Those working for the rights and inclusion of urban poor but have not integrated climate crisis discourse in their work yet haven’t really understood the seriousness of the issue. Climate “change” seemed like a distant possibility a few years ago, but soon transformed into climate “crisis”, and then very shortly into climate “emergency”. This phenomenon has started affecting us already in ways that we haven’t realised. And like any other issue, climate crisis is impacting the poor far more than the affluent communities and neighbourhoods in urban areas.
Earth is already about 1.1°C warmer from what it was during the pre-industrialisation era, and is only getting warmer each passing year. We are already witnessing worsening weather conditions at multiple places all over the globe. This is already causing multiple forms of disasters, including more frequent and intense forest fires, heat waves, droughts, storms, cyclones, sudden heavy rainfalls resulting in frequent floods, melting glaciers causing flash floods, landslides, dying coral reefs, reducing food productivity and nutrition value, unprecedented forms of virus infections, bug attacks, and climate-induced migration and conflicts resulting in violence and tragedy. Those without resources to cope with climate-caused challenges are at far greater risks than what we imagine.
Since long, environmental scientists have been warning us that the global average warming should stay within 1°C and not exceed 1.5-2°C in any case. It is estimated that if it does so, the increased temperature will drive us to a point, or rather the tipping point, from where we will have no recourse to return to normalcy for a long time.
This means that we will be experiencing disastrous occurrences more frequently and of much severe intensity, including those listed earlier. Also, one event will trigger another and so on, causing a domino or cascading effect, which is a chain of interlinked disastrous events posing us multiple challenges all at the same time. There will be nothing that human society would be able to do to stop or delay these catastrophes in a significant manner to avoid the damage it would cause.
Here is a glimpse. The 2019-2020 catastrophic bushfire in Australia started after a 2.5-year-long unprecedented drought. Scientists attribute the exacerbating drought in eastern Australia to global warming and climate change (see this, this and this). The drought left the vegetation dry, easy to catch fire. The year 2019 was also the driest and hottest year on record for Australia. The situation caused intense heatwaves and eventually, many bushfires went on for about nine months, burning more than 12.6 million hectares of land and killing over one billion animals. Scientists predict that a rise of 2°C in the global average temperature will increase the frequency of such catastrophes in Australia by at least four times.
The most frightening thing about the whole crisis is that even if we continue with the current level of national pledges to reduce their contributions to global warming, we are still set to experience at least 3-5°C of global warming. In June 2020, the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) of the Indian government launched a detailed report that predicts a temperature rise of up to 4.4°C by 2100 in the country. The report confirms what other studies also indicate that this would trigger multiple simultaneous hazards if aggressive mitigation measures are not taken. India is regarded among the countries that will be worst affected from climate crisis. Two recent cyclones, Cyclone Fani in Odisha and Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal, should be seen as warnings of what is to come.
Among other changes predicted, the MoES report predicts that heatwave events in India will become 3-4 times more frequent and last for almost double the duration they last currently. Also, summers will get warmer and longer, while winters will get weaker and shorter in the country.
The rainfall as well as its predictability has been decreasing; we will see more unpredictable and locally heavy rainfall in the country. Cyclones, floods as well as droughts are set to increase in both frequency and intensity in India. Honestly, we still haven’t entirely understood the magnitude and extent of the damages human civilisation and earth’s ecosystems are bound to have because of climate crisis. So, nobody knows how to prepare well for what we are going to face.
Climate crisis acts as a multiplier of the existing vulnerabilities of the urban poor. They are already at the intersection of multiple marginalities including economic, political and social marginality. Their marginalisation results in their exclusion from formal systems and central spaces in cities.
This exclusion manifests itself in the form of poor education and skillset levels among the urban poor, lack of adequate documents, inaccessibility of entitlements, and informality of housing and employment. All these conditions expose the urban poor to a far more severe impact of climate crisis as compared to communities not undergoing these challenges.
The houses in informal settlements are often poorly built due to constant fear of eviction or lack of financial resources. Such houses are less able to take the impact of severe weather conditions such as heavy rains, floods, cyclones or high heat. Informal settlements are also often located at sites that are highly polluted, prone to hazards or disasters or inhabitable.
The urban poor are highly exposed to the climate-induced hazards within their own homes. In a survey conducted for YUVA in 2019-2020 in an informal settlement in a Mumbai suburb, 82.5% respondents said that it gets too hot for them during summers to stay inside their houses and 71% reported that they do not have any shelter or shade nearby for refuge for such periods.
