As per the estimates in theGroundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration Report 2018, by the World Bank, more than 140 million people in Africa, Latin America and South Asia are expected to move to another part of their country by 2050 to escape the worsening impacts of climate change — unless urgent action is taken to curb global warming and help people adapt. The report further stressed that if emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs) remain high, as many as 143 million ‘internal migrants’ might move within their own countries. Fast forward three years to an article in The Hindu, which states that presently, the “climate crisis is creating more refugees than war”, something that was predicted years ago by climate scientists and experts.
A case in point is the story of Sabita Biswas, a 70-year-old woman who lives with her grandchildren and daughter-in-law in Bhuragaon, a small village lying 103 km east of Guwahati. In the midst of the pan-India NRC, when Sabita Biswas, whose family had migrated to Assam from the other side of the border, submitted land ownership documents, under her husband and father-in-laws’ names, to the Foreigners’ Tribunal, they were rejected. This is simply because the land, which is a riverine island called the Arakati Char on the Brahmaputra, has been swept away by the mighty river due to continuous soil erosion for years. “When our village went under water we migrated to this place, Bhuragaon. Every year, flood takes away everything from us, including documents,” said Biswas in an interview by the India Climate Dialogue. Even though this has been the case for eons, the rates of erosion and floods have increasingly gone up due to climate change. Photik Chandra Mondal, a member of the locally elected village body, said that “almost 40 villages in the Bhuragaon circle have been lost due to erosion”.
This instance of impact of climate change is not a solitary incident in Assam. Both the reports of the IPCC and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) report published on February 09, 2020, highlight the fact that given India’s vulnerable position amidst the increasing intensity and frequency of natural disasters and extreme weather conditions, it is at increased risk of climate-change disasters. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, 27 of the 37 states and Union territories in India are disaster-prone, as reported by The Wire. While the Sundarbans spanning the states of India and Bangladesh are threatened by the rise in sea-levels, the mountains of north India are seismically fragile areas, and are susceptible to floods, landslides, earthquakes, and central India is prone to droughts. Mousuni, a village in the Sundarbans, right next to the eye of the Cyclone Amphan, saw utter devastation, after the cyclone made a landfall with a wind intensity of 165-175 km/hr on the evening of 20th May. In a post-disaster field report for the Third Pole, Joydeep Gupta writes, “You can see only the plinths of mud huts – the rest has been blown and washed away; all the trees are flattened; instead of the paddy crop that was standing when the cyclone arrived, you can only see puddles; dead fish cover pond surfaces – saltwater flooded the ponds and killed all the fish, which are rotting now.”
Nilanjan Ghosh’s report at the Observer Research Foundation says that the southernmost one-third portion of the Sunderbans has been inundated, leading to the relocation of around 1.5 million people. In the event of people in ecologically sensitive zones migrating from rural to urban areas, urban development and management could become a challenge. This is chiefly because cities neither have adequate infrastructure to host migrants, nor do migrants have the required skills to work in urban areas. Also, with the lack of adequate infrastructure in cities, migrants are likely to end up living in crowded temporary shelters with low access to drinking water, sanitation and health care facilities. This makes us question whether India has a legal framework solid enough to deal with an impending crisis of refugee inflow or even large-scale internal displacement within the country as a result of climate change. We find that India does not have any national legislation to specifically cater to this issue, and has, in fact, been criticised for it on several occasions. All the more, even International Refugee Law continues to be deficient in identifying climate refugees.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, which is the key legal document defining the term, ‘refugee’, as well as outlining their rights and the legal obligations of the States to protect them, restricts the definition of persecution to five grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group and political opinion. Environmental degradation or climate change was not considered compelling enough a reason at that time to come within the ambit of ‘persecution’ strictly. The conspicuous absence in the Convention is not conducive as it prevents the development of institutional mechanisms by states to deal with the problem. The law was formulated in order to respond to the horrors of World War 2, when the concept of climate refugees had not yet emerged as a pressing concern for the society, and in effect, the lawmakers and policymakers. However, even though the world is hugely different today, and influx of migrants both from beyond the border as well as due to internal displacement has charged the global political climate, international law hasn’t been able to speed itself up to it by accommodating an appropriate legislation. In fact, the lack of consensus on an acceptable definition of “climate refugees” has undeniably impeded the legislative process.
On the whole, addressing the issue of climate-induced migration will involve a two-pronged approach — an immediate mechanism for rehabilitation and a commitment to reversing or minimizing the deleterious effects that contribute to this migration. Specific vulnerable communities should also be identified so that targeted responses or rehabilitation measures can be meted out. Herein lies the importance of local self-governance institutions, which need to play an important role democratising the exercise of policy-making by making sure that the voices of all these communities are heard.
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