A house submerged in Assam after the 2019 flood. Photo: PTI.
“I felt as if I had fallen into an ocean,” said Moharshi Chaudhary, a 52-year old farmer in Churu, Rajasthan, as he watched an army of locusts’ cover the sky, two hours before sunset one evening this May. He had been warned by neighbours, so he had rushed to his field with drums, plates and crackers.
As hundreds of thousands of insects descended on his cotton crop, the farmer lit crackers, but the grasshoppers didn’t budge. “In five minutes, the locusts ate my dreams and hard work,” Chaudhary said, “Can you imagine the impact that had on me?”
This May, armies of locusts – hormonally charged grasshoppers – flying from Iran and Pakistan chomped on over 200,000 hectares of farmland with standing crops of cotton, pulses, vegetables and oranges. It is the second consecutive year of locust attacks.
Chaudhary’s locust tragedy has its roots in three cyclones that hit a remote and barren Arabian Peninsula desert in 2018. The moisture and new vegetation created fertile breeding and feeding grounds for them. Some swarms flew south, towards Yemen and the Horn of Africa, while the other groups flew north into Iran.
In early 2019, torrential rains in Iran, one of the heaviest downpours in decades, helped locusts multiply, leading to even bigger swarms flying eastwards to Pakistan and India. The unusual cyclones and frequent and intense rainfall, scientists say, owe themselves to climate change.
As extreme weather events, made more likely by climate change, pummel the planet with increasing force and frequency, they are reinforcing long-standing inequalities of caste, class and gender in poor and marginalised communities.
When temperatures hovered at around 45º C in Churu in May, Vikas Regar, a brick-kiln labourer, was still working. Regar is paid 20 rupees for every tractor he loads. He spends several hours stacking bricks in the tractor. Then he spends several hours baking bricks. “It’s like I am putting my hand in the oven,” Regar told me about working with a kiln that can be fired up to 1,100º C.
At the end of a 14-hour day, the 26-year old, who is paid per unit of work, takes home about Rs 300 to his wife and infant. Although India’s wage code requires employers to set a fair piece-work rate pegged to the minimum wage, brick-kiln owners routinely exploit workers by setting low piece-work wages, forcing them to work faster and for longer hours, even in the heat.
One oppressively hot afternoon that week, Regar’s head ached, his eyes burned. “I was resting and then I started to vomit,” he said. When Regar started to feel giddy after throwing up several times, his wife took him to the doctor.
“The doctor gave me an injection, four litres of water and some glucose,” said the man with blisters on his palms and feet from working in the sun. “Because of the blisters, I can’t hold a cup of tea in my hand. But my boss doesn’t care – he hasn’t even paid the doctor’s fees.” On May 28, after a two-day break, Regar returned to the kiln.
“Workers are not able to take breaks in many piece-work jobs, including in brick-kilns,” Vidhya Venugopal, a professor at the department of environmental health engineering, Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research, Chennai, said, “This is because employers set impossible daily targets for workers to complete.”
A 2017 paper Venugopal co-authored, on climate-change-induced heat risks for labourers in brick kilns, recommended that any technical improvements to reduce pollution or mitigate heat stress must be accompanied by measures to end human rights abuse and slavery on site.
“Addressing heat and climate change without considering human rights and ecological injustices ignores the obvious ‘elephant in the room’,” the paper noted.
Some 1,600 km east of Rajasthan’s Churu, and two days after Chaudhary saw locusts destroy his crop, Cyclone Amphan triggered heavy rain, fast winds and storm surges in Bengal. South 24 Parganas, a district that extends across the Sundarbans delta in India, is one of the worst-hit. “It is a devastation I have not seen in my life. Nearly 99% of South 24 Parganas district has been wiped out,” said Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal.
For decades, rising seas and violent storms have swept mud homes, breached embankments and flushed saltwater into fields. One in five households in the Sundarbans has a family member who works elsewhere; 64% of migrants said economic or environmental factors have pushed them out. Close to nine in 10 households are either landless or own land less than an acre big.
“Within the Sundarbans, there is a particular geography of inequality,” Megnaa Mehtta, an environmental anthropologist who specialises in the Sundarbans, said in a recent interview. “The people who are the poorest and often landless live on the river’s edge. These are people who live right next to embankments and are the first to be hit.”
Sundarbans’ workers fleeing one climate catastrophe will likely face another this decade: rising heat. A little over 2% of total working hours, an equivalent of 80 million full-time jobs, will be lost to warmer weather by 2030, according to a 2019 International Labour Organisation report that examined the impact of heat stress on labour productivity. This report noted that high rates of vulnerable employment will put workers at greater risk of heat stress.
After adopting the UN Sendai Framework for disaster risk reduction, India’s released its national disaster management plan in 2016. It mentioned women, children, the elderly and the disabled as groups vulnerable to natural disasters. The policy identified Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as groups-at-risk only in 2019, when the plan was revised.
“Policy statements for vulnerable groups don’t go far enough. We need funding and staff to develop and implement an operational framework for marginalised communities,” said Lee Macqueen, senior programme manager at National Dalit Watch of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a civil society group that monitors the exclusion of Dalits and other marginalised communities in disaster situations.
“For example, using India’s census data, the state and central governments can identify vulnerable groups by their caste, the quality of their homes, their livelihoods, their access to electricity, water, their migration status and disabilities,” Macqueen said. “The government can overlap this data with India’s hazard maps, and develop focused strategies to protect and build resilience of families in high-risk situations.”
In the aftermath of Cyclone Fani in Odisha and the 2018 Kerala floods, National Dalit Watch interviewed over 3,900 affected individuals in both states. Marginalised communities in Kerala and Odisha, both reports found, were likely to be poorer when disaster struck; are more likely to be in harm’s way; are more likely to suffer damages; and are likelier to receive delayed relief.
As the planet heats and Himalayan glaciers supplying rivers begin to melt, some of the subcontinent’s perennial river systems that support over a billion people could dry up for months each year, spurring further conflict.
In Lucknow’s Manak Nagar slum, Pallavi Tharu and her family of seven live in a 150 square-foot mud hut. This May, the hand-pump in their settlement – the one that Tharu and over a thousand plus residents depend on – broke down. As temperatures breached 47º C, Tharu had to cycle a kilometer to a railway officers’ colony to use their water tank.
On one of her trips to the colony in late May, she was shoved by a policeman: “He pushed me as I was filling water and kicked my bucket.” Tharu said the officer told her that she did not have permission to fill her buckets in the colony. “They said I was spreading the coronavirus and threatened to lock me up in jail,” she said.
The Tharus, like many in the settlement, have voter and ration cards but don’t have electricity. A group of economists and scientists this May, via an article in Nature Climate Change, urged governments to ensure continuity of basic services. They said providing “electricity, water and other utilities will be critical to limit loss of life during heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes.”
The locust outbreaks are expected to get worse this year, according to India’s Locust Warning Organisation. In Churu, Moharshi Chaudhary doesn’t think he will be compensated for his losses. He is probably right. The Centre’s locusts’ relief package for Rajasthan’s farmers in 2019-2020 was restricted to only four of the 12 districts that reported losses.
In the four districts, compensation could be claimed for up to two hectares of land, lower than the average landholding size of 2.73 hectares. Payouts per hectare were capped at Rs 13,500 – less than half of the farmer’s average cultivation costs.
With his cotton profits, Chaudhary was going to repair his house. His brother Omkarmal was going to have a kidney operation. “I don’t know what I will do now,” he said.
Amit Mishra is a community journalist in Lucknow. Nikhil Eapen is a freelance journalist and a researcher at Equidem, a labour-rights organisation.