India has the highest level of displacement associated with disasters in South Asia in absolute terms. It is also consistently one of the countries with the highest level of disaster displacement, globally. Between 2008 and 2018 about 3.6 million people were displaced on a yearly basis, the majority triggered by flooding due to monsoon rains. India is also prone to other sudden-onset and slow-onset hazards including earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, storm surges and drought. The high level of vulnerability and exposure of the population to these hazards means yearly disaster displacement numbers remain high. Protracted conflict in India-controlled Kashmir and localised ethnic and religious violence also drive displacement every year, but to a much lesser extent.
In 2018, disasters displaced 2.7 million people, about 2 million of which was associated with the monsoon. A number of cyclones also hit the eastern coast of the country. Cross-border shelling across the line of control in India-controlled Kashmir also led to 169,000 new displacements in 2018.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
India is exposed to a range of natural hazards. Around 68 per cent of the country is prone to drought, 60 per cent to earthquakes and 75 per cent of the coastline is vulnerable to cyclones and tsunamis. These physical factors combine with the country’s high population density, poverty levels, rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation to make it the country most at risk of damage and displacement associated with disasters in South Asia.
Areas on the east coast are vulnerable to tropical storms and cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal, while northern states bordering Nepal and Pakistan experience frequent seismic activity. Most of the country is affected by monsoon rains, but highly flood-prone areas include the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna river basins in the Indo-Gangetic plain in the north and north-east.
Major events in recent years include tropical cyclone Komen which hit West Bengal and Manipur in 2015; monsoon flooding in 2016, which particularly affected the states of Bihar and Assam; and monsoon floods, which triggered displacements across eight states. In 2018, India had the third highest level of new displacement linked to disasters worldwide. Monsoon flooding between May and October contributed to 1,967,000 new displacements, and Tropical Cyclone Titli led to about 400,000 new displacements in October.
Displacement associated with conflict is also a regular occurrence, but it can be complex to track and obtain comprehensive data on because conflicts are often very localised. They are largely linked to identity and ethnicity. The main long-standing conflicts revolve around ongoing clashes in disputed Kashmir, separatism in the north-eastern states and the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in the so-called “red corridor” of central and eastern states, predominantly Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Localised violence such as the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots can also quickly lead to significant displacement.
Displacement in Jammu and Kashmir has been driven by ongoing clashes near the line of control between Indian and Pakistani-administered areas. After years of uneasy peace following a ceasefire in 2003, tensions flared in late 2016 after protests on the Indian side led to cross-border raids by the Indian military and a subsequent militant attack on an army base in India. Cross-border shelling that began in 2017 increased in intensity in 2018 and forced more than 160,000 people to leave their homes that year.
Development projects also have the potential to displace large numbers of people although comprehensive data on the topic is difficult to obtain. These include dams, mines, industrial plants, urban renewal and environmental conservation projects. We conducted a study in 2016 which found that the risk of displacement is significant because large-scale land acquisitions can aggravate ethnic and religious tensions and lead to conflict over land access and use.
Another study by the Housing and Land Rights Network estimates that as many as 260,000 people were displaced as a result of evictions to make way for a range of development projects in 2017 alone. Preliminary results from our own analysis of resettlement plans for initiatives funded by the World Bank between 2014 and 2016 found that 11,000 people were at risk of becoming displaced across 11 different projects. This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate.
Where and how do people move?
The states worst affected by disasters in recent years include Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Displacement associated with disasters such as riverine and flash floods tends to be large-scale but short-lived. Such hazards are seasonal and recurrent, and many states are affected every year. IDPs’ exact locations and movements are not usually documented, but the majority tend to stay with family or friends. Relatively few seek shelter in state-run relief camps.
Many of the people living in protracted displacement as result of conflict are in the northern states of Jammu and Kashmir and Assam. Most in Jammu and Kashmir have been displaced since the 1990s, and in Assam since 2014. Others have fled to Delhi or have been displaced within or to Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Nagaland, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh. The majority live in camps, including informal ones, while others live in rented accommodation or homes bought with financial compensation from the government. Return is obstructed by ongoing insecurity, hostility between groups and unresolved housing and land disputes. No data is available on the exact location and length of displacement.
