Climate Hazards and Displacement in India

IWMPost Article

Climate hazards have distressful consequences in India, not least in terms of displacements. People living in and around fragile ecosystems, which are also often conflict-ridden, are affected disproportionately by climate hazards, depending on their location and accessibility as well on management systems for rescue and relief. Displaced persons forced to migrate out of a climate disaster hotspot are further marginalized due to the lack of resources for them to adapt to hostile environments.

The number of climate-induced hazards has been increasing in India, with more than a 100 million inhabitants impacted by natural events like droughts and floods, leaving the country with the highest number of displacements due to such hazards among South Asian countries. Cyclones and storms have triggered most of the new displacements related to climate hazards, with the largest proportion of people affected living in urban and peri-urban areas. 

Climate anomalies across different parts of the country are evident through a number of calamities: while a coastal city like Chennai struggled due to water scarcity in 2019, states located in the northern riverine plains such as Assam and Bihar saw high water levels cause floods. Annually recurring floods increase the socioeconomic vulnerabilities of inhabitants in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam and in the Kosi River basin in Bihar. 

Fluctuations in monsoon rainfall have resulted in longer dry spells and heavy rains over a shorter time, causing waterlogging, submergence of land, and floods. In 2022, rainfall in India was 9 percent above average as a result of the interplay of dry and wet spells. The National Disaster Management Authority reports that more than 1 million people have been affected in Bihar due to the Kosi River flood and in the parts of Assam inundated by the Brahmaputra River and the breach of untended barrages and embankments, all induced by heavy rain in May and June 2022. The stagnation of water, the overflow of sewers, the contamination of drinking water sources, and the dearth of essential goods, clean water, and medical facilities increase the risk of outbreaks of vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue, as well as typhoid and cholera in the post-hazard and recovery phases. 

Failures to adapt, respond, and recover from environmental changes drive migration. Stress factors such as droughts, hailstorms, and floods have driven people from rural areas of the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh to cities like Delhi and Mumbai and the industrial region of eastern India in search of livelihood options. In 2019, there were reports of around 100,000 migrant workers being displaced due to prolonged droughts in parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. Extensive areas of seven districts of the state of West Bengal were inundated due to heavy rain and the subsequent discharge of water from dams in August and September 2021, causing hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced to thousands of emergency relief camps.

Water scarcity, crop failure, the rising sea level, and the intrusion of salt water into paddy fields in deltaic and coastal zones add to the number of climate migrants in India. Loss of land and salinization of soil are among the impacts of sea-level rise. Narratives of loss of land and means of livelihood have been emerging over a period of fifty to sixty years— especially of homes razed to ground and cattle lost after cyclones. The cyclones Amphan (May 2020) and Yaas (May 2021) as well the impacts of heavy monsoon rain have forced people to shift habitat in the Ganga delta, moving from one island to the other in search of opportunities to earn a living and build homes from scraps. 
Migration in India is still largely dependent on the seasonal nature of agriculture, and since livestock rearing and fishing are affected by extreme climatic events like drought and storms respectively, the cyclical migration from rural areas to urban areas and back is affected by erratic and low rainfall, water scarcity during droughts, or floods. Such conditions push migrants to move for longer periods to urban areas for assured livelihood opportunities and they can be a deterrent to migrants returning to their hometowns. One of the outcomes of this distress migration is that workers settle in one-room dwellings in squatter settlements and slums that offer little protection from damage or collapse when storms, incessant rain, and flash floods occur. 

The Bengal delta region, comprising the ecosystem of the Sundarbans, is a hotspot of hydro-meteorological hazards. Cyclones damage large stretches of land through saltwater intrusion (affecting agriculture and fresh-water pisciculture) and reduce millions to homelessness. Rice fields are left brackish by storms that breach embankments while storm surges damage mud houses. The shrinking of the islands of the Sundarbans in West Bengal has forced many to migrate to cities. Research on climate refugees reveals the pattern of migration among workers prone to climate crisis. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are among the preferred destination states for migration from the Sundarbans. During the 2018 floods in the state of Kerala, migrants working as construction laborers there were driven back to West Bengal to find work. Many migrants who under normal circumstances would travel from Kerala to their native towns in Bengal for celebrating the festival of Durga Puja had to stay in the state, while others were stuck in the Sundarban islands and could not go back to work because Kerala was dealing with the aftermath of the floods. Thus, climate migrants lose work opportunities and also struggle to find alternate means of livelihood. 

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2022 assessment report includes India among the countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts, with populous cities like Kolkata and Mumbai at heightened risk. Both cities have experienced the growing disappearance of protective coastal and estuarine vegetation like mangrove and casuarina tree lines that reduce the magnitude of damage by climate hazards. Brief spells of heavy rain and cloudbursts are natural phenomena (though they may be triggered by growing heat-island effects in cities) but the larger question concerns these two cities’ inadequate drainage systems and urban planning and management. Cities like Kolkata and Mumbai are prone to waterlogging, overflowing sewers in monsoon season, and floods. This is because of their lack of preparedness in terms of civic planning and drainage, considering the volume of rainwater that they receive owing to their location along the coast and on the trajectory of the monsoon winds. The migrant labor population living in the squatter settlements of India’s mega-cities is the one worst hit by floods. Other million-plus cities like Bengaluru and Pune in southern India are similarly grappling with the paralyses of climate crisis in 2022. 

Climate deviation from the norm induces disasters and therefore must be an important consideration in capacity building and policy formulation, with special provisions for rehabilitating displaced persons and social and environmental protection.

Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the state aims at providing one hundred days of employment per year for every rural household and a further fifty days’ additional employment in areas affected by climate hazards to create climate resilience and help vulnerable households recover from climatic events. However, this scheme has not had much impact due to operational issues. 

 Jayanta Basu, “India: Migrant Workers Turn Climate Refugees Twice Over,” PreventionWeb, November 5, 2018,, accessed 04 March 2022.

Shatabdi Das is a researcher at the Calcutta Research Group, India. She was a visiting fellow at the IWM in 2022.