
Surely enough, according to the World Migration Report 2020, at the end of 2018, over 28 million people have been displaced worldwide - 17.2 million as a result of natural disasters and 10.8 million as a result of conflict and violence.
India has the highest level of disaster displacement in South Asia in absolute terms and is consistently one of the highest in the world. In India, an average of around 3.6 million people a year were internally displaced between 2008 and 2019, the majority by flooding during the monsoon. The other reasons included earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, storm surges and drought. Prolonged conflict in Indian-controlled Kashmir, as well as ethnic and religious violence also trigger displacement every year, however, to a much lesser extent. Despite having been a year of much political turmoil that triggered large scale displacements, in 2019, there were more internally displaced persons (IDPs) in India due to disasters (5,90,000 people) than conflict and violence (4,70,000 people), as per the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - a UN body that assesses the science related to climate change - has warned that the worst impact of climate change will be seen on human migration, as the number and intensity of disasters increase. Extreme weather events like cyclones, droughts and tropical storms, have become frighteningly normal due to the devolving effects of global warming on the environment, and are wreaking havoc in disaster-prone regions.
Forced to adapt, climate-affected persons move to big cities in the search of a better and more stable life. However, more often than not, poor and untenured housing conditions, lack of social protection schemes like medical insurance, and inadequate resource supplies leave these people about as vulnerable in their new habitat as their old one.
These people are the ones who are called ‘climate migrants’.
Climate migration is an issue that has international recognition. “As regions become unlivable, more and more people will be forced to move from degraded lands to cities and to other nations,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a speech on climate change.
Many media and advocacy groups often refer to climate migrants - people on the move in relation to drought, floods, storms - as “climate refugees”. However, these people are not legally considered refugees. ‘Refugee’ is a legal term which has a very specific meaning centering on a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Art. 1, 1951 Refugee Convention). According to this convention, people leaving their countries for reasons related to climate stressors may not be considered refugees because the Convention does not recognize the environment as a persecuting agent.
Urgency of addressing climate change
“Today, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone.
By 2070, that portion could go up to 19%
Billions of people call this land home.
Where will they go?”
These are the opening sentences of a comprehensive story entitled ‘The Great Climate Migration Has Begun’ that was published by The New York Times Magazine in July 2020.
According to a path-breaking recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the planet could see a greater temperature increase in the next 50 years than it did in the last 6,000 years combined. By 2070, the kind of extremely hot zones, like in the Sahara, that now cover less than 1 percent of the earth’s land surface could cover nearly a fifth of the land, potentially placing one of every three people alive outside the climate niche where humans have thrived for thousands of years. Many will try to stay put, suffering through extreme climate, hunger and political chaos, but others will be forced to move on.
“Right now a little more than half of the planet’s population lives in urban areas, but by the middle of the century, the World Bank estimates, 67 percent will. In just a decade, four out of every 10 urban residents — two billion people around the world — will live in slums,” the NYT Magazine article reports.
Earlier this year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an explosive study estimating that, barring migration, one-third of the planet’s population may eventually live outside the traditional ecological niche for civilization.
Population theorists posit that, by the turn of the century, the world population will reach 11 billion and stabilise. While the growth of population from 7 to 11 billion may seem like a development that may merit concern, the real concern is not the growing world population, so much as the concentration of the growing population in which part of the world.
Prediction of population concentration by population theorist Hans Rosling
(These are rough, rounded-up figures in billion)
The data here suggests that the population growth will take place in the continents of Asia and Africa - and these also happen to be the places with many climate emergency-prone areas.
Understanding Climate Migration in the Indian context
Within the Indian context, climate-induced migration can be broadly divided into two categories:
Category 1: Internal climate-induced migration - Migrants who are forced to move from rural to urban areas as a result of an environmental disaster that might have destroyed their homes and farms.
Category 2: Climate Migrants - Migrants who move from Bangladesh in search of a better life in India.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most natural disaster-prone countries — a fourth of its land is just five feet above sea level while two-thirds are less than 15 feet above sea level. In the last three decades, close to a million people have been rendered homeless as a consequence of increasing erosion in the Brahmaputra river basin. The Sunderban Delta in Bangladesh is also seeing a constant rise in sea levels and incidents of salt-water intrusions.
Data reports that a large number of climate-affected Bangladeshis are moving to Malaysia, India, Pakistan and the Middle East, but many studies that have reviewed trends and empirical data suggest that Indian cities might not only be the preferred option for Bangladeshi migrants but also often the only option. India alone claims to have 20 million Bangladeshis living within its borders, with significant numbers having possibly entered illegally. Putting aside the nature of immigration, Bangladeshi climate migrants seeking aid from India are only set to increase in manifold rates in the future.
Both forms of climate-induced migration are hotly contested political and diplomatic issues. Climate migrants often lack representation, residency rights or social entitlements and hence find themselves clubbed into the category of illegal immigrants, with little or no effort made by the authorities to discern their motivation for migration. In a country like India where competition for jobs and resources is already very high, the issue is also repeatedly exploited for political gain. And recent developments such as the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act only make such laws more contentious.
