Boat floating on river in evening under the bridge

Climate refugees scramble for basic rights in Indian cities

The travel for this piece was covered by the Calcutta Research Group Media Fellowship Programme, 2023.

Rajasthan/Gujarat: In Ahmedabad city in India’s western state of Gujarat, Kamala and her husband Nilesh Damor start their day around 6am.

For the next 10 hours, Nilesh drives a garbage truck and Kamala collects garbage. For every tonne of garbage they collect, the duo makes Rs 250 (INR) or $3 (USD). They manage to earn some extra money on days they sort out the waste. On an average day, they scramble to make $6 (USD).     

The most difficult part of Kamala’s day is forcing her three-year-old daughter — the youngest of their three children — to accompany her in the truck under the unsanitary conditions. 

“She refuses to accompany us. But we force her. She is so young. How can we leave her all by herself?,” she says. 

How did we get into this situation? Kamala sums up the migration from the northwestern state of Rajasthan to a Gujarat city in one word: ‘compulsion’. Every few months, the couple travels to Ahmedabad to earn a living. When the monsoons arrive in their village, she returns to cultivate the small patch of land that they own for agriculture. 

In northwest India’s Rajasthan, people are highly dependent on agriculture and livestock for earning their livelihood. With the climate pattern changing, agriculture in the state has been hit. In distress, families often migrate to cities to supplement their incomes. 

There is evidence that shows the link between climate crisis, poverty and migration. In a policy speech in 2015, the then-president of the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker, noted that, “Climate change is even one [of] the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly.”

Distress migration is typically described as movement  that happens when there are climatic shocks in an area or there are stressors in the socio-economic factors. The International Labour Organization (ILO) recognises climate change as a trigger behind migration

When women migrate out of their villages, it is often under dire circumstances, says Rajeev Khadelwal, co-founder of nonprofit Ajeevika Bureau, an organisation that has extensively worked in the Banswara-Surat-Ahmedabad corridor.

“When women and children migrate, it is evident that there is large-scale agricultural distress in an area,” he says.  

Interviews with at least 20 women in the cities of Ahmedabad and Surat in Gujarat and Rajasthan’s Banswara district showed they were migrating for work in informal sectors due to agricultural distress that was often induced by changing weather patterns. But the problems don’t end when they arrive in cities. Here,, they grapple with poor living  conditions, discriminatory wages, and a lack of social security benefits.  

As the evening sun set in Kalinjara village in Rajasthan’s Banswara district, and Kamala’s youngest daughter cosies up to her, Kamala adds with a bright smile she feels relaxed at her village among her two other children and other family members.  

Speaking about the city, Kamala says, “Rehna ka (dikkat), kaam acha nahi lagta hain. Gandegi acha nahi lagta hain. Pura din kaam karte hain… bahut ganda kaam hain. Nahane, dhone ka dikkat hota hain, khane ka bhi dikkat, time pe khana nahi milta hain…” 

(“I do not like the unsanitary living conditions. I work the whole day … the work is dirty. It is difficult to take a bath or wash utensils. It is also a challenge to eat meals on time.”   

Kamala’s life in the city – one without access to basic rights and entitlements – is not an anomaly. India has 450 million internal migrant workers who are disproportionately employed in the informal economy. Informal labour often means lack of social protection rights and decent work conditions. Data shows the number of internal migrants rose from 30 per cent in 2001 to 37 per cent in 2011.

Economist Jayati Ghosh says it is not only common to find distress migration of women along with their families, but also with other women. 

“Women often travel in groups, especially for short term moves, as they are aware of the unsafe migration conditions,”she says.  

She adds that distress migration of women spikes when there are climate-related weather events, such as droughts and changing patterns of rainfall.  

Ghosh urges the need to look at the varied forms of migration, and not just permanent and seasonal. 

“There are also a number of cases where people travel relatively long distances for a just a day or a few days in periods of greater economic distress,” she adds.

Lack of basic amenities in cities

Suppa, who is in her early 30s, has a similar story to share like Kamala. She talks about the pain of leaving her two children — aged 7 years and 5 years — behind while the younger ones aged 3.5 years and 1.5 years accompany her when she goes to work in Surat. At Teemera Kalan village in Banswara district where she had returned after spending a month in the city, Suppa spoke how dwindling agricultural produce, and a debt of Rs 70,000 (INR) or $845 (USD) meant they had no choice but to go to the city to earn wages.  

“I stay in the open at the work site. I take my daughter along (with me to work). There (in the city), we cannot take the child to the doctor when she is sick,” she says. 

On an average, Sannu spends around five months in phases in Surat where she carries bricks at a construction site.

 “We have to buy vegetables at a high price in the cities. Here (in the village), we eat what we grow,” she says.

Women migrant workers who were interviewed said they struggled with the lack of basic amenities in cities. In most of the cases, they stayed in the open at the construction sites or under dismal conditions in the city’s margins. In most of the cases, they had no access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and toilets.   

Divya Balan, assistant professor at the India-based Flame University points out governments have turned a blind eye to women migrant workers that reflects a lack of attention to gender in policy making. 

“The lack of safe housing in cities and other basic amenities are testimony to the apathy in gendered policies,” says Balan. 

Both Kamala and Suppa are on the margins not only as women migrant workers but also as Adivasis who are among the most exploited when it comes to the labour industry. They are among the poorest in the country, and the UN’s global multidimensionality index has observed that five out of six poor people in India are Adivasis or from the lower caste. 

Distress migration puts women at a great risk of sexual exploitation while in transit, points out Madhuri from the non-profit Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan. 

“Sexual violence of migrant workers remains an invisible problem as the majority of cases go unreported,” she says. 

In the city of Surat in Gujarat, Mahima (name changed), a teenage girl with a son less than a year old, animatedly talks about her first time away from her village. Her husband signals her to stop the conversation several times, but she does not pay heed. 

Mahima does not deny there is a certain degree of freedom in the city life away from her in-laws. But she adds she was leaving in two days now that they have recovered some amount of the loan money for the tempo they had bought back at the village. She adds her child’s vaccination is around the corner, and she does not know how to navigate her way through medical facilities in the city. 

“We do not plan to come back to the city any time soon,” says Mahima.         

Meanwhile, Kamala, and Sannu are mildly optimistic of a better life for their children. They are taking one day at a time to negotiate their lives in the city. 

Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist based in India.