Indian climate migration after Covid-19

| 13th September 2021 |

Assessing how Indian farmers manage climate and weather risks in India. Amtrar Village in Himachal Pradesh.

Climate breakdown is leading to ever-greater migration - but the issue is still largely invisible in migration discourse and response.

Crop failure resulting from increasingly erratic rainfall or drought, and destruction of fishing livelihoods due to higher saline intrusion from rising sea levels forced people to migrate in search of work.

Climate breakdown is already driving forced displacement in India. The country had the highest figure in the world of new internal displacements due to disasters in 2019, according to the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID) 2020.

A total of five million displacements were caused by "a combination of increasing hazard intensity, high population exposure and high levels of social and economic vulnerability". The country also noted the seventh warmest year on record since 1901, and the wettest monsoon season in 25 years.

As a large country spread across many climatological and ecological zones, India is vulnerable to many different kinds of climate impacts including droughts, heat waves, flooding, rising sea levels and cyclones.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.


However, the most vulnerable are the rural populations who are dependent on climate-sensitive livelihoods such as agriculture, fisheries or forestry. As many as 67 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas and still rely heavily on these sectors for their income.

In 2016 a joint report by ActionAid, Bread for the World and Climate Action Network South Asia, noted that crop failure resulting from increasingly erratic rainfall or drought, and destruction of fishing livelihoods due to higher saline intrusion from rising sea levels forced people to migrate in search of work.

As the study also noted: there is “a lack of data mapping of the role of climate change in overall migration trends in South Asia and its contribution is not yet clearly understood by policy makers.

"Even though climate change is clearly leading to ever-greater migration in the region, the lack of clear data and policy analysis means that the issue is still largely invisible in migration discourse and response”.


According to India’s 2011 Census data - the latest available - there are 17.8 million interstate and intrastate migrant labourers.

It is difficult to get data on what percentage of these labourers migrated specifically because of climate change related factors - however it is clear that people move when in need of income they cannot get locally.

Climate change is often a key, exacerbating factor in the destruction of local income-generating activities - especially for rural communities.

Crop failure resulting from increasingly erratic rainfall or drought, and destruction of fishing livelihoods due to higher saline intrusion from rising sea levels forced people to migrate in search of work.

In 2017, the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad, reported that mass migration out of the hill areas of Uttarakhand had left behind several ‘ghost villages’ with nothing but barren fields and ruined houses as evidence that someone had once lived there.

The report of the state’s Rural Development and Migration Commission, released in 2018, said that more than 70 percent of migration occurs within the state, indicating the movement of people from the state’s hill regions to its plains.


There is a large difference in the soil fertility and agricultural development of the plains in comparison to the hill areas. Additionally, there is better industrial, transport and general infrastructure in place in the plains, allowing it to sustain a dense population.

It is understandable why people would feel compelled to move from a place that lacks proper facilities and basic services and where agriculture is difficult to sustain.

“Climate change–driven fluctuations in the precipitation pattern have increased uncertainty in the farm output and recurring crop failures have left little incentive for the masses to continue with the same", according to Uttarakhand’s Action Plan on Climate Change.

"Labour-intensive hill farming has thus been rendered unsustainable and the region is presently threatened by food insecurity.

"The repercussions of this are clearly reflected in large stretches of hitherto regularly sown agricultural lands being left barren. Climate change is thus taking its toll on hill farming, agricultural diversity and the overall well-being of the people”.


Considering the sheer numbers of migrant labourers at interstate and intrastate level, and the lack of data mapping, it isn’t surprising that when the government ordered a nation-wide Coronavirus lockdown with only a few hours’ notice on 24th March 2020, it was unprepared to anticipate the scale of movement of internal migrants from urban areas back to the villages they came from.

Soon after the lockdown was announced, large numbers of migrants clustered around train and bus stations, anxious to return home when they heard rumours that transport services might be running after all.

This was not the case, and hundreds of thousands of suddenly unemployed migrants found themselves on the streets without food or housing.

Desperate and unable to observe social distancing, many walked hundreds of kilometres back to the villages they’d left due to climate change impacts. Many did not survive. Shelters were set up in school buildings to house hundreds of migrants at a time.


Some were farmers who worked as seasonal labourers, and couldn’t get back to their villages to tend fields in time for planting season, leading to further losses in income.

Without employment, most of these migrants are now dependent on food handouts from state governments or charities to survive. Some have resorted to begging and sleeping rough. It took several months for trains to transport 6 million people back to their home states. 

In the midst of a mismanaged lockdown, tropical cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal on 20 May 2020.

Trees were uprooted, houses destroyed and electric and telephone towers severely damaged. Power outages lasted days. The state administration struggled to cope with the massive impact of Amphan as 800,000 people were forced into flood shelters, without any chance of social distancing for days.


Many of the shelters were already housing several migrant workers who had returned to their state in the first week of May and were under quarantine.

In the case of Uttarakhand, reverse migration has gradually re-populated 550 ‘ghost villages’ as migrants who had lost even long-term jobs returned to the villages they’d left to tend once-abandoned lands.

This puts pressure on the government to provide basic access to proper health and education services, the absence of which, exacerbated by water scarcity, drove them to leave in the first place.

The impact of the lockdown has only highlighted the lack of social protection for India’s rural poor, which continues to go largely unaddressed in policy circles.

This Author

Jessica Faleiro is the project lead of ActionAid International’s South Asia Migrant And Climate (Samac) Project, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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