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Refugees in their own land

The number of those displaced due to environmental disasters in India is six times the number displaced by conflict. Climate change and defective government policies are precipitating one of the largest exoduses of migrant labour in the world

Anahita Mukherji

10 min read

The men leave their villages, young and able-bodied. When they return home at 50, they are old and haggard, well beyond their years. They belong to the flood-ravaged region of Kosi, Bihar, and spend their best years as migrant labour in the hazardous industries of urban India. Many who return home to their villages are sick and diseased. Manish Jha, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, has extensively researched climate-related migration from Bihar’s floodplains. While actively involved in relief work after the 2008 floods in the state, Jha learnt of the prevalence of tuberculosis (TB) in many flood-affected villages. The team of doctors he travelled with identified TB patients in every single village. Yet these cases never made it to official records. The prevalence of tuberculosis in a community had political implications the administration did not want to deal with.

Many who migrate from the flood-prone regions of Bihar are Mahadalits, the poorest of the poor, the Dalitest of the Dalits. They form a bulk of the local farmhands. But farming becomes increasingly difficult when fields are water-logged. While north Bihar makes it to the national news when the floods are dramatic and intense, there are vast tracts of land that remain water-logged even when there are no floods officially recorded. The submerged farmland dramatically affects the livelihood of landless farmhands, explains Jay Mazoomdaar, environment and development journalist with The Indian Express, as land owners don’t opt for resource-intensive farming. This in turn reduces job opportunities.

Yet relief packages for flood victims look to replenish people’s assets, and fail to compensate people without land for the loss of income. The absence of aid to those who need it the most pushes landless labour out of flood-affected villages towards urban areas, says Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change for ActionAid.

Workers separate jute husk from the stalk after harvesting it from the flooded plains.
Credits: Team Memesys

Yet urban India has no sympathy for the itinerants floating through its cities and settling in its slums. And no gratitude for the cheap labour in hazardous conditions that gives birth to the high-rises that dot city skylines.

When it comes to losing one’s home to floods, Dalits are amongst the most vulnerable. In the Kosi region, the area by the embankment—the first to flood—is occupied largely by Dalits and those belonging to the backward castes, as this is public land, says Pushpendra, a TISS professor researching Kosi’s migrants alongside Jha.

Men form the bulk of migrant labour from Bihar, leaving entire villages filled with women, children, and the elderly. A woman who is left behind must take care of her home, her children and her fields. “Women report exhaustion, poverty and hunger as a result. The shortage of available labour can leave fields uncultivated during the planting season,” says ActionAid’s 2016 report on climate-induced migration in South Asia. The first thing that a woman in such a situation does is to sell her cattle, says Ravi Chopra, director, People Science Institute, Dehradun. “Getting rid of cattle is like getting rid of one’s fertilizer factory,” he adds. This further reduces the productivity of the fields and, in turn, leaves the area more vulnerable to floods.

Topsy-turvy development model

The floods themselves are caused by government mismanagement. Chopra calls the ensuing migration “government-driven migration”. “People earlier welcomed floods as they’d spread silt across the area and improve soil quality. There were enough places from which water could flow out and drain into the Ganga,” he adds.
But a network of roads, railways and bridges developed over time in the Kosi region now interfere with the river’s natural drainage system. “Water that would normally drain out in two weeks now sits in the Kosi plains almost all year round. Consequently, people have no choice but to leave the area,” says Chopra. One of the government’s responses to flooding was to build embankments along the Kosi, aggravating the situation. The government had been warned against doing so by experienced engineers. Chopra believes that a nexus of corrupt politicians, officials and contractors choose to ignore the Kosi river’s flooding history and build embankments for personal gains.
“The embankments are not just across Kosi’s width, but also across its floodplains. The river shifted course, resulting in floodplains that are now several kilometres wide, with entire villages inside the embankment.

Earlier, people would welcome the floods as they spread silt across the area and improved soil quality. There were enough places from which water could flow out and drain into the Ganga

The devastation caused by Bihar’s floods are a direct consequence of India’s topsy-turvy development. In the year 2000, Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia and a member of the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee, fought tooth and nail against the planned Barh super thermal power plant project. The plant was set to be located in Bihar’s Tal wetlands, an area that supported thousands of migratory birds. But the government went ahead with the project. For being a conscientious objector, Sahgal was eventually thrown off this committee and all other government environment committees.

Jute fields lie inundated by the floods. Below the waters lies the devastated rice crop.
Credits: Team Memesys

Tal was primarily chosen because coal for the plant could be transported along the Ganga, and river sand could be excavated to raise the height of the thermal plant in an attempt to “avoid flooding.” But doing so choked an area that once absorbed water and acted as a buffer against floods.

Earlier, floodwaters entering Tal would bring fish with them, that people in the region would eat, adding to their nutrient supply, says Sahgal. But the wetlands have been filled and the floods are uncontrollable. “Now every time water is released from a dam in Nepal, Bihar floods,” says Sahgal.

