Nowhere to go
Till twelve years ago, Kucheipadar used to be a sleepy tribal village in the Kashipur block in Rayagadh district of Orissa. Then the villagers launched a battle against a cluster of industry heavyweights—the Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL). The UAIL had just begun to install rigs to source the rich bauxite reserves found in this region. But the villagers set up roadblocks, braving lathi charges, and stopped the juggernaut from rolling into their land. The Kashipur block still exists in a state of siege.
Why are the tribals so desperate? Because they have witnessed the trauma of being ‘displaced’ from really close quarters. Since Independence, dams and mining industries have come to cover more than 5,00,000 hectares of land in Koraput region alone in Orissa. The story is the same in most other parts of this mineral-rich state. Result? Thousands of tribal families who used to live in and around the forests (now turned into mining sites) land up in city slums. The story gets even gorier. More than 100 families living in the vicinity of the Hirakud dam—once considered to be the ‘pride of Orissa’—have attained the status of being ‘thrice displaced’!!! First by the dam, and then by Eastern India Collieries, and then again by the National Thermal Power Corporation.
Lets take another instance.
57,000 Tongas from Zambia and Zimbabwe had to make way for the Kariba dam in late 1950s. “Everything was buried by the water and soldiers were sent to kill our people who did not want to move,“ says Chief David Syankusule.The dam today provides electricity to millions of city dwellers in Harare, Lusaka and beyond. But for the Tongas the dam has spelt doom. Before it was built they had access to clean water from the fast-flowing River Zambezi. Then they were relocated to rockier, less fertile land, from where they had to travel five kms to fetch water from man-made lakes. The ‘displacement’ has left a lasting impact. Even today, the Tonga children suffer from diseases like bilahazaria and malaria, thanks to living in such close proximity to stagnant water. “Their bodies are sick and thin, and they are running out of blood,” laments Syankusule.
The Tongas in Africa and the tribals in Rayagadh have problems in common. The lives of both these communities have been dramatically and permanently affected by changes in natural environment — their original homeland. Both are environmental refugees.
Who are they?
The term was first coined in 1985 by Essam El-Hinnawi, an Egyptian professor at the National Research Centre, Cairo. He divided them into three categories:
‘Natural’ refugees:Those who have been temporarily displaced from their habitat due to natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, cyclones, or yes…I know what you are thinking…a tsunami!
Driven out for development: Those who have been forced to leave their home and hearth because these have been destroyed by man-made constructions like dams, roads, or some urban development projects. In Indonesia almost 50,000 people became refugees so that the roads in and around Jarkarta could be widened. 15,000 had to abandon their homes for the sake of building a modern, state-of-the art sewerage system in Shanghai…
Forced to migrate: Those who have migrated from the land that they were born in because it can no longer sustain them. Every year, in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and every other state of India, thousands of poor farmers are forced to push their way into crowded, unwelcoming towns and cities simply because they cannot make a living out of their land any more. For some, the water source — a well or a lake or even a river — has dried up due to over use. For others, the once fertile farmlands have turned barren due to water logging or salinisation. And for the rest, who never owned a piece of land, but survived by grazing animals in the village commons — those lands have been declared off limits. They have been grabbed by the richer, more powerful farmers in the village, or given away by the government to an industry or a dam project or a mining plant.
There is one factor that is common among all three categories of environmental refugees. They belong to the economically, socially, and politically weakest and most vulnerable sections of the population.
Lets take India as an example again. Adivasis or the tribals form only eight per cent of our total population. But they make up 40 to 50 per cent of those displaced by development projects in our country!!!
And, interestingly, this is true of even for the first category of environmental refugees — the ones evicted due to natural calamities. The number of people killed or rendered homeless due to natural calamities are far higher in the low and middleincome countries as compared to the high income nations. This is because of a number of factors. In the developing countriesthe density of population is very high — that is large numbers of people live crammed into small pieces of land. The shelters — especially the shanties in the poorer localities of the overcrowded cities — are hardly equipped to bear the brunt of nature’s wrath. So when disaster strikes — the scale of its impact on human life and property is colossal… like we witnessed when tsunami struck our eastern coasts in December, 2004 (see centrespread).
