A World Bank report last year had warned that climate change will transform more than 143 million people into “climate migrants”, escaping crop failure, water scarcity, and sea-level rise. But for the people in Marathwada, India, where land degradation has made agriculture almost impossible, migration has already become a reality for more than half a decade, with persistent droughts for almost a decade, rendering the land unproductive.
“My family has ten acres of land. But the scant rainfall and droughts have degraded it and made it unproductive. The output is so scanty that farming has become unviable,” says Sachin Surwase, who hails from a village called Jejele in the region.
His village has a population of 1500 people. Most of the inhabitants are senior citizens whose children have relocated to cities in search of a livelihood. “There must be merely 20 youngsters still living in my village these days,” he says.
He further adds that they are forced to live in poverty despite owning large stretches of land in their respective areas. “Considering that there is no other industry besides agriculture in Marathwada, we are forced to migrate to cities in search of jobs,” says Surwasw.
Here, rent is unaffordable, and he has to share a small single room with four others. For someone making Rs 9000 ($128) a month, this is the only arrangement he could afford. “This way, each of us have to pay only Rs 1000 ($4) a month,” he says.
Surwase also says that due to persisting droughts and the resultant degradation, people from his district are steadily climbing higher on the poverty scale of the country. “As per a recent survey, our district ranks third in the country in the list of the poorest areas of the country, it is a very disheartening situation,” Surwase adds.
Kuldeep Ambekar, yet another youngster from Marathwada could not agree more. He says that most people in the area are already stuck deep in the vicious circle of poverty, which makes it difficult for them to obtain education, a prerequisite to land better jobs, if they choose to migrate. “With a paucity of good education institutes in our region, we are forced to move out and seek admissions in colleges in the city areas. Here, it becomes difficult to bear lodging, food and education expenses, forcing many to quit. Without good education, how can we expect high paying jobs,” he wonders.
He adds that most youngsters migrating to cities are only able to take up jobs as unskilled workers. “Many live in very small houses, at times even slums. They either get low paying jobs or work as daily wage labourers and can be seen hanging around at the ‘Kamgaar Addas’ (places where workers are temporarily hired for a day or few). They get paid somewhere between Rs 300-400 ($4-6) per day. However, there are lean days when many of them do not find work,” he adds.
Human security also depends on the quality of land
It is not just Marathwada, the problem of land degradation propelling migration is of a global nature. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), land and soil degradation undermines the security and development of all countries. Their statistics reveal that 12 million hectares of productive land become barren every year due to desertification and drought alone, which is a lost opportunity to produce 20 million tons of grain.
The convention further states that for some people, healthy land is the only form of capital that they have. It is a natural storage for fresh water. When degraded, land loses these functions. Nearly half of the global population is living in potentially water scarce areas. As livelihoods, including jobs, based on natural resources, become increasingly precarious, young people are left with only a few prospects for work and survival in rural areas. Land degradation could force millions of people to migrate. Of the many decisions to be agreed upon in the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP) 14, set to be held in India’s capital New Delhi, ways to curb such migration will be addressed.
“We are especially focused on the over 1.3 billion people who rely directly on the land to survive, and suffer the most from the biophysical impacts of land degradation and drought. They can enjoy a better, healthier future if they are able to protect, manage and restore their own land. Communities that rely solely on land should be supported to become resilient in the face of environmental, social and climatic pressures,” reads an excerpt from the UNCCD’s statement on what to expect out of this upcoming COP14. Surwase, Ambekar and others from Marathwada only hope that such conferences convert into strong action plans which can help them out of their misery.