How Climate Change Is Making It Harder For People To Prove Their Identities

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How restless do you feel when you don’t find an important document that proves your identity? Just imagine losing your driving license or academic mark sheet or passport! 

Losing documents can be a stressor resulting out of the growing climate crisis too.

The risk of losing documents is high during some particular disasters, like floods, cyclones and storms. India has suffered from floods this monsoon. Unfortunately, this suffering seems to be increasing in the near future, rather than slowing down –  a result of climate change effects and poor urban planning.

A population of 42,921 in eight of the 33 districts in Assam were affected by the floods in 2019.

Here are some representative cases from different states of India, where people have struggled to hold on to identity documents, recently.

Case 1 – Some families in Karnataka could not trace their Ration card and Aadhar card post the flood destruction. On the other hand, the government authorities insisted on the documents to compensate for the losses. 

Case 2 – A picture of a flood victim from Assam, who persisted, despite the flood-water, on carrying his National Registry of Citizenship (NRC) file during the flood rescue operations, went viral on social media

Case 3 – A family in Kerala wanted to claim insurance for their damaged property but had lost the original documents. Around one lakh people in Kerala have lost one or the other document, according to a statement by an official. 

Case 4- Students from Maharashtra struggled for their education certificates.

In all the above cases, maintaining the identity documents was crucial for the individuals. But neither they nor the government mechanism was prepared. Government preparedness is necessary to make procedures smooth for people and support them in post-flood recovery. 

Who Owns Responsibility? 

bihar flood
Bihar floods, 2019.

Some activists from Karnataka have spoken about the government’s responsibility for showing alternate pathways to help affected people. They have spoken about a persisting confusion among investigators about the documents that are needed. But, there is another view, that emphasises how communities can also be prepared to fight disasters.

For example, field interactions with citizens from Morarji Vasahat slum of Surat, Gujarat who have experienced devastating floods in 2006, talk about the idea of “flood preparedness kit”. Ranging from dry food items, candles, matchbox to mobile chargers, citizens didn’t forget to include “identity proof documents” in such kits. 

Lessons learnt from painful experiences are forever. But when climate crisis is on our doorstep, we clearly don’t want to wait for some experience to affect us and to make us learn something. We, as a community, need to prepare ourselves for climate change by carefully saving our identity proof documents.  

But the system’s role here is equally important. It’s evident how climate change affects the rich and poor disproportionately. Similarly, lack of preparedness also affects different sections of society differently. For example, the need for preserving such documents can be life-critical, for a typical urban poor migrant family, as compared to its counterpart, who owns resources to preserve the documents. The availability of facilities like safe lockers is absolutely absent for those who need it the most.

What Are Some Possible  Solutions?

Climate change is no more a distant reality limited to the extinction of polar bears. It’s here and now. Preparedness is crucial and must be integrated as a part of our routine societal functions.

There can be some working solutions for communities as well as systems.

  1. The families and neighbourhoods can safely preserve their important documents. Pre-monsoon planning should be encouraged by government departments. The departments that work with these communities as a routine mandate, like the social security department, urban community development etc., can be effectively involved.
  2. Medical practitioners and health workers can carry pre-monsoon advocacy for preserving medical reports, prescriptions, immunisation cards etc. Education board can digitalise the mark sheets of students. 
  3. At the neighbourhood level, there can be common digital storage of essential documents looked after by the assigned head of the society or locality, like a secretary or a resident welfare association.
  4. The government needs to pre-design effective systems which can be supportive to flood victims. The political case like that of NRC in Assam can be a complex story with multiple angles. But in general, the city authorities can be prepared for better means of identification of victims, as they recently did in Kerala, for insurance management.
  5. There can be directives and guidelines by the government on this topic of identity proof which can help people, activists and organisations who are involved in relief work. A list of important sites and helpline numbers for queries or recovery of documents can also be displayed on common digital platforms.

Climate change is no longer a distant reality limited to the extinction of polar bears. It’s here and now. Preparedness is crucial and must be integrated as a part of our routine societal functions. 

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