No space to spare
High population density also plays a critical role in the lives of the other two categories of refugees. How? Let me explain. In a developing country like India, all ecological niches — deserts, river basins, humid hill slopes—are occupied by a human group or community for sustenance. Even the areas that are officially earmarked as ‘wastelands’ by the government, in reality are heavily used. They provide fuel and fodder to millions of people. Hence, if the resources of any part of our land is taken over in the name of development, it would inevitably lead to mass-scale displacement. In other words, create more environmental refugees.
But before I tell you more about how the world today is tackling this swelling rank of ‘the Homeless’, lets stop for a moment. Is this such a new phenomenon after all..one that began to haunt the human kind only in the twentieth century? Not really.
History of the homeless
In his book, A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting, British historan and academic, raises an interesting question. Why, he asks, is so much of modern-day Iraq barren desert, when this area (called Sumer in ancient times) was once hailed as the ‘Fertile Crescent’’? Lush green farm lands drove the economy of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. Did a wicked witch’s magic wand turn it into acres of dryland? No, says Ponting, the Sumerians destroyed themselves!
How? By over-farming, and in particular by over-use of irrigation. Saturating the soils with massive irrigation systems, the ancient Sumerians forced huge quantities of salt to the surface. This salinisation ruined the soil for farming (Hmm… sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it?).
So the Sumerian farmers who abandoned their farmlands, and moved on in search of newer pastures — thousands of years ago — were the first batch of ‘environmenal refugees’ that this planet produced. (Source:Journey of Desperation, Brian Hoepper)
The next evidence of the evicted can be traced back to our very own Indus Valley Civilisation over three thousand years ago. Here, unlike in the Sumerian case, desertification was triggered not only by irrigation pressures, but also by largescale deforestation. Acres of forestland were cut down to make way for the agricultural fields. And the wood was used to keep the fire in the brick kilns burning. The end result was severe soil erosion, that eventually destroyed the farmlands.
The lethal human touch
Over the next thousand years similar trends can be identified in various parts of the world — in different time zones, in different sites — the Roman Empire, China and the Mayan Civilisation (modern day Central America). The signs are unmistakable. People being forced to leave their home and hearth because their survival is at stake!
But things really took a serious turn with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe. The lethal effect of human action on water, soil, and land has never been so starkly evident.Today, as per figures given out by the International Red Cross Society, 25 million environmental refugees are on the move world wide. And according to the United Nations reports, more than 150 million will exist in the world by 2050.
But here is the real bad news: International researchers in this field claim that this is a gross under-estimate!!
India’s report card: Poor
In India, like most other countries in the world, it is impossible to count the actual number of people who have become paupers because the land beneath them have dried up. Like I have already told you, every year, thousands leave home to look for — not only new shelters, but new livelihoods. Not because they choose to do so, but because they are forced to.
However, we can still gauge the role that man-made constructions—dams, roadways, urban infrastructure projects, national parks and sanctuaries, or industrial plants, even tourist resorts — have played in increasing the number of homeless in our country. Here take a look:
As per experts, from 1951 to 1990 a total of 210 lakh people have been displaced by dams, mines, industries and wildlife sanctuaries. And here we are not even beginning to count the more recent mega projects — the Narmada, for instance!
Cast out and no place to go...
If you think this is shocking, let me share a more scary fact with you. The record of rehabilitation of the these oustees everywhere is even poorer.
One example: Of the 2,108 familiesdisplaced from Una and Bilaspur districts of Himachal Pradesh, by the Bhakra Nangal project, only 750 have been resettled. There is more.
The recently published report of the Tiger Task Force says that from the early 1970s till mid- 2005, 80 villages and 2,904 families displaced from different tiger reserves have been relocated. But roughly 1,500 villages within the 28 reserves and about 65,000 families — are yet to be resettled!!!
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’ displaced persons.
This essentially means that the UN member nations are under no legal compulsion to acknowledge environmental 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!!
No 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 international relief, they often fall victim to political prejudices of different populations, governments and individuals. How? Let me give you an example. In1983, 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 raised!
“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 resettlement legislation.
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.