The government also does not easily approve developing informal settlements and building of basic infrastructure such as roads, storm water drainages and sewer lines. We have witnessed in Mumbai that such settlements are prone to more floods, longer period of waterlogging and loss of residents’ connectivity with markets, schools, hospitals and workplaces. Flooding gets worse because of poor waste management services that results in waste frequently clogging the drainages that residents build themselves.
“We have difficulty to do everything during the monsoon, especially going to the market. These four months are the most difficult for us. It feels like no one does anything during the monsoons,” a basti resident here told us as she complained about water logging that disrupts her job as a domestic worker, her children’s education and her access to the local market. The resulting health issues are also many, but healthcare services are few.
Flooding also results in contamination of water resources from improperly discarded sewer waste. Residents of informal settlements are highly dependent on such local water resources if available because of sparse water supply by municipal corporations. However, the locally available water dries up in summer or gets too dirty to use during monsoon. Also, many informal settlements do not even have local water resources. Residents have to then buy drinking water at high prices and spend a lot of time as well on collecting it for domestic use.
As a basti woman shared, “A large part of the day for women is spent on the problems related to water. This is the biggest and primary problem for women.” The struggle increases manifold during hot days causing water scarcity. The price of 20 litres of drinking water goes up to Rs 40 from the usual Rs 25 in her basti.
Housing is not the only front of the urban poor that makes them vulnerable to climate hazards. Livelihood is another major concern for them. Urban poor are often informally employed or work in unorganised sectors. Those hired informally have no job security. They easily lose their income, and sometimes even employment, if they fall sick or are withheld from reporting to work due to climate hazards or disasters, as also observed during the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Those engaged in street vending, home-based work or small businesses have no means to minimise their losses when their goods and assets get damaged due to climate hazards. They are not even protected by insurance that is widely available to the formal sector.
Many informal workers are employed in work conditions that can get far worse due to climate crisis. For example, construction workers are among the most exposed to heat waves if their regular work hours are followed. However, because of lack of regulation in the informal sector, not much gets done to protect the workers exposed to climate hazards during work. Most of the informal workers, being unorganised, also lack the political agency to effectively negotiate for safer work conditions. It is also more challenging for informal and unorganised employment sectors to adapt to the changing climate for the lack of needed information, training and capacity.
In India, there is already a huge knowledge gap between the affluent and educated class that is English-speaking and internet savvy, and the poor and less educated class that is excluded from the knowledge encrypted in English, often hidden from public spaces and stored on the internet, which is accessible only through expensive technology.
This knowledge gap further leaves the poor vulnerable as they do not get much information on climate predictions, trends and available resources to deal with climate crisis, while the affluent have all the information they need to cope or adapt well.
The Government of India came up with its National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in 2008. The plan launched eight National Missions, most of which are about reducing carbon emissions that cause global warming (the approach commonly known as mitigation). Some of them are also about protecting India’s sensitive ecosystems. However, none of them are about protecting India’s vulnerable population from their high climate risks.
Yes, it makes sense for the government to focus on mitigation measures, but trends indicate that the world has almost missed out the opportunity to stop and reverse climate change. Moreover, experts claim that we are not doing enough to mitigate climate change. Therefore, for something as unavoidable as climate crisis, government action would make sense to us only if and when it is addressing the vulnerabilities of the poor.
As discussed earlier, informal conditions of housing are a major contributor to the high vulnerability of the urban poor to climate crisis. Those closely studying the existing and potential impact of climate crisis on the urban poor are warning against their forced evictions. They suggest that the most foundational way to protect the urban poor from climate crisis would be to ensure climate-friendly adequate housing for them.
Civil society organisations such as YUVA have already been pushing the agenda of right to housing for the urban poor for decades now. However, the Indian government doesn’t still recognise this fundamental linkage between climate risks and housing security (see: MSAAPC by TERI, 2014). Instead, some climate actions also end up displacing the urban poor from their settlements while the land is acquired in the name of environmental projects.
Moreover, while the urban poor have been fighting the worsening climate through local means of adaptation, their local knowledge and survival skills do not get much attention and recognition in the government-planned interventions for climate change adaptation and mitigation. In the absence of spaces for local communities to participate in the government’s planning on climate crisis, they are unable to share their concerns, needs and knowledge of the changing climate and the means to survive it.
