NEW DELHI, Jul 26 2016 (IPS) - Deepa Kumari, a 36-year-old farmer from Pithoragarh district in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, lives in a one-room tenement in south Delhi’s Mongolpuri slum with her three children. Fleeing devastating floods which killed her husband last year, the widow landed up in the national capital city last week after selling off her farm and two cows at cut-rate prices.
“I was tired of putting back life’s pieces again and again after massive floods in the region each year,” a disenchanted Kumari told IPS. “Many of my relatives have shifted to Delhi and are now living and working here. Reorganising life won’t be easy with three young kids and no husband to support me, but I’m determined not to go back.”
As flash floods and incessant rain engulf Uttarakhand year after year, with casualties running into thousands this year, burying hundreds under the debris of collapsing houses and wrecking property worth millions, many people like Kumari are abandoning their hilly homes to seek succour in the plains.
The problem, as acknowledged by Uttaranchal Chief Minister Harish Rawat recently, is acute. “Instances of landslips caused by heavy rains are increasing day by day. It is an issue that is of great concern,” he said.
Displacement for populations due to erratic and extreme weather, a fallout of climate change, has become a scary reality for millions of people across swathes of India. Flooding in Jammu and Kashmir last year, in Uttarakhand in 2013 and in Assam in 2012 displaced 1.5 million people.
Cyclone Phailin, which swamped the coastal Indian state of Orissa in October 2013, triggered large-scale migration of fishing communities. Researchers in the eastern Indian state of Assam and in Bangladesh have estimated that around a million people have been rendered homeless due to erosion in the Brahmaputra river basin over the last three decades.
Research done by Michael Werz at the Center for American Progress forecasts that South Asia will continue to be hard hit by climate change, leading to significant migration away from drought-impacted regions and disruptions caused by severe weather. Higher temperatures, rising sea levels, more intense and frequent cyclonic activity in the Bay of Bengal, coupled with high population density levels will also create challenges for governments.
Experts say challenges for India will be particularly daunting as it is the seventh largest country in the world with a diversity of landscapes and regions, each with its own needs to adapt to and tackle the impacts of climate change.
Several regions across India are already witnessing large-scale migration to cities. Drought-impacted Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are seeing a wave of migration as crops fail. Many people have been forced to leave their parched fields for India’s cities in search of work. Drought has affected about a quarter of India’s 1.3 billion people, according to a submission to the Supreme Court by the central government in April.
Rural people have especially been forced to “migrate en masse”, according to a recent paper published by a group of NGOs. Evidence of mass migration is obvious in villages that are emptying out. In Uttaranchal, nine per cent of its villages are virtually uninhabited. As per Census 2011, of Uttarakhand’s 16,793 villages, 1,053 have no inhabitants and another 405 have less than 10 residents. The number of such phantom villages has surged particularly after the earthquake and flash floods of 2013.
The intersection of climate change, migration and governance will present new challenges for India, says Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank which does rehabilitation work in many flood- and drought-affected Indian states. “Both rural and urban areas need help dealing with climate change. Emerging urban areas which are witnessing inward migration, and where most of the urban population growth is taking place, are coming under severe strain.”
Tardy rescue and rehabilitation
Apparently, the Indian government is still struggling to come to terms with climate change-induced calamities. Rescue and rehabilitation has been tardy in Uttaranchal this year too with no long-term measures in place to minimise damage to life and property. In April, a group of more than 150 leading economists, activists, and academics wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling the government’s response “listless, lacking in both urgency and compassion”.
The government has also come under fire for allocating a meagre 52.8 million dollars for climate change adaptation over the next two financial years, a sum which environmental experts say is woefully inadequate given the size of the country and the challenges it faces.
Experts say climate migration hasn’t been high on India’s policy agenda due to more pressing challenges like poverty alleviation, population growth, and urbanisation. However, Shashank Shekhar, an assistant professor from the Department of Geology at the University of Delhi, asserts that given the current protracted agrarian and weather-related crises across the country, a cohesive reconstruction and rehabilitation policy for migrants becomes imperative. “Without it, we’re staring at a large-scale humanitarian crisis,” predicts the academician.
According to Kumari, climate change-related migration is not only disorienting entire families but also altering social dynamics. “Our studies indicate that it’s mostly men who migrate from the villages to towns or cities for livelihoods, leaving women behind to grapple with not only households, but also kids, the elderly, farms and the cattle. This brings in not only livelihood challenges but also socio-cultural ones.”
Geetika Singh of the Centre for Science and Environment, who has travelled extensively in the drought-stricken southern states of Maharashtra as well as Bundelhkand district in northern Uttar Pradesh, says the situation is dire.
“We’ve seen tiny packets of water in polythene bags being sold for Rs 10 across Bundelkhand,” Singh said. “People are deserting their homes, livestock and fields and fleeing towards towns and cities. This migration is also putting a severe strain on the urban population intensifying the crunch for precious resources like water and land.”
A study titled “Drinking Water Salinity and Maternal Health in Coastal Bangladesh: Implications of Climate Change” 2011 has highlighted the perils of drinking water from natural sources in coastal Bangladesh. The water, which has been contaminated by saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels, cyclone and storm surges, is creating hypertension, maternal health and pregnancy issues among the populace.
Singh, who travelled extensively in Bangladesh’s Sunderbans region says health issues like urinary infections among women due to lack of sanitation are pretty common. “High salinity of water is also causing conception problems among women,” she says.
Until the problem is addressed on a war footing, factoring in the needs of all stakeholders, hapless people like Deepa will continue to be uprooted from their beloved homes and forced to inhabit alien lands.