Climate Change

‘It is high time India has a law that recognises climate migrants’

Down To Earth speaks to Member of Parliament, Pradyut Bordoloi,on the Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022

By Zumbish
Published: Sunday 01 October 2023

Photograph courtesy: National Portal of India

On December 9, 2022, Member of Parliament Pardyut Bordoloi introduced a private member bill to recognise climate migrants and ensure their holistic rehabilitation.

In an interview with Zumbish, Bordoloi talks about how the Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022, offers a long-term solution to climate-induced migration in the country.

The proposed bill, he says, is imperative for the over 14 million climate-induced migrants in the country as it will ensure holistic rehabilitation.

If passed, it will for the first-time provide a framework to rehabilitate people who are affected by both sudden disasters such as floods and cyclones and slow-onset disasters such as river and ocean erosion, drought and desertification. Edited excerpts:

Zumbish (Z): What prompted the Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022?

Pradyut Bordoloi (PB): There are over 14 million Indians currently displaced due to environmental disruptions, suggests a 2020 report by international agencies Climate Action Network South Asia and ActionAid. Today, 27 of the 29 Indian states and seven Union Territories are already experiencing recurring natural hazards.

As the climate emergency escalates, it is only likely that climate-driven migration and displacement will worsen. The 2020 report estimates that the displaced population in the country will increase to 45 million by 2050.

India currently lacks a law that recognises climate migrants. The country urgently needs a uniform legal and policy framework that guarantees the rights of people who have been displaced or forced to migrate due to environmental disruptions. It is imperative to mitigate further displacements.

Z: What are the highlights of the Bill?

PB: It is a first-of-its kind Bill that covers both sudden disasters like floods and cyclones and slow-onset disasters like droughts, erosion, glacial melt and desertification.

Current policies only address sudden disasters and do not take into consideration slow-onset events. They also focus on immediate relief at disaster sites, and often ignore holistic rehabilitation of the displaced.

The Bill defines climate migrants. It calls for the establishment of a designated fund for their rehabilitation and proposes an inter-ministerial authority at the national and state levels.

The proposed authority will have four broad functions: monitoring and assessing the risk of climate migration; prevention and mitigation of climate migration; relief and compensation for climate migrants; and resettlement, rehabilitation, and reintegration of climate migrants. The Bill, in a nutshell, will reaffirm the rights of climate migrants and ensure they are rehabilitated with dignity.

Z: How has migration changed over the years?

PB: Prior to and at the time of Partition, migration had taken place from erstwhile East Pakistan, where communities settled down in riverine areas of the Brahmaputra river system and low-lying areas of Assam.

However, now due to climate change, particularly riverine erosion, has led to internal displacement of these vulnerable communities. While the administration has largely overlooked the problem, the affected communities have suffered because of the absence of any legal framework or bonafide recognition of them being Indian citizens.

Z: What has been the role of large-scale infrastructure in the climate crisis?

PB: Mega hydel projects are being built on the upper stream of the Brahmaputra (river) water system and they have severe environmental impact on downstream areas. Even though symbolic measures are taken in the environmental impact assessment of individual projects, the combined adverse effect on the downstream areas is seldom assessed.

Infrastructure development is crucial for a region like the Northeast. However, this cannot be the excuse for overbuilding infrastructure in a region that is arguably not ready for it.

There is clear evidence that environmental degradation will have lasting effects on generations to come and cause irreversible damage to the region’s landscape, natural resources, and biodiversity. The recent Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, severely weakens environmental regulation and puts an eco-sensitive region like the Northeast at great risk.

Z: Several questions remain over ownership of resources across the northeastern states. Do you think the proposed Bill has any scope to cover resource ownership?

PB: The Bill, in a prescriptive manner, directs the rehabilitation of affected communities. This is done by providing alternatives to climate migrants in the form of land grants, aid in the form of livestock, access to waterbodies, forests and other commons. The question of resource ownership is a complex one, especially in the Northeast, and will require greater consultation and consensus.

Z: What is the status of the Bill’s passage in Parliament at present?

PB: It was introduced on December 9, 2022, and is currently pending a discussion. I am hopeful, despite the track record of Bills introduced by private members, particularly of the Opposition party.

This was first published in the 1-15 September, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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