Changed Destinies in the Eastern Himalayan Region - MHI




Changed Destinies in the
Eastern Himalayan Region 

How Climate Change has Undermined
the Development Aspirations of
Marginalised Communities

Rituraj Phukan


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

The National Highway connecting my hometown to Guwahati was home to thousands of marooned families for several weeks this year. Men, women, and children were forced to live on the road for weeks, sharing their space with livestock and companion animals, the shacks clearly insufficient to provide any protection from the periodic thunderstorms. One side of the highway was barricaded after a person was run down while he was having dinner. I was dismayed by the helplessness of these women and children; the lack of toilets and privacy exposed them to indignities unimaginable in this modern era. 

Last year, a global survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries revealed “profound psychological distress” attributed to the climate crisis, with anxiety and distress affecting daily life and functioning, worsened by perceived government inaction. Most respondents from the Global South including India and the Philippines were concerned about the “frightening” future. 

Previous studies have shown that psychological distress about climate change exists, with affective, cognitive, and behavioural dimensions, and that such natural disasters have long-lasting effects on mental health and consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and general anxiety. 

Floods are expected annual occurrences, but I have seen the frequency and intensity increase since my childhood. This year, the first wave of floods in May was unexpected, with the heavy rains and landslides devastating the hill district of Dima Hasao and other areas with the loss of over a 100 lives. For millions of children, repeated waves of floods, landslides, and erosion will lead to innumerable loss of school days and, sometimes, the total end of schooling and any hopes of a better life.

Studies have found that specific groups like children, the elderly, women, people with pre-existing mental illness, the economically disadvantaged, and the unhoused are at higher risk of distress and other adverse mental health consequences from exposure to climate-related or weather-related disasters. As climate change undermines children’s mental health, it disrupts educational and occupational opportunities, with increased stigma, discrimination, and social marginalisation. These evident consequences across the region need to be documented for targeted responses and remedial measures. 

The forecasted loss of over a third of glaciers in the Eastern Himalayas by 2100, even if warming is contained to 1.5°C, will be equally disastrous for montane and riparian communities. Residents of highland regions, mostly indigenous people, will be affected by the future decline of glacial runoff in terms of the effects on agriculture. People in the lowland regions affected by floods and erosions also suffer long-term consequences undermining resources and resilience, compromising health choices like poor diet, inadequate physical activity, and reduced or no access to health services, adding to the mental distress. These aspects are further aggravated in the underdeveloped and remote villages of the Eastern Himalayan region. 

Last year, Assam was listed among the eight most vulnerable states by the “Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India Using a Common Framework”. The national climate vulnerability assessment report from the Department of Science and Technology placed 60 percent of districts in Assam under the highly vulnerable category. Another recent study revealed that six of India’s eight most flood-prone districts during the last decade are in Assam, reinforcing its place as the worst flood-affected state in the region. Besides the mandated committees and action plans, there is no urgency or proactive action to mitigate the long-term and short-term health consequences for affected communities.

…specific groups like children, the elderly, women, people with pre-existing mental illness, the economically disadvantaged, and the unhoused are at higher risk of distress and other adverse mental health consequences from exposure to climate-related or weather-related disasters.

…specific groups like children, the elderly, women, people with pre-existing mental illness, the economically disadvantaged, and the unhoused are at higher risk of distress and other adverse mental health consequences from exposure to climate-related or weather-related disasters.

Earlier scientific assessments have found that communities that rely on the natural environment for sustenance and livelihood, as well as populations living in areas most susceptible to specific climate change events, face an increased risk of adverse mental health outcomes. These findings are applicable to the indigenous communities of the Eastern Himalayas, who are at a higher risk of hardship from impacts like flooding because of pre-existing socioeconomic vulnerability, history of exploitation and conflicts, and social stigma. 

Despite insignificant contributions to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, indigenous people are among the first to face the direct impacts of warming. These communities are proudly connected to the natural world and biological diversity is celebrated in their art and music. Loss of forest cover, decline of native biodiversity and proliferation of invasive vegetation, and the consequent loss of indigenous food sources have emerged as direct threats to the food security of forest or fringe forest dwellers dependent on natural resources for sustenance.

It must be mentioned that the latest State of Forest Report showed a further decrease in the area under forest cover across the northeast region, despite an overall increase for India, in continuation of a declining trend since 2009. Compounding the problem is rampant encroachment, with 60% of India’s encroached forest areas located in the northeast, and Assam again being the worst affected.

Personally, I believe that ensuring indigenous people can access traditional foods in the face of warming impacts is climate justice. Most food, medicines, and ingredients for traditional liquor are derived from the native vegetation, and preserved according to traditions passed down from one generation to the next. These are important to their cultural identity and societal fabric, but also vital for health and well-being, affecting personal immunity, community resilience, and fulfillment. 
Indigenous peoples are vital to creating a dynamic adaptation and mitigation pathway and there are many examples of how different communities interpret and react to the impacts of climate change, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find creative solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes. Traditional ways of preserving food, like smoking or fermentation, practised by indigenous communities are perhaps the best insurance for their food security, and mental and physical health in times of disasters. Planning for the future should include enhancement and support for the adaptive capacity of indigenous peoples integrated with disaster preparation, land-use planning, environmental conservation, physical and mental health support, and sustainable development strategies. 
At the camps for the flood-affected, the elderly people are despondent about a lifetime spent fighting poverty and hunger, but the children must be mentally readied to fight a system that fails to address their basic human development aspirations. Considering the vulnerabilities of the Eastern Himalayas, it is imperative for policy-makers to integrate mental health into the agenda for proactive mitigation responses during climate-induced disasters. 

Developed countries like the USA and Japan have incorporated mental health elements like the deployment of psychiatric teams, nutritional advisories, and help centres into the protocol for emergency responses. Countries of the Global South could leverage their experiences in crisis preparedness for an integrated global system in highly vulnerable areas like the Eastern Himalayas. The government must strive to ensure the opportunity to overcome the protracted effect of climate change on mental health for an equitable and sustainable future. 

The empowerment of community leaders is important and hopefully, these marooned children growing up on the roads will someday represent India in global fora to negotiate the allocation of climate funds for the region. Conspicuously absent from global climate negotiations are indigenous people representatives from India, particularly from the Eastern Himalayas, despite being among the worst affected. Finally, the deliverance of climate justice, like all other aspects, is tied to climate finance, and it should be our endeavour to have representation from the affected indigenous communities in these negotiations for the allocation of funds to the region. 

Cite this Article View all References


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C : Locating Adivasi Self within Environmental Jus...