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Is India Equipped to Deal with the Climate Refugee Crisis?

By Archisha Tiwari

Abstract

India recently unveiled its theme of the G20 Presidency as “One Earth One Family One Future” in light of its commitment towards the climate change movement but as cases of internal displacement due to environmental conditions and climate refugees rise, India lacks a framework and methodology to deal with the same. This article will attempt to focus on the current statistics and status of climate refugees and internally displaced persons in international law and domestic law, arguing for the need for a structural mechanism to redress the grievances of those affected in India. This will be substantiated through an examination of the Sundarbans region of India.

Introduction

The G20 is an intergovernmental forum comprising of 19 countries and the European Union that aims to address issues relating to the global economy including climate change and sustainable development. With India assuming its presidency in December 2022, it has unveiled the theme of its presidency as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or “One Earth One Family One Future”. India is clearly intending to send the message that it is committed to curbing climate change mitigations and promoting holistic growth with the surrounding ecosystems. But this theme also brings forth an essential question of the plight of climate change-induced displacement and refugees in India and its neighbouring countries and instead of a distinct answer, there is yet again a legislative gap and intent.

Refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and the stateless are at the front of the climate emergency. In 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 21.5 million people have been displaced due to climate emergencies. Presently, there is an internal displacement in countries but in exceptional circumstances, people are forced to flee countries. With rising sea levels, increased floods, droughts and more the latter risks becoming a common practice than just an ‘exceptional’ circumstance. The term ‘climate refugees’ has not been officially defined in any framework and it does not have an endorsement by UNHCR either, and without any structure, the people become extremely vulnerable and risk having their human right to life violated as there is no institution responsible for their protection. The countries continue to debate extensively on the semantic differences between words when it comes to settling on a definition all the while they are removed from the ambit of the conventional definition of a refugee.

The Situation in India

India is deeply committed to environmental protection and preventing climate change and it is evidenced by its commitments towards the Paris Agreement through multiple targets, policies and commitments; yet an estimated 14 million migrated as a consequence of extreme climate conditions in 2020 and these conditions are predicted to forcibly displace 45 million people by 2050. Surbhi Arul in her article mentions that farmers from coastal Odisha and West Bengal migrate due to agricultural land turning infertile as a result of rising sea levels, fishing communities struggle due to cyclones and people from the Himalayan region migrate to the plains due to water scarcity and erratic rainfall. These are but a few examples of the risks of frequent climate disasters. Climate change is substantially altering the livelihoods of numerous individuals in India and the law provides them with hardly any protection. Not only that, but India also needs to prepare itself for the migration from other neighbouring countries, especially from Bangladesh which is facing a severe crisis of land and water. While the Indian Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav, confidently answered in the March Lok Sabha session that India is prepared for climate refugees, there is no policy or framework for the same. This crisis in India can be explained further through a deep analysis of the Sundarbans area that is facing the effects of the climate.

Case Study: The Sundarbans

Sundarbans is the world’s largest continuous mangrove forest that lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal and is spread across India and Bangladesh and is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. It has tremendous biodiversity and is home to close to 300 species of flora and 425 species of wildlife including the critically endangered Royal Bengal Tigers. Not only that it supports approximately 4.37 million people who are dependent on the environment either directly or indirectly. Sundarbans have not been exempted from the effects of climate change. The region faces the threat of increasing temperatures and rising sea levels, the latter has risen at a rate double the global average along with frequent cyclones. This is affecting mangrove growth and agricultural patterns and is threatening the entire ecosystem.

When it comes to the people in the region specifically, they are often ignored by the governments and other organisations who focus mainly on the flora and fauna while devising policies and schemes. Moreover, a lot of people living in the Indian delta comprise of partition refugees that fled from Bangladesh and initially used to live in resettlement camps where they were treated as prisoners than refugees and later some of them established small settlements around the region. These settlements are still unsafe and as the region continues to change with the climate, there are reported instances where women lose their husbands and thereby primary breadwinners to tiger attacks. Not only that they are forced to move out of the settlements after their agricultural lands become excessively saline and they even risk becoming climate refugees owing to their islands drowning, like the Ghoramara island of the region. The volatile nature of the region has also made girls and women victims of human trafficking as in one case a massive tidal surge washed away one’s house, belongings and livelihood and in search for income, they fell prey to trafficking.

Way Forward

Sundarbans is just one region, all of India’s coastal regions are at risk and people might migrate to inland. Not only that, reports suggest that more than five million people in Bangladesh are living in areas highly vulnerable to cyclones and storm surges which would lead to people fleeing their country and coming to India. Undoubtedly with the Indian population, there would be a strain on the resources.  In light of these circumstances, India needs to prepare itself for climate refugees and prepare a framework. This may be inculcated into its National Action Plan for Climate Change. India may not wait for the other countries to settle on a definition and vertically transfuse their definitions but can rather take a more proactive approach and can use its G20 presidency to open dialogue with leaders of neighbouring countries to devise a plan of action together. Surbhi Arul also rightfully brings forth a suggestion that a separate fund for climate refugees must be created. If a fund is to be created, then there must be implementation mechanisms in place that ensure that the funds are not being misused. Lastly, India needs to focus on its regional diversity, both geographical and cultural. The recognition is important because it ensures that adequate climate action plans are made with different regional requirements in mind, and it makes different towns and cities more tolerant and empathetic to the migrants, internally displaced and refugees. If our one earth really is our one family, as the theme suggests then empathy and understanding is the need for the hour to protect those who are most vulnerable to climate change. 

About the Author

Archisha Tiwari is a second-year student at Jindal Global Law School pursuing the course BA LLB Hons. and is deeply interested in the intersection of law and the environment.

Image Source: https://indiaclimatedialogue.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/sundarbans-people-new.jpg

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