Climate Change Will Deeply Affect India's Migrant Workers. Planners Must Recognise That.

Plans to prepare cities for heat waves and floods are rendered inadequate by the obscuring of the needs of informal settlements.

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The recently published Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report, based on the research of scholars from 38 academic and UN institutions, found India to be one of five countries where vulnerable populations had the highest exposure to heatwaves (person-days of exposure) over the past five years. Factoring in 44 indicators exposing an unabated rise in the health impact of climate change, the report describes India and Brazil as having had the biggest absolute increase in heat-related mortality in 2018-2019, and that the country was 15% more vulnerable to extremes of heat in 2019 as compared to 1990 and had the largest increase in wildfire exposure (alongside China and Democratic Republic of Congo).

The Lancet report reinforces that India is set to be among the worst sufferers of climate change-induced heatwaves. It becomes crucial to foreground how deepening ecological vulnerabilities and extreme weather events disproportionately affect India’s workforce – through forced displacement leading to increased rural-urban migration, and megacities’ infrastructural inadequacy in providing refuge even to existing migrant populations.

Climate breakdown, often a key factor in the destruction of rural income-generating activities (agriculture, fisheries, forestry), causes forced displacement to urban areas.

Mass migration due to both sudden-onset disasters like flash floods and long-term effects of climate change is already underway – a December 2020 study recorded 14 million people forced to migrate within India in 2020 due to slow-onset impacts, including sea level rise, water stress, crop yield reductions, drought and ecosystem loss. Assuming that the country will adhere to its greenhouse gas mitigation pledges, it’ll be over 45 million by 2050.

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The COVID-19 migrant exodus exposed how ecological or public health crises are exacerbated by the weak foundations of India’s urbanism. Unable to afford participation in formal land and housing markets, migrant workers are mostly relegated to informal settlements and urban peripheries unprotected from climate hazards. The Lancet report’s findings highlights demands made by extreme weather events like heat waves on urban housing – dense settlements with no open green spaces, no structural planning or design to cope with rising temperatures and trapped heat, and the unaffordability of cooling mechanisms. Lack of risk-reducing infrastructure, including sanitation and clean water, and insecurity of tenure are pre-existing vulnerabilities preventing realistic climate change mitigation or adaptation.

As climate change-induced demands on urban housing rise, planning and governance mechanisms remain unprepared for the migration influx. The state has increasingly receded from housing in post-liberalisation Indiashifting its focus to mortgage financing, although some public housing was constructed via urban renewal programmes. However, ensuring the ‘right to the city’ is more complicated than merely creating ‘flagship’ housing programmes. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban) “Housing for all by 2022” Mission has excluded the most vulnerable. Owning land is a prerequisite for availing two out of its four types of benefits.

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Plans to prepare cities for heat waves and floods are rendered inadequate by the obscuring of the needs of informal settlements. For example, the Draft Delhi Master Plan 2041’s imagination of urban regeneration is that of gentrification. It ignores the dense layout of unauthorised colonies, and of possible displacement of residents vulnerable to exploitation by developers and market forces. Even at the national level, the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) scheme, part of lockdown relief to migrants and informal workers in 2020, retrofitted vacant public housing ― just 88,236 rental units nationwide, far short of the requirement. An August 2021 survey report on ARHC by Working People’s Charter, Centre for Policy Research and India Housing Report, shows that it doesn’t actually address the problem of migration and housing.

Migration – itself a climate change adaptation mechanism – must be addressed by an urbanisation model rooted in adequate housing and service delivery, an urban employment guarantee and access to healthcare, rather than the piecemeal redevelopment and assetisation of land seen in the Smart Cities Mission. Investing in smaller cities and empowering local governments must be valued over grand ‘transformative’ yet myopic planning regimes.

Shambhavi Madan is a researcher working at intersections of citizenship, technopolitics and spatiality.