According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, nearly five million Indians were forced to leave their homes because of climate-related events in 2021. While many of these people were displaced temporarily, internal displacement due to climatic conditions stands to be a major challenge for India in the years to come. Rising water levels, according to certain estimates, could affect as many as 36 million people in the coastal areas of just the two states of Bengal and Odisha.

Yet, there has been very little by way of policy intervention except the adoption of the National Action Plan for Climate Change, a document of rather limited scope.

On December 9, Pradyut Bordoloi, a Congress parliamentarian from Assam’s Nagaon introduced the Climate Migrants (Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill as a private member’s bill. While introducing the bill, perhaps the first of its kind, Bordoloi said it sought to “establish an appropriate policy framework for the protection and rehabilitation of internally displaced climate migrants and for all matters connected therewith”. spoke to Bordoloi about the bill. Here are edited excerpts.

What were your main motivations behind introducing the bill?
First thing is home-driven observations. A large number of people in Assam live on the chars, or the riverine islands. The Brahmaputra river system is dotted with such islands where mostly people of migrant origin, usually from the minority community, settle down. They settle down, start their cultivation, and build their houses.

Earlier, the life cycle of an established riverine island [till it would get submerged] would be around 20 years. But, of late, in the last 10 years or so, because of the erratic water flow in the Brahmaputra, it’s gone down to four-five years. This is happening because of a variety of reasons, primarily because of environmental degradation, deforestation in the upper reaches, etc. There are also apprehensions that China is diverting water, building dams.

Regardless, the waterflow in the Brahmaputra has become erratic. Earlier, you couldn’t see one bank from another, but now the same river has been reduced to a rivulet for many months of the year. Then suddenly, there’s heavy rainfall and there’s inundation. In short, there is now constant friction on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

So, the inhabitants of the riverine islands become homeless all of a sudden and are forced to move and settle down in forest land, grazing areas, where the law prohibits human settlement. There’s no legal framework to protect these people, so that was one of the main reasons.

Pradyut Bordoloi. Photo: Facebook

In our political discourse, climate change is often viewed as a stand-alone issue. But we have seen that the impact of climate change is often mediated by the social order. Does the bill take that into account?
Yes, usually people who are in the lower strata of the pyramid are always affected more. They are poor people, don’t have the support of the authorities, or proper protection measures. They are the ones who face the brunt of climate change more than others.

In Assam, for instance, the fact that most of the affected are from Muslim communities means they are hounded all the time. Bulldozers are used, their houses are demolished, they are arrested, dubbed as Bangladeshis, though they have been living in Assam for ages.

The state of Assam, which you represent, is particularly prone to extreme climatic events, the scale of which many say has magnified in recent times. Yet, we don’t see it becoming an electoral issue. Why do you think that is the case?
My bill is to create a public discourse, so the government of the day comes up with a proper legal framework. You can no longer brush aside people affected by climate change as Bangladeshi illegal migrants, as is the case now.

Conversations about climate refugees are perhaps incomplete if we don’t take into account Bangladesh. In the next couple of decades, many fear climate change is going to force many from the country to migrate to India. Given how contested migration from Bangladesh is, how do you think we can prepare?
Climate change is real. It is going to transcend all boundaries, affect everything in the years to come. Climate change in Bangladesh is going to have a massive spillover effect in India. Given that huge areas are projected to be inundated, a lot of people will try coming to enter Indian clandestinely.

So these issues have to be discussed, measures thought of to prevent it from happening as much as possible. Things have to be tackled bilaterally, trilaterally, multilaterally.

The bill’s statement of object and reasons state that our existing policies are geared more towards short-term and sudden-onset climatic disasters ignoring slow climatic changes. Will you please elaborate on that with perhaps an example?
The government of India defines calamities as events like floods. But take the case of Assam. Floods routinely occur there, twice or thrice a year, inundating large swathes of land. They subside in a week to 10 days. But the bigger problem is erosion, which is a year-long event. Because of erratic waterflow, thousands of hectares of cultivated land, homestead land are getting washed away constantly. But that is not considered a calamity. As a result, people don’t get any kind of support.

What we have now is a very short-term, almost ad hoc kind of policy. Events like erosion which occur around the year are not covered. So you have to revisit and readdress how we think of climate change.

Many climate refugees from the states of Assam and Bengal reside in urban habitats where they lead a fraught existence. Is that something the bill seeks to address?
I have quoted an Action Aid survey which says as of now there are around 1.5 crore internally displaced people in India. The number is projected to rise to 5 crore by 2050. We have to understand they are not aliens, not foreigners from China or Bangladesh. A lot of these people will be from states like Assam and Bengal. They will go out looking for a safe space because of climate change. That is my point, we have to address these issues, talk about how we will rehabilitate such people.