Refugees within

Many of those who leave their homes after the floods end up in India’s construction sector, which absorbs a very large proportion of all migrant labour. At 3.7 million, India had the highest number of people internally displaced due to environment disaster in 2015, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s 2016 report. (Internally displaced people are those who flee their homes but, unlike refugees, remain within national borders.) The number of people displaced internally due to disaster in India is six times the number displaced by conflict. Of the 19.2 million internally displaced people worldwide in 2015, one in five were from India.

One of the largest streams of migration to urban areas is from Bihar to Delhi. Even the government aids this migration, with a special train for migrant labour called Shramjeevi express between Rajgir (Bihar) and Delhi. While researching migration in the Kosi region, Jha and Pushpendra traced Bihar’s migrant labour to the squalid slums of Delhi, where ten people lived cheek by jowl in one room.
“Their lives are focused solely on work and on sending remittances back home. Only those with special skills, such as plumbers and carpenters, gradually work their way towards a better life. The vast majority of unskilled labour remains poor,” says Jha.

Many of those who leave their homes after the floods end up in India’s construction sector, which absorbs a very large proportion of all migrant labour

Decades ago, Kolkata was the favoured destination for migrants from Bihar. But West Bengal’s stunted industrial growth and its increasing hostility towards Biharis gradually changed the direction of migrant flows from Bihar.

These days, it’s Bangladeshi migrants to Kolkata who are in the sort of jobs that even Biharis won’t do, says Kasia Paprocki, a PhD student at Cornell University who is studying development politics and climate adaption in Bangladesh. She found Bangladeshi migrants living in slums on Kolkata’s periphery, where they worked as construction labourers for the new tech industry cropping up on the outskirts of the city. The labourers lived in pathetic conditions. Some were in homes built on stilts over a sewage canal. While there is much prejudice against Bangladeshis in India, Paprocki found them integral to India’s economy. She likens them to Mexicans in the US, performing difficult labor in poorer working conditions and for less pay than most Americans will accept. Paprocki once asked a Bangladeshi migrant in Kolkata why the police weren’t bothering him. He said they (Bangladeshis) were needed for building construction in the area. A telling comment on India’s dependence on impoverished Bangaldeshi labour.

Villagers taking stock of a portion of the village that got washed away by an overflowing Ganga.
Credits: Team Memesys

Paprocki travelled to Bangladesh and found widespread migration from the southern region of Khulna due to repeated floods and a rural economy under threat. Sahgal believes that the world will witness the largest ever stream of climate migration northward from the Sundarban mangrove forest that stretches between West Bengal’s 24 Parganas and the coastal lowlands of Bangladesh.

Climate change or poor resource management?

Climate change is often blamed for disaster-related migration. But it’s important to separate disasters caused by poor natural-resource management from those caused by climate change. “The enormous funding for climate change gives nations an excuse to walk away from their responsibilities,” says Nitin Sethi, an environment journalist with Business Standard.

For instance, the year 2016 saw less than the usual amount of rainfall in the state of Bihar. The floods, documented in the VR essay, Submerged, were largely due to the sudden release of water from a dam in another state, as well as the increasing siltation of the Ganga because of the Farakka barrage further downstream.

Sahgal believes that the world will witness the largest ever stream of migration between 24 Parganas in West Bengal and Bangladesh

Similarly, Paprocki’s found that much of the migration from Khulna had to do with the economic and ecological changes that accompanied a switch from rice cultivation to shrimp farming, promoted by many development agencies, which turns agricultural land into a swamp where little else grows. “Embankments become weak due to a lack of vegetation, making the region more vulnerable to floods and cyclones,” says Paprocki. Shrimp aquaculture employs only 10 per cent of the labour force required for rice farming. A combination of surplus labour, floods and the decline of subsistence food production pushes people out of their homes.
Of the islands she visited, the only one that was able to withstand cyclone Aila was the one that resisted shrimp farming and continued to grow rice. Another island whose land had been decimated by shrimp farming turned back the clock and switched to growing rice. It took seven years for the fertility to return to the land, but when it did, every single person who had migrated out of the villages returned home.

Repeated disaster ensures that people live at lower incomes all their lives

In chronic flood-prone regions, people are forced to deal with the situation as if the state does not exist. In Assam and Bihar, people who can afford to, have their boats ready in time for floods and are prepared to move to higher land. But repeated disasters ensure that people live at lower incomes all their lives. “Each year floods will wipe out a certain income and a certain level of income opportunity,” says Sethi.

He believes a basic level of development is necessary to deal with climate change. Strategies for combating climate change in Europe may include plans to redesign city infrastructure, such as building costly dikes and walls against sea level rise. But for India’s poor, it’s about obtaining wages for the next three months and ensuring there’s a roof over one’s head when a natural calamity hits, says Sethi.
Global organisations working on climate change adaption often presume that basic development essentials are already in place for the people. But Sethi feels that, for the poor, securing these fundamental needs is the primary route to increasing their resilience to disaster. Money spent on ensuring delivery of adequate amounts of food and nutrition and assuring basic health care for citizens can do more to build resilience in people against climate change than many fancy schemes that global funding offer.

