Habidul Islam plans to never move away again from the place where he grew up. He is from the village of Rupakuchi in Assam and was raised in makeshift tin sheds along the Chaulkhowa River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra.

This is in the heart of Assam’s char-chapori belt: a section of the Brahmaputra characterised by its floating islands and low-lying, flood-prone riverbanks. The northeast Indian state is deeply vulnerable to climate-related disasters, especially floods, which wreck lives and trigger migration. But instead of escaping the wrath of seasonal floods forever, in 2020 Habidul returned for good.

Habidul had not planned to come home, but had no choice when India instituted the world’s largest lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, he was working as a car mechanic 167 km away in the neighbouring state of Meghalaya. He was earning Rs 15,000 a month, saving a portion for his family back in the village, whom he saw when he returned on leave and during holidays.

Habidul Islam in front of the aquaculture tank he set up when he returned to his home village in Assam. Photo credit: Aatreyee Dhar

In July 2020, three months after the Indian government announced the nationwide lockdown, Habidul was fired from the mechanic shop in Meghalaya. Back home, he decided to go beyond merely seeking an income to survive. He spent hours researching aquaculture via YouTube videos and became interested in biofloc farming that involves aquatic animals and microbial species existing in symbiosis.

He set up a nine-metre-long concrete tank with an aeration system. Then he added microbes and carp, tilapia and catfish, and waited for the fish to be ready to harvest.

Between three and four months later, he sold 500 kg-600 kg of fish for Rs 1,00,000. “I had a profit of Rs 60,000, excluding the expenses for buying feed and young fish. Even during monsoon floods, the fish farm remains intact,” he said. The expenses came to Rs 30,000-Rs 40,000, cutting into his profits, but since some were one-offs he said he is confident his profits will increase as time passes.

When the lockdown eased a few months later, he found work as a mechanic, earning Rs 2,000-Rs 5,000 a day.

Unwillingness to migrate

When asked whether flooding might drive him to migrate, Habidul is adamant. “Even if I settle in a city, I do not see myself earning higher pay. Whereas at home, income prospects look higher today after my fish business took off,” he said.

He shrugs off worry over floods, stressing that he has grown used to them after more than 30 years.

With his village facing erosion due to the fast-moving current of the Chaulkhowa River, he has raised his tin-sheet huts to a higher elevation. If water levels rise unexpectedly during the summer, he hauls spare tin sheets, tarpaulins and basic goods to the sandy high road, where the flood waters have never risen to.

“I love my village, the environment here, which is difficult to come by outside,” he said.

The Chaulkhowa River, one of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra, flows through Rupakuchi village and often floods the surrounding area. Photo credit: Aatreyee Dhar

Many in Habidul’s village share his attitude towards migration. Multiple families The Third Pole spoke with in February said they would rather eat food grown on fields nourished by the silted river than shift to cities and have to buy food. Those without farms were considering other ventures, such as selling vegetables or establishing fisheries and poultry farms, to avoid working for others and potentially being underpaid.

As of the 2011 census, 358 families lived in Rupakuchi. Residents The Third Pole spoke with did not deny that migration is on people’s minds because of flooding, but said most do not want to leave.

“Some may fear the river chipping away at their lives and sell their lands for a better life in cities,” said Rokibul Islam, a resident of the village (not related to Habidul). “But out of 10 [households], that number is as low as just a single family.”

In India, data is not available on the number of people who choose not to migrate in the face of disruptions and disasters related to climate change. But the data that does exist reveals a strong preference to remain, even in the face of repeated hardship.

A 2021 study of households in coastal Bangladesh found that 88% chose not to migrate, despite living in “climate hazard-prone areas”. Globally, between 2008 and 2016, around 85% of people threatened by natural disasters did not migrate, according to data from the International Organization for Migration and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. (This includes those without the means to migrate as well as those who chose not to.)

Bishawjit Mallick, a researcher at the Chair of Environmental Development and Risk Management at TU Dresden university in Germany, said migration is not a compulsion for people in disaster-prone areas.

