India’s Existential Climate Threat

‘Maelstrom of death and destruction’

By: Neeta Lal

India, having been hit with an endless maelstrom of death and destruction from extreme weather events almost every month over the past two years, is likely to face weather patterns that will impact everything from national security to the economy to social dynamics according to an ominous new report released by the Center for Science and Environment.

Originally a reluctant signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017 shifted gears dramatically and said it would be a "morally criminal act" for the world not to do its part on climate change. Underscoring his concerns, changing weather patterns are now having a dramatic effect on the economy.

The report, the State of India’s Environment 2020, adds that 48 percent of the deaths in Asia occurred in India during 2018-19 because of extreme weather events including drought, wildfire, flood, landslides, extreme temperatures and fog to storm. In 2019, there were more climate-related deaths in the country even though the number of such events was fewer: 2,038 people died in 2019 due to extreme weather events compared to 1,396 in 2018. 

In October and November, cyclones Hikaa, Kyarr and Maha in the Arabian Sea and cyclone Bulbul in the Bay of Bengal roiled coastal towns and cities. With cyclone Pawan in December, cyclones in the northern Indian Ocean region ballooned to eight, the highest in a single year since 1976.

“The continuity of extreme events from one month to the next means that the world needs to always be on its toes,” the report said. “Scientists and environmentalists have called this a climate emergency.”  

Other studies have underscored the destruction wrought by climate change damage in India. According to environmental think tank Germanwatch, countries like India are far more prone to global warming than most of its neighbors. The organization ranks India as the fifth-most vulnerable in terms of extreme weather events. It forecasts that global warming will see average temperatures in India surge by 1-2° C by 2050. 

While the impact of the climate crisis is being seen across all sectors, what is worrying sociologists more is that increasingly, a clear link is emerging between the climate crisis and social instability. A 2018 study, Climate Change and Violent Conflict: Sparse Evidence from South Asia and Southeast Asia noted that as the effects on livelihoods become more pronounced, support for rebel groups is likely to shoot up while triggering greater migration and mobility. 

“Indian policymakers thus need to address challenges keeping in mind these fundamental questions: How to integrate principles of resilience into India’s agricultural system? How do governments ensure that mega-cities are less vulnerable to the effects of mass urbanization? What is India’s long-term plan to finance rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in the event of climate-induced disasters?” says an editorial in the Hindustan Times.   

While states like Orissa and Uttarakhand are relatively better equipped to handle such crisis, others are woefully inadequate given the magnitude of the problem and the country’s size. Administrative lethargy, lack of foresight and planning will only further exacerbate the suffering and plight of climate migrants across the country in the years to come.

Climate scientists and experts who prophesied centuries ago about social instability, war and conflict arising out of global warming were dismissed as doomsayers. Unfortunately, they still are by leaders like US President Donald Trump and Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro. But the world over, these prophecies are coming true as disasters are displacing more people as compared to even war, conflict and violence.

According to the World Migration Report (2020), at the end of 2018, there were 28 million new internal displacements across 148 countries and territories. Some 61 percent (17.2 million) of these new displacements “were triggered by disasters, and 39% (10.8 million) were caused by conflict and violence,” the report says.

This scenario is especially worrying for countries of the Indian subcontinent as South Asian populations are particularly vulnerable to slow-onset and rapid-onset disasters related to natural hazards and climate change. In India, migration trends show that people are usually forced to migrate from rural to urban areas as a result of an ecological calamity leading them to seek refuge in megacities for employment opportunities and better lifestyles. 

In such movements, say demographers, it is usually the men who migrate leaving behind their children and spouses. This is a much-overlooked aspect of migration in India that impacts women the hardest.

“Climate migration has impacted millions of families across India,” said ecologist Radhika Batra. “Drought has increasingly led the men to abandon their farms and families to shift to cities for work. In such a scenario, women are increasingly taking on their husband’s agricultural duties as well, while still engaged in household chores and taking care of children and seniors. The unfolding climate crisis is thus becoming an urgent economic, social, and existential threat for people.” 

Issues arising out of migration become even more concerning in a country like India where politics is often added to the already contentious mix. Indian politicians, as is their wont, exploit the migrant issue to create friction between the so-called outsiders and the locals to create vote banks. 

Given such dynamics, experts say that what is really needed is a long-term, anticipatory approach to planning which factors migrants into their development strategies. Indian states need to thus chalk out a framework to provide migrants with opportunities to restart their lives. Some states, like Kerala and Rajasthan, have addressed this problem to some extent by launching special social welfare schemes. Other states can follow suit.  

In an essay, Can India’s cities accommodate climate migrants? climate change expert Dhanapal G recommends that cities recognize migration as a challenge, particularly of those displaced due to climate change and other natural disasters and have appropriate urban development policies and programs to accommodate them. Providing low-cost housing and skill development for migrants would be of high importance. 

It is important, adds the expert, for cities to recognize that migration is not necessarily a burden and could contribute to labor in industry and the manufacturing sector, adding to the local economy and diversity of the workforce while providing a livelihood option to climate migrants. 

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor & journalist and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel who tweets at @neeta_com