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With global temperatures rising, the geographical conditions are changing both rapidly and erratically. Icebergs are melting, which has resulted in a rise in sea levels. Losses of biodiversity, land degradation and unmitigated disasters have resulted in people becoming more vulnerable, especially those who are marginalised. As per the Climate Risk Index for 2018, 4 out of the top 10 countries are located in Asia while 3 of them are located in Africa.

Source: German Watch

In fact, Asia and Africa are more prone to natural disasters not only because of their geographical location, but also because of their lack of preparedness to handle and redress the after-effects of disasters. Added to this is the fact that together, Asia and Africa account for over 76% of the world’s population and most of them are developing economies.

In places with large population and limited land, it is not surprising that even low-lying coastal areas are developed into towns and cities. Overcrowding, especially in cities, exposes people to more environmental damage, especially in the cases or fires and floods. Such a scenario means that a considerable population is exposed to environmental risks.

And while the West has a tendency to club together all the countries of Asia-Africa as one contiguous block, the region’s climate, biological and social diversity, political situations, conflicts and social systems mean that climate change affects each of the countries in very different ways.

In fact, Asia and Africa are more prone to natural disasters not only because of their geographical location, but also because of their lack of preparedness to handle and redress the after-effects of disasters. Added to this is the fact that together, Asia and Africa account for over 76% of the world’s population and most of them are developing economies.

Climate Refugees?

With the violent transformations in environmental and climatic conditions, people are being forced out of their homes. The term Environmental Refugee or Environmental Migrant, first proposed by Lester Brown, is defined by the International Organisation for Migration as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.

As per a report published in 2018 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more people are now being displaced because of climate related conditions than conflicts. In fact, out of the 30.6 people who were displaced internally across 135 countries, 61% were forced out of their homes due to natural disasters.

It is thus becoming more and more evident that climate change requires urgent legislations, laws that regulate not just the damage we inflict on the environment, but also addresses those who bear the brunt of natural disasters.

Also read: Living In Denial: Why We Can’t Afford To Deny Climate Change

Where Does India Stand?

Eight-year-old Licypriya Kangujam, India’s youngest environment activist hailing from Manipur, asserts for the importance for climate laws and the need for including climate change as a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. Kangujam, who dropped out of school to protest in front of the Parliament every week, criticises the government for not doing enough, maintaining that developing countries disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change. In fact in 1991, in Subhash Kumar vs the State of Bihar, the Supreme Court ruled that Fundamental Right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution also contains the right to enjoyment of pollution free water and air.

As per the Climate Risk Index, India is the fifth most vulnerable country to be affected by climate change. Not only that, India’s poorest are the worst affected, since they are not rehabilitated properly. The report also mentioned how the year 2018 saw an increase in areas affected by droughts, with monsoon patterns changing drastically. 2019, however, told a different story. More than 1600 people died and about a million were displaced in floods that affected thirteen states of India. Such erratic climate patterns only increases the vulnerability of the Indian population.  In fact, the past few years have shown an increase in heat waves, sea levels, landslides, cyclones, heavy floods and soil erosion, all of which are a consequence of extreme climate change.  

According to IOM, Environmental Refugees are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.

It is estimated that by 2050, about 40 million people would be displaced because of climate change in South Asia alone. India’s precedence has shown that it is unprepared to tackle erratic weather patterns. Cities are overcrowded and unprepared to mitigate disasters; there are little safety nets for farmers when crops fail due to drought or flooding; and even when compensations are available on paper, they rarely reach those who are in need of money. Added to this are problems of constant deforestation especially in the North East, an increase in deaths linked to pollution (seven of the ten world’s most polluted cities are in India), illegal mining and the fact that there are few social, medical and economic securities available to marginalised groups.

Given the risk of disaster, and India’s unpreparedness, it is surprising that there isn’t a separate ministry for climate change. Clubbed with the Ministry of Environment and Forest, it has promised various reforms like involving private/corporate sectors in afforestation measures. However, the Modi government has failed to take into account rights of the tribal population, the bias made clear by a recent Supreme Court case that ordered eviction of about a million tribal people, even though the order was later stayed.

Kerala Floods 2018. Source: Aljazeera

Even in the 2020 budget, though Rs 4400 crore was allocated for pollution control, the government received criticism for not clearly mentioning how that money would be utilised. Moreover, the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change(NAFCC) have not received adequate attention for two consecutive fiscal years, a move environmentalists have criticised since it is in need of replenishment.

Despite making significant efforts to reduce carbon footprint by decreasing the dependency on coal, and encouraging the use of renewable energy, India was amongst the five bottom countries on the Environmental Performance Index 2018. Added to the ever growing population, it is the government’s inability to come up with conclusive environmental health policies, and redress those who have been forced out of their homes due to erratic weather patterns, which have made India one of the vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change. Needless to say that it is the economically weaker and socially marginalised who suffer the most from climate change.