Moreover, while India might be home to refugees from Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, it is one of the few countries in the world that has refused to sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol.
Over the years, a lack of political will in dealing with climate-induced migration has essentially meant that reforms have not kept pace with the problem. Politically, there is little indication that the government has any sustainable or long-term plans to deal with climate migrants.
Much like the pandemic, increasing extreme effects of climate change on the environment only makes systemic flaws and lack of social protection that much more stark and pronounced.
The tragic irony is climate change will displace those from their habitats who are least responsible for this planetary crisis. It is the rural poor with already limited means whose lives and livelihoods will be hardest hit. Social and gender relations can confer more disadvantage to women and children in particular, as often is the case in crises.
Per the Indian Planning Commission’s 2013 report, India has 270 million people who live below the poverty line of $1.90/day. A large majority of the country’s poor people live in rural areas who are most prone to climate-driven shocks due to their low adaptive capacity. And these are most often the people who are forced to pose the question, “Do I stay or do I go?” The majority of migrants displaced because of the environment are likely to come from rural areas, as their livelihoods often depend on climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture and fishing. However, climate migration out of urban areas is also possible as sea level rise affects the densely populated coastal areas.
Per the UNDP’s Migration and Human Development in India Report of 2009, nearly 100 million people in the country remain on the move for their livelihoods in any given year – a number endorsed by the Economic Survey 2016-17. Rising rural distress and urban-centric nature of economic growth mean migration is increasingly from rural to urban areas. Climate change will further push more people to move to cities.
Of course, this is a broad generalisation based on prevailing rural-urban inequalities in India and should be taken as such. Not all rural areas are ill-equipped, nor are all cities ready to accommodate a large influx of climate migrants. That caveated, not everyone in need of moving will be able to move out. Women, children and people from disadvantaged caste groups may be left in strained environments that exacerbate their vulnerability.
Need for better and inclusive developmental policies
It is all well and good that India is a signatory of the 2015 Paris Agreement and a part of climate action groups. We are barrelling towards extreme climate imbalance, and much more needs to be done in the sphere of inclusive development policies. Climate migration is a phenomena that is only gaining in momentum, and India has an ethical duty to cushion the disadvantages that climate-affected persons. Our response should consider the different vulnerabilities of those who move as well as the ones who stay, in both rural and urban areas.
In rural areas, this would involve supporting the livelihoods of people and strengthening social support systems, particularly for women, children and economically backward populations. Though social security measures like the PDS, NREGA and the ICDS, which cater to different population segments suffer from bad management, admin shortages and corrupt practices, if strengthened, they can provide important means for the rural poor to cope with climate shocks.
Even a marginal rise in climate migrants to cities could be an urban development challenge. Cities don’t have adequate infrastructure to host migrants. The 2015 Chennai Floods stand as a grave testament to that.
The migrants are unlikely to have the required skills to work in urban areas, and because of a lack of required skills, most displaced persons take up jobs as unskilled labourers in the construction and manufacturing industries. According to the Census 2011 report, there were many cities with infrastructure gaps, less than 70.6 percent of urban households were covered by individual connections of water supply, and over 17 percent of the urban population lived in slums.
Public policy responses in urban areas must include creating more inclusive and resilient cities that provide poor migrants and their families with social support - decent and dignified jobs, affordable housing, access to health and education, and improved water and sanitation facilities.
Amping up the implementation of these provisions and services will aid not just the migrated rural poor, but also the urban poor, and generate greater economic prosperity, create more plural urban spaces and communities, and lead to wider diffusion of progressive ideas and action on gender and caste-based inequalities.
Furthermore, it is important to recognise that migration is a last resort undertaking when all other options fail. It is when staying put involves hunger, disease, disability and even death. Hence, in what seems like living in a deeply ideologically fractured world, it is very important to not assign negative connotations to migrants and accord them the same respect and humanity as a citizen, if not equal rights.
If societies respond aggressively to climate change and migration and increase their resilience to it, food production will be shored up, poverty reduced and international migration slowed — factors that could help the world remain more stable and more peaceful. If leaders take fewer actions against climate change, or more punitive ones against migrants, food insecurity and poverty will plague the population, and restricted cross-border movement will cause suffering.
Roughly 1 billion people on earth live in extreme poverty. This will only worsen if protectionist policies become the norm. The window for action is closing, and whatever actions governments take next - and when they do it - makes a difference.
Harari, Y.N. (2018); 21 Lessons For The 21st Century
World Migration Report 2020 - Available online
Human Development Report 2019 - Available online
UNDP - Climate Change, Migration and Displacement (2017) - Available online
Boas, Ingrid; Climate Change Migration (India) (2012); Berkshire Publishing Group - Available online
United Nations University - Official website