Environmental Health and Care Require Environmental Justice - MHI




Environmental Health and care
Require Environmental Justice

Marginalised Communities are the
Primary Victims of Climate Events,
yet their Mental Healthcare is oft-overlooked

Dulari Parmar, Manasi Pinto and Roshni Nuggehalli


Amreeta Banerjee


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.

Sarita Devi, a migrant worker, says,

“We came here so that we could have our own house, but what good is it if every monsoon we are forced out of our houses to spend days sleeping on the road?”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states, “These impacts (of climate change) disproportionately affect marginalised groups, amplifying inequalities and undermining sustainable development across all regions.”

Word on the ground and on paper echo a similar reality. As the material effects of climate change rise, we can no longer detract from the fact that the experience of this impact is gravely unjust and unequal. The imbalance manifests when the major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions are corporations based in the Global North, while the victims are indigenous and rural populations. 

Indigenous populations comprise less than 5 percent of the world’s population and protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Yet, across the globe, they are forced aside by extractivist economic practices which trigger ecological degradation — violating their rights and threatening their access to land, their traditional livelihoods, and their cultural identities. Despite being close observers and preservers of the environment, indigenous leaders rarely get a seat at the table to discuss climate change adaptation or mitigation.

Climate governance, both global and national, often perceives the threats to be limited to the natural environment. The multidimensional effects of climate change, one critical aspect being forced migration, are often ignored. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), global estimates of the number of climate change migrants will range between 25 million and 1 billion by 2050. In urban areas, migrant workers carry the trauma of their forced displacement, which is accentuated by the insecurity of life and livelihood. Migrants to the city are left with no option but to settle in ecologically-sensitive regions, thus placing them at greater risk at the time of climate hazards. 

This writing seeks to understand the varying effects of climate change, specifically on mental health, through the lived experiences of two vulnerable communities residing in Mumbai. The first, an indigenous community, faces the gradual, everyday emergencies catalysed by anthropogenic climate change, and the latter, a hill-dwelling migrant community, has suffered the wrath of an extreme rainfall event that triggered a landslide hazard. Their experiences inform us of several structures of oppression at play in urban society that work against vulnerable groups; their social security is further compromised during a climate hazard, leaving an indelible impact on their mental health and collective well-being. These stories have been documented by the Climate Justice team at YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action); they are attempting to understand the effects of climate change on the urban poor of Mumbai and shift the narrative to include their lived realities and demands.

Transitions and tensions in the Koli community

In the coastal city of Mumbai, one indigenous group, the Koli community, is primarily engaged in the fishing trade. Their identity is closely linked to their place and occupation, hence any alteration to this affects the individual and collective sense of well-being. In a short interaction with representatives of the community, it becomes clear how erratic weather conditions have triggered a drastic depletion in the number and varieties of fish in the sea. Yet, weather change has not been the only contributing factor. The community members were quick to point out that the allocation of a dumping ground on the Uttan Hills in 2008 had hampered the existing ecology of the region. The burning of waste here has led to air pollution coupled with water pollution as the leachate from the garbage entered the groundwater and eventually the sea. One elderly fisherman reported remorsefully, “Back in the day, we used to obtain prized collections of bombil (Bombay duck) and bangda (mackerel). Today, the catch is much less, and the taste of bombil is nothing like it once was.” With many of their children choosing other occupations, they stand witness as their traditional occupation gets mired in stigma and is systematically phased out by commercial fishing enterprises. 

In koliwadas (colonies of Kolis) across Mumbai, urban development projects like the Uttan dumping ground and the coastal road intersect with climate change events to affect the traditional ways of life. A sense of despair permeates the indigenous community; people experience deep anxiety as they are disconnected from their lands and waters, threatening not just their livelihood but also their identity. As is evident from the experiences of the Kolis, the mental health implications of climate change are not always solely incumbent on sudden climate disasters but are supplemented and worsened by urban development and policy decisions.

Disastrous night and fearful futures

Research shows that migrants to a city often live in ecologically-sensitive habitats. A “Climate Hazards Map of Mumbai”, created by YUVA, confirms that most informal settlements in the city are located in areas that are exposed to multiple disasters. A case in point is of New Bharat Nagar, which lies along the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre hills in eastern Mumbai. The settlement, inhabited largely by migrant workers, is sensitive to landslides during heavy rains; in response, the government has built a retaining wall above the basti. 

The night of 18th June, 2021 stands as proof of the fact that retaining walls are not a solution, and in fact, can further contribute to a problem – a ‘maladaptation’. That night, as the community settled into their beds, rain battered against their tin roofs, lulling them to sleep. A little past midnight, a few of them awoke to the sound of a distant crash followed by muffled cries. The retaining wall had collapsed, taking 19 lives with it. As grief consumed the community, the members were left to pick up the pieces of their lives with no one there to listen to their stories of loss and frustration, of their fears and collective suffering. A few reported that the trauma of the incident wouldn’t allow them to sleep on rainy nights; they would stay awake so as to be able to escape if another disaster came. The response of the local government, especially in clearing up the debris, was inefficient and had, in fact, contributed to their anxieties. Now, over a year later, collapsed houses remain exposed to the skies, and debris is still littered all around. These are gaping wounds that impede the healing of the community. 

Across the city, informal settlements inhabited largely by daily-wage migrants have crumbled and have had to be rebuilt due to landslides, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters. Poor communities are forced to rebuild their surroundings in an institutional vacuum, and the process of physical rebuilding takes a toll not only on their material wealth but also on their psychosocial well-being.

Whose responsibility is it, anyway?

Climate change and mental health are viewed as individual issues with disconnected solutions. Also, since the mental health practice lies within the framework of the modern medical industrial complex, it adopts a symptomatic approach of ‘cure’ as opposed to ‘care’. Thus, both these looming crises are diagnosed with simplistic treatments, and both champion individual resilience, coping, and adaptation. Several questions arise here: Do the people who face the brunt of the climate crisis have the financial, social, and emotional assets and capacities to cope, heal, and move on? Are mental health institutions and practitioners accessible to people from urban bastis and gaothans (village land portions used for settlements)? Is the mental health practice able to factor in the systems that, along with climate change, affect the individual? The answer, often, is no.

In reality, climate change and mental health are deeply intertwined, not just with each other but with other social systems as well. In urban areas like Mumbai, truly transformative responses necessitate a more holistic approach which is able to tackle various systemic causes, including but not limited to caste, gender, religion, and occupation. While individual-centric mental healthcare is still necessary, it needs to be embedded within an institutional framework of climate justice where the systems that perpetuate injustices are reformed and power is redistributed. Collective social well-being is, therefore, possible only through climate policies that ensure that voices of the marginalised find an equitable space in development and ecosystem management decision-making processes.

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E : Locating Adivasi Self within Environmental Jus...