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In Uttarakhand, Reckless Development And Climate Change Force People To Migrate

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Early blooming of flowering plants is considered the first sign of increasing warming. So, when a farmer in Pauri district, Uttarakhand, exclaimed “Pralay!” to register his reaction to rhododendrons blooming in late February as against the usual early April, he knew exactly what he was talking about.

Being the highest point on earth — the Himalayas invariably experience the first blow of a changing climate; and its people are the first to experience ravages of such changes in an already sensitive ecology. A detailed report on the impact of climate change on life and livelihood of people living in higher Himalayas concluded that precipitation patterns have significantly changed in the region today as the Himalayas  witness less snowfall and more rainfall. At the same time, rainfall in the area is also  unevenly distributed – being more concentrated in certain areas? and of high intensity, making the local geography more susceptible to landslides with consistent downpour.

Eighty six percent of 871 respondents agreed to experiencing an increase in average temperature and changes in precipitation regime, with 92 percent respondents reporting having experienced a change in the timing, intensity, and nature of rain.

Being the highest point on earth — the Himalayas invariably experience the first blow of a changing climate; and its people are the first to experience ravages of such changes in an already sensitive ecology. Representational image.

Impact Of Climate Change On Agriculture

Kriti Bisht is an owner of an organic farm, called Slowness, nestled in the Kumaon Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Kriti, who routinely discusses ethnobotany and natural dyes in her videos on Instagram, mentions in one of her videos:

“It hasn’t snowed as much as it did last year – it definitely hasn’t rained like it did last year. The groundwater is already suffering. People have already started talking about how defenceless [they] are going to be against the water crisis here, this year.” With negligible snowfall in winters and the state receiving almost no rainfall post, state authorities are worried, too.

Non availability of natural sources of water is a blow to hill agriculture since it’s heavily reliant on it. Snow is one of the most important sources of moisture for soil in the Himalayas where humidity is already low. Therefore, the amount of snowfall affects soil productivity. Additionally, in the mountains, prolonged winter is necessary to keep crops and seeds dormant for better growth at a suitable time, and snow has a key role to play in making that happen, as per locals. In local parlance of Garhwal division – “Jadul bachyun renu bijal (‘the seeds remain preserved because of winters.’)”. 

A good snowfall and prolonged winter – both – have not happened in the Western Himalayas this year. At the same time, the region has been witnessing more forest fires.

 Impact Of Climate Change On People

“Agriculture has become secondary now,” a field worker from the Institute of Himalayan Environmental Research and Education, Chaukhutia, told me when I visited Kumaon Himalayas in 2019. “My village has 20 households, only six are involved in any kind of agriculture,” he said. The rest, I ask?Niche chale gaye (‘They all went to the plains’)” – a painful declaration for the person.

“If agriculture itself is becoming so tough and so unprofitable, who would want to continue labouring throughout all seasons with no return at hand?,” he asked me. In Uttarakhand, agriculture has always been marginal and subsistent.

The dots can seemingly appear very well connected – changes in climate-induced weather patterns, receding snowfall, and disparate rain spells are affecting agriculture: indirectly pushing people outside of their geographies to look for more profitable livelihoods. But Uttarakhand’s story is complicated since the state was already witnessing a mass outmigration crisis, because of which once-thriving rural regions now house entirely abandoned villages.

The migration “crisis” in Uttarakhand is, therefore, not new in that sense,  nor is it determined by climate change alone. While climate change is indeed impacting lives and livelihoods, more is afoot in the mountains — and to understand it better, we need to not only understand local contexts better, but also take into account problems and challenges being faced by the communities.

Thinking About Climate Hazards, Vulnerability And Migration

Shimla Manali Himachal Honeymoon Package
Within hill districts, higher Himalayas continue to form one of the most neglected regions of the state, where lives and livelihoods are determined by vulnerability – socio-economic, and now, climate change. Representational image.

We all remember the 2013 disaster in the Himalayas that drowned Kedarnath town and surrounding areas, claiming 5,000 lives as per official estimates. Rising temperatures which caused a glacial lake outburst plummeted as flash floods and landslides on human inhabitations.

One of the major learnings from the event is understanding how primary and secondary hazards are tightly interconnected with each other in the Himalayas. At times, it becomes difficult to separate one from the other. For instance, a massive landslide (secondary hazard) caused by heavy rainfall due to climatic changes (primary hazard) is also a climate-related hazard even when the immediate risk is the landslide.

A documentary by UNESCO India on climate migration picks up from the aftermath of the tragedy and shows how for the local people who come from affected villages, migration of able-bodied men is now a necessity more than a norm – as people fear another Kedarnath-like disaster striking the hill regions. The 2021 deluge proved that the locals’ fear was not misplaced.

Within hill districts, higher Himalayas continue to form one of the most neglected regions of the state, where lives and livelihoods are determined by vulnerability – socio-economic, and now, climate change. Disappearing pastures have pushed several shepherding and pastoralist communities to give up their livelihoods and look for more “stable” livelihood options as “unstable” climate reigns the higher Himalayas. Migration facilitates these non-traditional livelihood options for the communities.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defines vulnerability as “determined by physical, social, economic, and environmental factors or processes, which increase the susceptibility of an individual or community (assets or systems) to the impact of hazards.”

From within the context of Western Himalayas, it can be concluded that the least vulnerable are communities that have access to good infrastructure and emergency rapid response services. Absence of any of these arrangements will trigger distress migration for communities affected by environmental and climatic changes.

uttarakhand flash floods February 2021
The 2021 flash flood in Uttarakhand.

Why Unsustainable Development Needs To Be Looked At As A Potential Climate Change Hazard

Sustainability is deeply entrenched in the Himalayan ecosystem, where livelihood and environment are intertwined with lives of the population. Therefore, even when it comes to climate change and climate migration, the Himalayas require a different kind of articulation – an articulation in which unsustainable development is also looked at as a potential hazard that will trigger disasters, leading to migration because of displacement.

Reckless and unplanned development in the Himalayas also exacerbates secondary hazards. The recent 2021 tragedy at Tapovan and Chamoli, Garhwal, is a perfect example of this. Muck-dumping, developmental deforestation, blasting within eco-sensitive zones that shuddered the mountains resulted in greater debris formation after the glacial-lake outburst. Exacerbated disasters mean more affected areas, and greater effect on the population on account of damages – a possible humanitarian crisis in the making for Himalayan people.

It is not that the locals are unaware about these changes and the implications of a greater rate of climate change, but more often than not, their voices remain unheard and are taken into consideration only to be discarded later. This is evident from the proceedings against the Tapovan-Vishnugad project raised by Matu Jan Sangathan, a local rights-based group in the Himalayan region. Villagers had feared the negative consequences, which intensified because of bureaucracy that seldom does justice to the displaced.

Reckless development owing to rapid urbanisation implies significant changes in micro-climatic conditions of a place. Uttarakhand has already lost 50,000 hectares of forest cover — equivalent to the size of Ahmedabad – since 1991 to various developmental and defence projects.

Disasters such as those that happened in 2013 and 2021, caused by climate change, intensified by unplanned, unsustainable development, have displaced communities, official figures for which are still not available, and if available, not accepted by communities to maintain a conservative estimate.

The writing is on the wall — subtracting ecology from the development paradigm pushes people towards displacement and distress migration. And with little thought being paid to this, it is the people of the state who are having to bear the burden of these changes.

Featured image is representational.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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