For climate migrants, dignity matters as much as safety

by Hari Krishna Nibanupudi | Safe Citizen International
Wednesday, 20 July 2016 10:06 GMT

Boys look for recyclable items in the waters of river Yamuna on a smoggy morning in New Delhi, India, December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

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Displacement can bring benefits when it helps overcome caste and social prejudices

Some time ago, a poor community migrated to India’s national capital, New Delhi, from a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, after a massive flood destroyed their homes and livelihoods.

The community found a place for themselves in the flood plains of Yamuna River, in the suburbs of New Delhi. Today the small community is dangerously exposed not only to flood risks, but also to snake bites, winter chills and other health hazards. They live in huts made of wood, tin sheets and a mud floor. They cultivate leased small patch of lands in the floodplain to make a living.

Why did they migrate, and choose to accept such shanty living and the risks that come with it? Why didn’t they go back after the floods receded from their villages?

They have a reason, which is articulated by one old man:

“Yes, we can possibly rebuild our houses with help of government in our villages. These houses could be better than what we have here today. We might even find work there as agricultural activities started again after the floods receded,” he said.

“We are aware of the flood risk in our current habitation and we do have to deal with snakes, rodents, mosquitoes, and so on.  But we are far happier here. Because here no one is reminding us of our caste and social status.

“Back in our village, in every step of life, we are humiliated by higher caste people and richer people from our own caste. They treat us worst than the way street dogs are treated. Here, we leased this land from the owner, we work hard, earn income and pay rent. He respects us because he needs our skills and our willingness to work hard. He doesn’t care about our caste.

“When there is a flood, we go up on to the embankment. The local administration provides us with basic food and water and local police give us protection. Nobody is asking us about our caste. They do their business and we do ours.

“If God permits, we will settle down here forever, educate our children and marry them off here. We are at peace here. In a way, we are happy that floods pushed us to this unknown city, where we can live with dignity and self-respect!”

The science and logic of disaster prevention tell us that these communities can’t be allowed to stay, because, they are at huge risk of being trapped by floods with limited options to escape. Urban designers and environmentalists classify them as climate change migrants who are disfiguring the precious urban landscape.

The communities themselves don’t know about the problems they are causing with their presence. All that they know is that they are happier in a place where they have the possibility of living with dignity even if that means battling daily risks in life.

Dignity is a fundamental right: The Supreme Court of India has defined the concept of right to life to include “the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it,” from necessities such as food, clothing and shelter to the right to “freely move about and mix and comingle with fellow human beings.”

Debates on the urban environment, urban landscapes and urban resilience should be more knowledgeable and more sensitive to the dignity of climate migrants. Since the need for dignity is not articulated by migrants and new settlers, urban management institutions and resilience professionals should be trained and oriented to be able understand and respond to the perspectives of migrants.

Similarly, climate risk and adaptation tools should consider not only risks to life but also risks to dignity, so as to ensure urban resilience plans; policies and practices don’t trample on the dignity and respect of people in well-intended efforts to protect lives.

In the absence of an overarching international legal framework for the protection of the rights and dignity of people affected by climate extremes, the fate of millions is left to the discretion and capacities of local authorities, and the objectives of political and religious charities. It is high time that we push for an international legal framework, on the lines of human rights law, that has the teeth to push for the rights and dignity of climate-affected people.

Hari Krishna Nibanupudi is a disaster resilience and climate change specialist at Safe Citizen International in Hyderabad, India. His blog is the winner of the 2016 Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) blog competition.