Climate Change

Can India’s cities accommodate climate migrants?

Our urban areas need to have appropriate development policies and programmes to accommodate those displaced by climate change

By Dhanapal G
Published: Tuesday 11 June 2019
Locals at Ghoramara Island in the Sundarbans which is disappearing due to coastal erosion. Photo: Flickr
Locals at Ghoramara island in the Sundarbans that is disappearing due to coastal erosion. Photo: Flickr Locals at Ghoramara island in the Sundarbans that is disappearing due to coastal erosion. Photo: Flickr

The term ‘climate migrants’ is used to refer to people displaced due to climate change impacts such as sea level rise, floods and droughts. 

It is a common notion that climate migrants could lead to an increase in the number of urban poor and add to urban development challenges.

In India, evidence about climate migration is less although the number of climate migrants could be high, given the recent events of frequent floods and droughts. This number could increase in the future. 

The urban poor surely present a challenge for urban development. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in its 61st round in 2004-05, estimated that the population of urban poor increased by 34.4 per cent from 1973 to 2004. 

But the increase in urban poor due to climate change impacts, though not accurately measured, has been far less. The Census 2011 shows that less than 20 per cent of India’s population growth was due to rural-urban migration. 

The 64th round of NSSO, in 2007-08, titled Migration in India identified natural disasters including floods and droughts as one of the major reasons for migration, but the figures were as low as 13 per 1,000 migrant households reporting natural disasters as the reason for migration.

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Increased sea level rise in the inhabited islands of the Sundarbans, drought in central India and extreme floods in the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins are already displacing people.

Evidence on their migration (temporary and permanent) is lacking, particularly on the seasons of migration, individuals or families, nature of work and earnings.

Even a marginal rise in climate migrants to cities could be an urban development challenge. This holds true for two reasons: Cities don’t have adequate infrastructure to host migrants and the migrants are unlikely to have the required skills to work in urban areas.

According to the Census 2011 report, the infrastructure gaps in cities were poor. Less than 70.6 per cent of urban households were covered by individual connections of water supply and over 17 per cent of urban population lived in slums.

The high powered expert committee report on urban infrastructure in 2011 observed that despite three "decades  of  rapid  economic  growth, rural urban migration has remained relatively low; as industrialisation  has  been  capital  intensive  and  the services boom fuelled by the knowledge economy has also been skill intensive".

In such an urbanisation pattern, there can be little scope for finding employment in urban areas for climate migrants if they are displaced by extreme events in future. 

With a lack of skills, the only possibility of employment for climate migrants would be as unskilled labourers in construction and manufacturing industries.

And 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. 

The report of the working group on migration released by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in 2017 is timely and makes strong recommendations on better social security, living conditions, education, and access to healthcare, skilling and financial inclusion for migrants. 

However, it is for the cities to recognise migration as a challenge, particularly of those displaced due to climate change and other natural disasters in the future and have appropriate urban development policies and programmes to accommodate them. 

Providing low-cost housing and skill development for migrants would be of high importance. 

And it is important for cities to recognise that migration is not necessarily a burden and could contribute to labour in industry and the manufacturing sector, adding to the local economy while providing a livelihood option to climate migrants. 

Dhanapal has worked on the preparation and implementation of SAPCC with state governments, and with multilateral and bilateral agencies. He is an independent consultant on climate change and environment.

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