India has the highest level of disaster displacement in South Asia in absolute terms, and consistently one of the highest in the world. An average of around 3.6 million people a year were displaced between 2008 and 2019, the majority by flooding during the monsoon. India is also prone to other sudden and slow-onset hazards including earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, storm surges and drought. Protracted conflict in Indian-controlled Kashmir and localised ethnic and religious violence also trigger displacement every year, but to a much lesser extent.
There were five million new disaster displacements in India in 2019, the highest figure in the world and the result of a combination of increasing hazard intensity, high population exposure and high levels of social and economic vulnerability. The year was also the seventh warmest since records began in 1901, and the monsoon was the wettest in 25 years.These conditions helped to fuel the destructive power of the eight tropical storms to hit the country during the year.
Conflict and violence triggered about 19,000 new displacements in 2019. Political and electoral violence, primarily in Tripura and West Bengal in first half of the year, accounted for more than 7,600. Lesser unrest and inter-communal violence continued to trigger displacement in the second half of the year.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
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 disaster damage and displacement in South Asia.
Areas on the east coast are vulnerable to tropical storms that form in the Bay of Bengal, while northern states that border 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, when the states of Bihar and Assam were most affected. India recorded the third highest number of new disaster displacements in the world in 2018. Monsoon flooding between May and October triggered almost 2 million and cyclone Titli about 400,000 in October.
The south-west monsoon in 2019 triggered more than 2.6 million displacements. In a rare meteorological event, it then came to an end on the same day as the north-west monsoon began. The latter continued to trigger displacement in October and November, along with cyclone Maha, which hit Kerala and the Lakshwadeep islands on 31 October. Cyclone Bulbul struck Odisha and West Bengal ten days later, triggering 186,000 displacements.
Drought displacement was also recorded in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. There is little robust data available to estimate its scale, but water shortages in Maharashtra between March and June forced about 50,000 farmers and their families to take refuge in “cattle camps”, displacement sites run by NGOs where livestock is also fed and watered. There were thought to be around 590,000 people living in internal displacement as a result of disasters across the country as of 31 December, but the figure is highly conservative given the high number of new displacements and the damages and losses recorded during the year.
Conflict displacement is also a regular occurrence, but it can be complex to track and obtain comprehensive data on because the violence is often very localised, and 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 is 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 from their homes.
A suicide attack that killed 40 soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir in February 2019 led to retaliatory airstrikes and sporadic shelling near the line of control that continued into March. At least 2,600 displacements were recorded, but comprehensive figures were hard to obtain. Further shelling across the line of control later in the year triggered more displacement, bringing the total to 5,300.
The government in Delhi revoked the special status accorded to Indian-administered Kashmir in August and imposed a curfew, which led to protests that were met with force. Telecommunications and internet access were shut down, making it difficult to obtain information, including on displacement.
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. Preliminary results from further 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.
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.
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.
Collecting comprehensive data on displacement in India is a challenge. Conflict displacement 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. Intercommunal and political violence also tends to be localised and remain under the radar. Reports of homes destroyed during clashes and riots are one of our main indicators of displacement triggered by 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 disaster displacement 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. Data on disaster losses and accounting is more developed. Granular data on housing destruction is relatively common, and helps us to better estimate the scope and scale of displacement.
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. One exception is the Housing Land Rights Network, whose data has been an invaluable asset in understanding the scope of displacement triggered by infrastructure projects, city-beautification and environmental projects.
Large funding institutions, such as international and regional development banks, also often produce feasibility studies and resettlement plans before carrying out a project, and these sometimes discuss the number of people at risk of displacement, compensation and resettlement options. There is very little follow-up, however, once a project has been completed to determine the number of people actually displaced. As such, it is often difficult to triangulate figures for this type of 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. A 2004 national policy on families affected by projects was updated in 2007 and became the national rehabilitation and resettlement policy. It was intended to reduce large-scale displacement, ensure adequate resettlement and recovery packages are put in place 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. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act (LARR) goes 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 disaster displacement. 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 disaster management policy, 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).