Often, interventions on climate crisis are planned among the selected few and shared with local communities only at the time of implementation. Such external experts driven top-down interventions can very likely leave the urban poor worse off with their housing or livelihoods affected regardless of the good intentions of the government. Not to mention the huge cost of such interventions and their little effectiveness in helping the people they aim to help.
The indefinite delay from the government’s end to act on climate crisis also adds tremendously to the woes of the urban poor. Despite Mumbai being flooded every year due to heavy rains in the monsoon, the local government could not yet reach out to all the poor communities in the city to establish early warning systems and shelter spaces. Homeless people, children, elderly and people with disabilities suffer the most during severe climate conditions and need shelter facilities the most in such times.
Considering the seriousness of the matter, the role of civil society is very critical in building the capacity of urban poor communities to survive climate crisis. The organisations and activists working with the urban poor need to understand the complexity, magnitude and urgency of climate crisis. It exacerbates all sorts of vulnerabilities that come with poverty. On one hand, the government’s actions for safeguarding the urban poor from climate crisis are almost negligible, and on the other, climate activists are also focusing mostly on reducing India’s carbon footprints. If things keep going as they are, it is very likely that the best interest of urban poor would keep getting ignored both in policy and action. It is, therefore, getting more and more crucial for the civil society organizations working with urban poor to get involved.
While it is easy to get pulled into (better unnamed) fancy conferences, “research” projects and high-end technology that consume unnecessary amount of resources and time, the situation demands grassroots solutions that are easy, quick and cheap for urban poor communities to learn, modify to their conditions, and replicate. Such efforts need to be coupled with constant critical engagement with the government to highlight the social impact of its policies and action plans, improve them, quickly implement its existing plans, avail funds for building climate resilience of the urban poor, and most importantly, make room for local communities’ participation in the planning for action on climate crisis.
We must remember that the entire issue of climate crisis is deeply intertwined with the issue of climate injustice. Those who have pursued unlimited “growth” and “development” through unlimited exploitation of natural resources have by now amassed obscene amount of wealth at the cost of the wellbeing of the entire planet and safety of our future generations.
While the “developed” remain more equipped to protect themselves from the climate crisis, a majority of the world’s “underdeveloped” population has been marginalised and pushed towards this destiny of having to face climate crisis through no fault of their own.
The discourse of climate justice is highly relevant for the poor as they live on sparse resources while affluent communities cause most of the damage to the environment. And despite their low participation in damaging the environment, as discussed earlier, it is the poor who face the maximum brunt of climate crisis owing to their marginalized positions and poor capabilities to cope. We have witnessed this during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.
Though it was affluent people who brought Covid-19 infection to India because of their recent travel abroad, it was poor migrant workers who came out as the most affected. The sudden lockdown not just deprived them of their incomes, but also of food and housing because of pre-existing unaddressed food and housing insecurity. When the migrant workers tried to return from cities to their native places to be able to survive, they didn’t even have any means to travel and were forced to walk for thousands of kilometres, many dropping dead from exhaustion or dying of accidents.
The fight for safeguarding urban poor communities from climate crisis is not a fight for charity, but one for justice – because “climate change is not simply happening to cities, but rather is being produced through the city and in turn serving to reproduce or challenge existing forms of uneven development and urban inequality,” as Bulkeley, Edwards and Fuller argue.
Climate crisis isn’t happening in vacuum, there have always been some actors and their self-interests behind it, particularly at local levels. However, the mainstream discourse on climate justice mostly remains restricted to the macro perspective, debating how the responsibility of climate action should be distributed between developed nations and developing nations.
In the fight for climate justice for the urban poor, the first challenge for us is initiate a discourse of climate justice at the local level. We can do this through identifying locally both – those who are responsible and must be held accountable and those whose rights need to be upheld – the approach also referred to as justice as recognition. The other critical step is to ensure procedural justice through fair participation of most vulnerable communities in policymaking, decision-making and implementation processes of climate actions.
The third and the most important facet is to ensure distributive justice, which means that the vulnerabilities of urban poor should be addressed first be it at a cost to those responsible for climate crisis. Last, as Adams and Luchsinger point out, equity should be at the core of any solution for climate crisis. They assert, “A path of development and low emissions is possible for everyone – if extreme imbalances in development are evened out.”
I wish to thank Sajai Jose for his critical feedback on this article.