Displacement associated with development projects affects all corners of the country, but little quantitative data exists. Some IDPs may be included in resettlement programmes, but the suitability of the programmes and their new locations is often unknown. Many people who were not resettled end up living in informal settlements in large urban centres, or moving in with nearby relatives. Some return if projects do not materialise.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
The fate of people displaced in India constitutes a significant information gap, particularly for those who do not live in formal camps or resettlement areas. No comprehensive humanitarian assessment of IDPs’ needs has been conducted at the national level. Profiling exercises, however, show that some socially excluded communities such as scheduled castes, indigenous groups and religious minorities are often disproportionally at risk of becoming displaced, and may be propelled further into poverty and marginalisation as a result.
Women and girls displaced by conflict are often vulnerable to gender-based violence and struggle to access healthcare, education, livelihoods and legal remedies. This can be aggravated by the fact that IDPs often leave behind or lose identity cards, sometimes as a result of confiscation or violence, which obstructs their access to social security.
People displaced by development tend not benefit from the projects they are forced to make way for. Only a minority receive assistance, which is often inadequate to restart their lives. People who have been resettled report a range of challenges, including tenure insecurity, inadequate housing, absence of basic services, lack of safety for women and children and limited livelihood opportunities.
Where does the data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
Collecting comprehensive data on displacement in India is a challenge. Displacement associated with conflict is politically sensitive, and very few international organisations collect data on it. Some people displaced by conflict, particularly those living in protracted displacement, have essentially become “invisible”. Moreover, inter-communal and political violence is often localised and tends to stay under the radar. Therefore, reports of destroyed houses in connection to clashes and riots is one of our main indicators of displacement related to such violence. We gather most of the data for our estimates from local media sources and studies conducted by local NGOs, and the figures we compile are likely to be underestimates.
The huge scale of displacement associated disasters brings a different set of challenges. People displaced by disasters tend to stay with family or friends, which makes them difficult to locate and count. Data on shelter usage does exist, but disaster responses are organised at the state level and there is no national data sharing system. However, while displacement-specific data is still a challenge to obtain, data on disaster losses and accounting is more developed. Granular data on housing destruction is relatively common, helping IDMC better estimate the scope and scale of displacement, for example, by considering the exact extent of housing destruction and kind of houses destroyed.
There is limited data on displacement associated with development projects. Researchers are restricted to analysing media reports and local NGO studies that tend to focus on the largest and most newsworthy development projects. On exception is the Housing Land Rights Network, whose data has been an invaluable asset in understanding the scope of displacement due to infrastructure projects, city-beautification and environmental projects. In addition, large funding institutions, such as international and regional development banks, often produce feasibility studies and resettlement plans before carrying out a project, but these discuss the number of people at risk of displacement, compensation and resettlement options. There is very little follow-up once a project has been completed to determine the number of people actually displaced. As such, it is often challenging to triangulate figures for this type of displacement.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in India is based on a review of reports on displacement published by the media and academic research. The figures include people displaced by armed conflict and intercommunal and political violence across the country. IDMC considers its estimate to be a rough approximation given that much of the data upon which it is based is now out of date.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 is based on event monitoring and draws primarily on data published by the media and other publications.
What are governments currently doing to prevent and respond to displacement?
India is one of the only countries in the world to have recognised the risks and impacts of displacement associated with development by drafting specific policies and legal frameworks on the issue. The 2004 National Policy on Resettlement and Rehabilitation for Project Affected Families was updated in 2007 and became the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy. It aims to reduce large-scale displacement associated with development projects, ensure adequate resettlement and recovery packages are implemented, and improve communication and cooperation between development planners and affected families.
Protection for people displaced by development projects was enshrined in law in 2013 via a landmark piece of legislation entitled The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act (LARR). This went further than previous policies by introducing the legal power of prior consent or refusal and land acquisitions by affected families, the possibility of market transactions for the transfer of land, improved compensation rates and greater institutional capacity for resettlement and recovery.
India also has legislation relevant to displacement associated with disasters. The 2016 National Disaster Management Plan was developed in accordance with the provisions of the 2005 Disaster Management Act and guidance given in the 2009 National Policy on Disaster Management, along with other established national practices. It provides guidance on all phases of the disaster management cycle in line with the Sendai Framework’s approach. The country also has a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).