By Vinit Wahi

It may sound strange though but having strong ties to home is the most frequently given reason why people still continue to stay in Himalayan villages notwithstanding the vagaries of climate change,   according to a study. The studyfocuses on the nearly 23-year young state of Uttarakhand which continues to reel under the impact of floods and landslides that continue to strike the area even now. The study reveals it was mainly young men who see finding work and success in cities as a rite of passage and upward mobility for them and identifies middle-aged and elderly people as those who are more likely to stay put there. Published in Climate and Development, the study looks at voluntary and involuntary ‘immobility’ in a region where migration is high not only because of economic and aspirational reasons but development disparities as well. In fact, those who decided to stay pointed to a lack of support on how to adapt to a changing climate including help on what crops to grow, better infrastructure and alternative employment.

In fact, the lead author of the study tells Carbon Brief that remaining residents don’t see migration as a form of adaptation but are rather “wanting to stay where they are” and are looking for information and political will so that they can stay in the places that they call their home. However, there are others who maintain that very few forms of migration in the state can be attributed to environmental events alone. Utarakhand has ten rural hill districts and three urban ones and most of its growth in industry, employment, higher education and health services has been confined to urban plains districts only thus sparking migration from the mountains.

Since 86 per cent of the terrain is mountainous, farmland is scarce and  yet  70 per cent of state’s population depends on subsistence agriculture. As per a 2019 assessment by Indian Council of Agriculture Research on future risk and vulnerability, the state is at a very high risk of climate change impacts. So much so that between 2020 and 2049, the report alarmingly projects that there will be an increase in both extreme rainfall and drought in all these districts while temperatures 4C hotter than recent decades. To cap it all, rapid glacier retreat is only increasing the risk of severe floods and landslide hazards.

According to 2011 census, over 1000 of the state’s 17000 villages are uninhabited while 80 per cent of them have less than 500 people. It may be recalled in one of its earlier editions, this magazine had reported there are 1787 such villages and 565 partially inhabited ones. It had further reported the past decade itself saw 5.06 lac people living state for greener pastures to other cities in the country of which 1.18 lac maintain no link whatsoever with the people back home. But there are still people choosing to remain here, says Himani Upadhyaya, the lead author of the study and a researcher at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Ph. D candidate at Humboldt University. The study finds that unreliable agricultural production due to climate change has led to an increase in outgoing migration.

 At the same time, it identifies attachment to  a place, specific natural resources and other livelihood advantages, social environment, gender roles and dependence on subsistence agriculture as main factors that contribute to decisions to stay. It further says strong emotional bonds to a place was the most-often cited reason to stay given by over 50 per cent of the interviewees. According to the study, while 95 per cent of the people interviewed were involved in agriculture sector, over half of surveyed men had another occupation unlike their women folks who were exclusively dependant on agriculture and government pensions.

The authors identify a variety of reasons for staying, shaped by an individual’s aspirations and capability. And the interviewees who stayed put were just as concerned by increasing climate impacts, declining labour availability  and a lack of attention from their government. The researchers though admit they couldn’t investigate the role of remittances, caste and income played in determining who stayed and why but urge follow-up research in these areas.

But Dr Ritodhi Chakraborty at the University of Canterbury, though not involved in the research, tells Carbon Brief that while he was happy to see more qualitative work in this space, but sorely misses representing more intersectional subjects by relying on binary frameworks such as old and young, mobility and immobility. It, he says, also doesn’t reflect the variations in climate across the state.

He further points out that among those who leave are migrant men working in “hellish urban heat islands in Delhi” and that it was primarily migrant workers who died inside the hydropower installations during the 2021 floods. He also additionally points out that declining village populations are not occurring just as a consequence of climate change but also due to spatial restructuring, that is, villages coming together to form larger villages and land acquisition by the state, the wealthy and corporations. As Dr Amina Maharjan of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, though not a part of the study, tells Carbon Brief the study counters the generalized narrative that people will move when climate change impacts the habitability of their home. 

She is of the opinion that future climate migration studies should rather consider the wellbeing of migrants, migrant households and immobile populations adding that these people are connected and need to be studies together. Once migration has started, it becomes rather difficult to stop the flow thereby brining second generation challenges. It’s of utmost importance therefore to undertake anticipatory adaption rather than reacting to changes. Be as it may, need of the hour is to not only take corrective measures to minimize the long-term impacts of the climate change so that people in large stay back but also create favourable living condition and job opportunities there itself in order to check and minimize the outgoing migration of the hill natives to the plains.