As per a report published in 2018 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more people are now being displaced because of climate related conditions than conflicts. In fact, out of the 30.6 people who were displaced internally across 135 countries, 61% were forced out of their homes due to natural disasters.

Who Suffers More?

Climate change has created more problems for the economically weaker sections of the society, who already suffer because of a lack of access to resources. Lack of food security and livelihood displaces people. In India, it is mostly observed that men migrate in search of work while women stay back to look after the household. This has often led to women being overburdened with agricultural responsibilities, in addition to their household duties. In some cases, young girls are even married off because of shortage of food.

With the global South more prone to droughts, fetching water, often a woman’s task, have exposed to them to more dangerous situations and violence, according to a study by International Union for Conservation of Nature. In South Asia, lack of male population in rural areas has also made women more vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. Stringent gender roles have also made women more prone to malnutrition, where they are expected to put the needs of others above themselves. Due to climate change, women’s bodies have thus become more and more vulnerable to both overworking and violence.

In India, the caste system adds another complex layer of discrimination, whereby Dalits are often excluded from resource sharing where situations are desperate due to droughts or floods. In areas of grave water crisis, social exclusion has led to riot-like situations, where Dalits are denied access to safe drinking water. As per media organisations, Dalits are being denied water in 48.4% out of 100 villages because of segregation and untouchability.  The idea that Dalits would make a water body ‘impure’ and unfit for consumption by the upper castes has made life extremely difficult for them, where they end up suffering more due to the effects of climate change.

The intersectional nature of gender and caste has made resources scarcer for marginalised groups, thereby leaving them in a vicious cycle of deprivation and discrimination. Climate change only furthers their exclusion, since marginalised groups are the first people who are denied access to food, water and air due to social customs.  

The New Problem Of NRC And CAA

When the National Register of Citizens was finally made, about 19 lakh people were left out of the list. Aimed at identifying illegal immigrants, the NRC has received backlash for leaving out mostly poor, landless labourers and women, who did not have proper documents. Added to this is the Citizenship Amendment Act which grants citizenship to minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan except Muslims, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014.

“The intersectional nature of gender and caste has made resources scarcer for marginalised groups, thereby leaving them in a vicious cycle of deprivation and discrimination. Climate change only furthers their exclusion, since marginalised groups are the first people who are denied access to food, water and air due to social customs.”

Assam is touted to be one of the most vulnerable states in India to climate change. With lands that have been eroded or submerged under water, many people have been displaced and reduced to landlessness. Without adequate land records, those with lands now flooded by the Brahmaputra have found it difficult to prove their citizenship. Some whose lands were stopped being taxed after they had drowned were informed that previous tax records for the land prove nothing.

With the CAA, the worst affect are the landless Muslims, who after having been excluded, do not have a scope of being included as Indian citizens, even though most of them have lived in India for decades. Even those resettled in nearby villages were declared foreigners by the foreigners tribunals, not recognising different lands to be proof for the citizenship of one person. With 40% of Assam’s lands flood prone, those displaced because of the climate have literally been reduced to statelessness.

Another group that could widely suffer in case a nation-wide NRC is implemented is the adivasi population. Historically displaced from their forest-dwelling lands in the name of development, the names of their villages have been removed from government records. Further, claims for ownership of land are often rejected within The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), 2006, which was ideally meant to safeguard the rights of Adivasi population. With about 8.6% of India’s population, the adivasis who have time and again been reduced to climate refugees, can also now be rendered stateless.

People in Assam wait for rehabilitation as their lands have been eroded by Brahmaputra. Source: Mongabay

While there is no official confirmation whether a nationwide NRC will be implemented or not, with different BJP leaders saying different things, it is abundantly clear that climate refugees, especially those who are Muslims, are going to suffer.

What India needs is not only a commitment to work towards reducing its carbon footprints and pollution levels, but also coming up with proper policies that can mitigate losses during disasters. Now, more than ever, there is an urgent need to address the plight of those displaced due to climate change. As one of the countries prone to the effects of climate change, it is also imperative for the government to make India more disaster resistant, with adequate facilities to rehabilitate those who have been displaced due to natural disasters, land erosion, droughts, floods, pollution and erratic weather patterns.

However, with its exclusionary politics that envisages India as a Hindu Rashtra, it is questionable how successful the BJP government will be in addressing the climate crisis, while ensuring healthy living conditions to all its citizens.

Also read: How Holding Corporates Accountable And Empowering Women Can Alter Climate Change

References

  1. Climate Change: Perspectives From India
  2. How climate change leads to more violence against women, girls

Featured Image Source: BBC News

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