Climate Change and Migration

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Global warming and climate change have already forced thousands to migrate. How can India manage this environmental crisis?

Climate change is not just an environmental concern. It is a humanitarian crisis. A study by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization revealed that last five years have cumulatively been the hottest on record. This report, sidelined by the US elections, is a timely reminder that the consequences of global warming are inevitable.

In 2010, National Geographic ranked India and Bangladesh as the two countries to be most affected by climate change. With millions expected to witness drought and displacement, it is worth taking a look at how the two countries share a common enemy in climate change.

Being agriculture-led economies, both India and Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable to variations in global temperatures as they rely on seasonal rainfall, local water bodies, and climate-controlled harvests. Crop yields in South Asia alone are expected to decrease by 30% by the middle of the 21st century.

Coastal regions are the next most obvious victims – with cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Dhaka most at risk. Bangladesh, estimated to be the worst-hit, will see the displacement of up to 30 million if sea levels rise by even 30-40 cm. Those who stay behind are left to face salinated drinking water. Displacement is often the only option for survival.

Given this, India is faced with the prospect of large-scale migration. The number of Bangladeshi migrants in India is already in the millions, with figures ranging from three to 15 million. With many lacking refugee statuses (guaranteeing them rights under the United Nations Human Rights Commission), they live in a state of uncertainty.

As climate-related displacement becomes an inevitability, India’s options are either to tool up to deal with vast inflows of migrants or work alongside the international community to restrict the rise in global temperatures. But, being in denial over climate change issues is not a feasible option.

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Yet, in a dangerous precedent, the Indian government in June rejected a study from one of its own institutes. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change rejected a study by the Indian Institute of Tropical Metrology, which reportedly said that “life expectancy in Delhi has reduced by six years because of air pollution”. This rejection would come back to haunt the government when in November, following Diwali, Delhi faced its worst incident of air pollution in decades. Levels of particulate content in the air reached more than 15 times the recommended limit.

As thousands risk respiratory illness in Delhi over the highest recorded figures of smog in 20 years, the blame shifts between Delhi motorists, Diwali firecrackers and Punjabi farmers burning their leftover crops. The case in Delhi has to do with the basic tenet – that of pumping pollutants into the air. Until we learn to recognize how our actions affect our environment, we might find that climate change brings more to the table than just warmer temperatures.


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