“If in the face of climate-related disasters, they have managed to diversify their livelihood strategies and ensure their well-being, they will be voluntary non-migrants for a longer time,” Mallick said. He divides those who do not migrate in the wake of a disaster into two groups based on their individual aspirations: voluntary and non-voluntary. If they have the resources to migrate but don’t intend to, they fall in the first category. If they aspire to migrate but lack the means (resources and social networks) to do so, they are “trapped” or “involuntary” non-migrants.

Mallick estimates the global number of involuntary non-migrants to be very low, compared with voluntary non-migrants. He said the pandemic has induced a shift in migration decisions, encouraging people to diversify their income streams while staying at home.

Why people stay

When Habidul’s neighbour, Soidul Islam (no relation), completed an Information Technology course in Delhi in December 2020, he was offered a job as a software trainee with a monthly salary of Rs 10,000- Rs 15,000. Instead of taking the expected career route, he chose to return to Assam and start a wholesale poultry business, after changing jobs twice during the lockdown. He buys chickens from producers in Bhutan and the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal and sells them to local buyers.

The Third Pole spoke with Soidul in February, only a couple of weeks after he had started the business. But he said he was already earning Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 a day. He is in talks with buyers outside his village, and is confident of a large increase in his earnings. He told villagers who have taken up jobs in cities far away to never settle there permanently.

He said that floods are not a concern for him, or a possible trigger for migration in the future as he grew up alongside the river, and trusts his instincts.

Soidul Islam is in the early stages of setting up a poultry business in Rupakuchi, Assam. Photo credit: Aatreyee Dhar

“Since the road facing our house has been raised with earth to act as an embankment, water seepage into homes has reduced,” he said. He owns a farm enriched by the riverine silt that grows 75% of the food he consumes – an expense that he would have to bear if he migrated, he pointed out.

One of the key drivers of voluntary non-migration is being able to depend on local resources, according to Rajib Shaw, a professor at the Graduate School of Media and Governance in Japan’s Keio University and an expert on climate adaptation and disaster risk management. The conscious choice to not migrate may also be due to the lack of places to move to, ancestral attachment to an area, positive livelihood options and community cohesion.

“The choice to not migrate is a risk-informed choice,” said Shaw. “If the person or community decides to stay in a high-risk area [and they are] well-aware of the existing risk, and have an evacuation plan, then it should be fine.”

Social structures

Habidul’s wife, Inawara Khatun, is an artisan who decorates sarees, stoles, dresses and bags for a collective. She earns Rs 3,000- Rs 4,000 a month, which she uses to finance her daughter’s education.

Social relationships and networks help Inawara to fight the financial hardship and emotional distress triggered by events like floods and the pandemic. Migrating would mean losing that.

“In villages, we collaborate even during floods to ensure no one stays hungry,” Inawara said, adding that she would not find this community in the city. “For instance, a farmer household allocates a part of their produce to us. If a family needs money, our neighbours loan us without a second thought. That happens a lot when someone falls sick.”

Like Soidul Islam, she said the family’s food consumption would deplete their earnings in a city, leaving no savings to fall back on.

The 2021 research paper on coastal Bangladesh cites gender and intra-household structures as key factors in decisions to stay. Rajib Shaw, the lead author, told The Third Pole that a combination of factors such as feelings of insecurity, family attachment, lack of basic education and the skills required in urban areas contribute to women’s decision not to migrate.

The provision of a better social safety net including micro-credit and micro-finance and access to the internet is the key to their empowerment, especially in a rural disaster-prone setting, he added.

Climate adaptation

A 2021 study by the Delhi-based think tank the Council on Energy, Environment and Water ranks Assam as one of five states that are highly vulnerable to extreme climate events such as floods and droughts. The report states that Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur have low adaptive capacities compared with other northeastern states. Despite this, many victims of climate change-induced problems do not want to move – a fact that is essentially missed in migration theories or studies focusing on disasters around the world.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 70 lakh out of 5.5 crore displaced people worldwide were forced to migrate as a result of disasters as of December 31, 2020. “The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre study fails to record how many of those displaced people have returned,” points out Mallick. This obscures the real impact of migration, and ignores steps that could be taken to help those who have migrated due to disasters to return, or become more resilient.

He urges for voluntary non-migrants to be treated with equal priority to migrants, and to be included in future adaptation initiatives. Civil society organisations and the government should focus on providing better living standards and diversifying income strategies for people who remain after disasters, he added.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.