Climate refugees and Assam’s future

Written by Abhishek Chakravarty

As the All-Assam Students Union released the confidential report on Clause 6 of Assam Accord in August last year, it was evident from a first reading that the report had all the intentions of securing the long-standing aspirations of the indigenous people of Assam. However, on closer inspection, certain issues do appear unaddressed, one of which is of “climate refugees”.

The phenomenon of climate change does not need an introduction. Today, across the world, people are aware of the adverse effects of climate change. In 2019, United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report which forecasts a sobering picture of the challenges from rising sea levels due to climate change. The report predicts that the global mean sea levels will most likely rise between 0.95 feet (0.29 m) and 3.61 feet (1.1 m) by the end of this century. This rising sea level coupled with storm surges, severe cyclones and extreme weather events will force millions of people to leave their homes and move to safer places — this creates the problem of climate refugees, which is something the world today and, more particularly, India needs to seriously contemplate on.

The concept of climate refugees was first introduced by Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute in the 1970s, wherein he used the term environmental refugees to denote the forced migration of people due to environmental degradation and natural disasters. Despite several criticism, one of the best works on this issue was done by Norman Myers, a British environmentalist, who made several predictions as to the number of environmental or climate refugees worldwide. In 2002, Myers predicted that climate refugees from Bangladesh alone might outnumber all current numbers of refugees worldwide — the reasons behind this being the low-lying topography of the country, and a large number of people living in the volatile Gangetic delta region. In March 2018, a World Bank report revealed that the number of Bangladeshis displaced by the varied impacts of climate change could reach 13.3 million by 2050. These displaced people will seek shelter internally, as well as in neighbouring countries like India.

In India, the primary point of concern regarding the climate refugees is not only their migration but also the non-recognition of climate refugees under the Indian law. In fact, even under the international refugee law, no proper recognition is accorded to the climate refugees. Article 1A (1) of the 1951 Convention applies the term “refugee”, first, to any person considered a refugee under earlier international arrangements. Then, Article 1A (2), read now together with the 1967 Protocol and without time or geographical limits, offers a general definition of the refugee as including any person who is outside their country or origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, owing to well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group (an additional ground not found in the UNHCR Statute), or political opinion. The definition itself views the term refugee narrowly from a persecution point of view, disregarding any other factor which may induce migration — like climate change.

This non-recognition of climate refugees both at the national and international levels complicates the problem as there is no clarity on the course of action to deal with such refugees and also on who shall be responsible for their protection and rehabilitation. From several studies and research reports, it is undisputedly clear that climate refugees as a phenomenon exists and is growing considerably, affecting countries worldwide including India. If the sea levels in Bangladesh rise, as it has been predicted, undoubtedly there will be large-scale migration from the country towards India seeking refuge. Without a proper legal or policy framework in place, dealing with such a crisis would be challenging, and politicisation of the issue cannot be ruled out.

From a humanitarian point of view India would have no alternative but to accept and rehabilitate the refugees. Such sudden settlement and rehabilitation drive of refugees has the possibility of a fresh conflict between the refugees and indigenous people, especially in states like Assam, which not only shares a boundary with Bangladesh but has also witnessed an unabated influx of migrants and refugees since the beginning of the 20th century. Assam has witnessed several violent conflicts in the past between the indigenous people and the immigrants — be it the Nellie massacre or the ethnic riots in Bodoland. However, what is noteworthy here is that indigenous people have also been on the receiving end in many such conflicts, which often is not highlighted.

In Mayong region of Morigaon district, nearly 200-odd Bodo tribal families have been living in relief camps for years — most of whom have been uprooted from their lands due to conflicts with immigrants. Similarly, many Garo villagers were uprooted from their native villages in Dhubri district by the immigrant population. This phenomenon of natives losing their rights over their land can be seen in the names of the villages and the current demographics. Several villages across Brahmaputra Valley still bear names of the tribe which inhabited them like — Kachari gaon, Lalung gaon and so on. On a closer look, one would often see that there is no person from these tribes left in the villages which are now dominated by mostly immigrants and refugees, or industries in some cases.

At this point of time, when a mass migration of climate refugees is imminent, safeguards to the fragile indigenous population becomes necessary to avoid future conflicts in the region. This is where Clause 6 of the Assam Accord coupled with several other safeguards like conferring ST status to the six indigenous communities of Assam can come into play. The committee on Clause 6 has already made several necessary recommendations for the protection of indigenous people in Assam, but what is required now is a constitutional guarantee of these recommendations under Article 371B — which is already dedicated for special provisions to the state of Assam. Besides this, an expansion of the ambit of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution by conferring Sixth Schedule status to other major tribes of the state, including Mishing, Rabha, Tiwa, Amri Karbi, Sonowal Kachari, Deuri etc., would secure the land, cultural and political rights of these numerically small tribal groups in the event of a major climate migration.

An inevitable event like climate migration has to be addressed by legislative and policy measures — making sure that the refugees get their due rights of settlement and rehabilitation; also ensuring the rights of indigenous people over the land and resources so as to avoid future conflicts between the groups. To ensure this, Indian lawmakers need to come up with a climate refugee framework, and alongside ensure the implementation of the Clause 6 of the Assam Accord with a constitutional guarantee.

(Abhishek Chakravarty is an Assistant Professor of Law at Sai University and faculty at Daksha Fellowship)

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