Climate change is having a profound impact on India, with rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and increased frequency of extreme weather events. One of the most vulnerable groups affected by these changes are climate refugees, who are forced to leave their homes and livelihoods due to environmental factors.

What is a Climate Refugee?

A climate refugee is a person who is forced to leave their home due to environmental factors such as rising sea levels, drought, desertification, or other climate-related disasters. These individuals often face significant challenges in finding safe and sustainable housing, accessing basic necessities like food and water, and rebuilding their lives.

India’s Climate Refugee Crisis

India is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with a long coastline, dense population, and limited resources. In 2021, nearly five million people in India were internally displaced due to climate change and disasters. Over the next 30 years, 143 million people could be internally displaced by the climate crisis. By 2059, 44 million people are expected to be forcibly displaced due to drought.

Challenges and Lack of Explicit Recognition:

  • No International Legal Definition: There’s no universally accepted definition of “climate refugee” in international law. This makes it challenging for domestic laws to create specific provisions.
  • Focus on Other Categories: Indian law primarily deals with refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which focuses on those fleeing persecution. Climate displacement doesn’t typically fall under this definition.
  • Internal Displacement: Many climate-related displacements are internal, meaning people move within the country. Existing laws dealing with internal displacement are often insufficient to address the scale and complexity of climate-induced movements.

Hence, there is a need for stronger legal frameworks and specific policy measures to address this growing issue effectively. Recognizing the distinct situation of climate-displaced people and creating a clear legal framework for their protection is crucial for a just and sustainable future.

Potential Legal Avenues:

  • Human Rights Framework: India can invoke the right to life, the right to a safe environment, and the right to adequate housing under its own Constitution and international human rights instruments to address the needs of climate-displaced people.
  • Disaster Management Laws: India’s Disaster Management Act, 2005, can be used to provide relief and rehabilitation to those displaced by natural disasters, which can be exacerbated by climate change.
  • Environmental Laws: The Environment Protection Act, 1986, and other environmental laws can be used to address the root causes of climate change and mitigate its impacts, thereby reducing displacement.
  • Development Programs: Government programs aimed at sustainable development, poverty reduction, and disaster preparedness can be adapted to address the needs of climate-displaced communities.

Policy suggestions:

Legal Recognition and Protection:

  • Establish a legal framework to recognize climate refugees as a distinct category.
  • Provide protection and assistance to climate refugees, including access to basic rights like food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education.

Climate-Resilient Infrastructure and Rehabilitation:

  • Invest in climate-resilient infrastructure, including sea walls, flood-resistant housing, and drought-resistant water management systems.
  • Implement rehabilitation programs for climate refugees, including livelihood support, skill training, and psychological counseling.
  • Promote eco-friendly and sustainable development practices in rehabilitation efforts.

Climate Change Adaptation and Migration Planning:

  • Develop a national climate change adaptation plan that includes strategies for managed migration and displacement.
  • Establish early warning systems and evacuation plans for climate-related disasters.
  • Encourage climate-resilient urban planning and development, including green infrastructure and sustainable housing.