Legally: Again in no man’s land…
“Displacement from one’s home is bad enough, but when it is
done in a manner that is shoddy, inhuman and insensitive, it is lethal,”
said Anil Agarwal, founder editor, Down To Earth, in his editorial, way
back in November, 2000. This, he believed, was the most crippling
problem that the environmental refugees — irrespective of what category
they belonged — faced at that time. The situation still remains the
same. Why? Because strangely enough such refugees are not recognised by
law — whether international or national.
First lets take a look at the global scenario. Article 1A (2) in the UN
Convention related to Status of Refugees defines the criteria of being a
refugee as those with a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for
reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social
group or political opinion’. Even The United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) distinguishes between ‘real’ refugees and ‘merely’
This essentially means that the UN member
nations are under no legal compulsion to acknowledge environ-mental
refugees, nor to offer them succour. And if these homeless communities
do not cross international border, they are not even officially
considered to be refugees. So the millions of people who are ‘internally
displaced’ are completely left out in the cold!!
relief in sight
Now let us consider what has been the impact of this legal vacuum.
First, how does it affect the people who are ravaged and displaced by
natural calamities? Because there are no official guidelines to generate
and regulate inter national relief, they often fall victim to political
prejudices of different populations, governments and individuals. How?
Let me give you an example. In 1983, the Red Cross launched separate
appeals for Polish food needs and for drought victims in north eastern
Brazil. Poland received four times the amount required. But by the end
of the year not more than 56 cents per Brazilian to be assisted could be
“Where governments or
other agencies have resettled with impunity, the basic rights listed in
the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights have often been violated.
In other cases, the rights to adequate housing, education, participation
in cultural life… all listed in the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights have been breached,” says a survey done by
World Bank. “No one asks the displaced people will they be
psychologically, socially, and culturally prepared for a new way of
life?,” says Walter Fernandes, social scientist who has worked
exclusively on tribal issues for many years.
In India, the relocation strategy works like this: the Union government
in New Delhi provides financial assistance, and the state government is
expected to identify land for relocation. Interestingly, till date only
three states in India — Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka — have
On the ground what happens
is inhuman. Resettlement breaks family ties and completely disrupts
livelihood. The tribal community of one village is relocated into
different villages, separating brother from brother in many cases. In
most instances when land is given, it is marginal and of poor quality.
As Anil Agarwal pointed out, ‘It
makes the destitute even more destitute than the destitute’.
Social scientists and activists say the environmental refugees will
remain rudderless and poor till every nation recognises their sovereign
rights over the natural resources, including land, forests and water.
They should be involved in every stage of the rehabilitation process.