Climate refugees

In 2016, 330 million people in India were affected by drought, the hottest year on record; the situation was further compounded by El Nino (a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean). Yet, the role of climate change is virtually invisible in the conversation around migration in South Asia. According to the ActionAid report, this has a lot to do with the fact that migration is not new to the region—poverty, ethnicity and land access has for long pushed people out of their homes. Against the existing landscape of migrant labour, South Asian countries are slow to understand the impact of environmental changes that further drive migration.

“All indications show that we will have many more climate refugees in future, in part because of rapid population growth, particularly in South Asia and Africa. As a result, many more people are being pushed into high-risk areas, such as coastal zones prone to storm surges, tsunamis, and future sea-level rise; and floodplains where localised flooding can be very severe,” says William F Laurance, environmentalist and distinguished research professor at James Cook University, Australia.

Jairam Ramesh, India’s former environment minister, reflects on the reasons. “Massive displacement in hilly areas has taken place and the main cause has been indiscriminate tree felling. Forests are the best protectors and there is no better way of ensuring livelihood security in mountain ecosystems than regenerating them,” says Ramesh. He goes on to say the perennial problems of floods in some rivers of north and east India can be tackled only by regional cooperation involving India, Nepal and Bangladesh. “Afforestation in upper catchment areas and building of dams upstream are long-term solutions that require sustained political cooperation,” he adds.

Sand and debris from a collapsed mud dam is strewn over what used to be paddy fields, permanently damaging the land.
Credits: Team Memesys

This is particularly important, given the increasing tensions and intolerance that have arisen as a result of climate-driven migration in the region. “Many Bangladeshi communities exposed to disaster migrate to India to seek new work and life opportunities. In many cases, their exposure to drought or flood has been exacerbated by the trans-boundary water sharing deals in which India’s Farakka or Teesta Barrages hold back or release large amounts of water, and this may be adding to the impetus for migration,” says ActionAid’s report, aptly titled Climate Change Knows no Borders.

With too much water during the monsoon and too little during the summer, Sahgal says one of the biggest problems causing forced migration in India is that over 1,000 dams in the country have conflicting objectives—flood control and generating power. “If dams are built for flood control, their reservoirs should obviously remain half empty so that there is space for monsoon water to fill it. But industries won’t allow for the slow release of water before the monsoons as turbines won’t run. Only when the reservoirs are full is water suddenly released from dams, resulting in floods and the loss of lives,” says Sahgal.

The people running India have split personalities, he believes. On the one hand, the state wants to build the largest solar power plants in India. On the other hand, they want to link rivers, sink the Panna tiger reserve and build more dams.
“India is being dismantled,” says Sahgal, adding that the economic edifice of the country can only be built on a stable ecology. “Migration, after all, is nothing but the collapse of the ecological house of cards.”

Watch the VR essay, Submerged, directed by Nishtha Jain

Check out the work done by our knowledge partner in the flood-affected districts and donate:
Anahita Mukherji
Anahita Mukherji’s work on inequality earned her the Sanskriti Award for Journalism and Sanctuary Asia’s Wind Under The Wings award for her series on the ecological and human cost of coal lying along Mumbai’s sea-front. She is a former Assistant Editor at
The Times of India.
Nishtha Jain
Nishtha Jain is a Mumbai-based independent filmmaker, best known for her widely acclaimed and multi-award-winning films like Gulabi Gang (2012), Lakshmi and Me (2008) and City of Photos (2004).
Film Credits
A VR Essay by
Nishtha Jain

Produced by
Khushboo Ranka

Executive Producer
Anand Gandhi

Creative Director
Zain Memon

Associate Producer
Shone Satheesh Babu

Editor For ElseVR
Shubhangi Swarup

Rohan Raut

Abhinav Tyagi

Graphic Design
Soumik Lahiri

Post Production Supervisor
Sujit Choudhary

Compositing Artist
Omprakash Choudhary
Gautam Kamat

Naomi Shah
Neil Pagedar
Nidhi Shetty
Nirav Pandya
Niraj Bulbule
Pooja Shetty
Pourush Turel
Rajendra Samanta
Sudeep Chakravarty
Vinay Shukla


1 - Manish Jha and Pushpendra have extensively researched migration from the flood-prone regions of Bihar over 2015 and 2016 and their work will shortly be published. Their study found the prevalence of labour contractors facilitating the flow of migrants from Bihar to Delhi. These contractors are earlier migrants from the same region who help newer migrants get a job in the city. While helping newer migrants find work, these contractors also exploit them for cheap labour.

2 - Manish Jha and Pushpendra’s earlier work on development in Bihar includes the book Traversing Bihar: The Politics of Development and Social Justice.

3 - ActionAid, December 2016, Climate Change Knows No Borders: An analysis of climate induced migration, protection gaps and need for solidarity in South Asia.

4 - Internal Displacement Monitoring Committee, 2016, Global Report on Internal Displacement