A SOCIETY AT RISK: SOCIAL IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

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Popular perceptions of climate change often mask its subtle complexities. For the general populace, it largely remains limited to something that is happening to our planet. Its larger view encompasses the changing weather phenomenons across the globe, erratic rainfall patterns, and recurring droughts in certain parts of the country. But its impact is going to be much deeper than that.

One of those masked impacts is the risk to society due to climate change. To understand this, we need to look deep into the vast landscape of the Indian subcontinent.  Two stories from Rajasthan can help us to simulate the likely impacts of climate change on Society. Both of these stories at the center of them have water issues which is one among the many consequences of Climate change. As you will find, both of these stories connect very well to a common cause and consequence.

Thanagaji Tehsil is located in the foothills of the Aravali mountains, about 45 km from the District headquarter Alwar and 10.8 km from Sariska Tiger Reserve. This story is set in the past, about 5 decades before the present. In the 1970s, this region was in a bad state of affairs. A part of Eastern Rajasthan, Where the average annual rainfall is 60-80 cm, Thanagaji was going through an acute water shortage. The water was inadequate not only for agriculture but also for daily usage. Scarce rainfall was only a part of the problem as this region hosted several small seasonal rivers and rivulets descending from the mountains. There were times when you could see seasonal waterfalls in these hills.

The major part of the problem was the erosion of the tradition of water conservation and storage prevalent in Rajasthan for ages. Behind this could have been the weakening of social ties and awareness within the local community. The traditional system of water conservation like ponds has always depended on social cooperation and community ownership. The dilution of these might have made it convenient for the local populace to migrate instead of trying to bring the society together.

The majority of the population in this rural setting depended upon agriculture for livelihood. But due to lack of water, the fields became unproductive. Unproductive lands lead to unemployed people. During this phase of unemployment, the common folks kept sustaining for a while with whatever little assets or financial resources they had and started to look for other opportunities for employment in the region. Some migrated daily to the District headquarter for work. But being unskilled and less educated, they found work only as daily wage labor. Mounting hardships and seeing no scope, many of them migrated to cities like Jaipur, and some went outside the state.

The process of migration continued. The families were left behind to take care of the land and house while the males headed out for better opportunities. The ones who remained in the region were no better. Without work, they would engage in only unproductive activities and some who were notorious found the moment demanding and turned to nefarious activities.

Continous migration of males left behind the womenfolks with their children and the Old members of the family. Imagine a village which has no males above the age of 14, only old males of 60 or above. Its streets devoid of the hustle-bustle, the chopal or places of public gathering empty. No groupings under the trees, no gathering for playing cards, or heated discussions on tea stalls. It would appear a ghost village straight out of a horror story. Imagine the vulnerability of the vulnerable in a village society that is marred with social evils like castism and untouchability in those times. The women from the so-called lower caste within the community standing at a distance from the equally desperate womenfolk of higher caste, watching them drop their vessels in the well, the depth of which keeps increasing as the summer peaks. Higher or lower caste, but all women and not a man. 

About 183 km from Thanagaji, and 82 km from Jaipur city, lies a village called Lapodiya. The story of this village is set in the same period and is similar to Thanagaji, only consequences were much more severe. Here too, the water table sank to such depth that for most of the year, the village was dependent on the supply of water tankers. As happens in any other place, land became the first visible victim of this water shortage. Here again, unproductive lands led to unemployed people. The ones who were ready to work hard migrated, and the ones who remained became involved in other pursuits.

In Lapodiya, anti-social activities began to rise. Guests stopped coming to the village due to a severe water crisis. The undeclared ostracization led to a point where no family would marry their daughter in Lapodiya village fearing the burden she would inherit from her new family. Slowly, the marital relations of men stopped as well. Unmarried and unemployed youngsters started to earn a name in a not-so-nice way. In the words of Laxman Singh, ‘there were few who had no police complaints against them in the village’. Politicians paid no heed and the village earned its reputation for all the wrong reasons. Imagine, people stealing water from the tanks of their neighbors. Fights breaking out when all of them are queuing as the tanker arrives. People putting padlocks on their personal borewells or wells.

One would be myopic to refer to these happenings as just a lack of work ethic, resilience, industriousness, or values in the community and ignore the water shortage as a root cause in this. It’s not unknown for societies to deteriorate and become devalued, degraded, or decayed when it comes to survival. The scarcity of resources brings down a society to its knees where masses shun all the morals and egalitarian values and become inherently selfish, aiming to capture more and more in order to ensure their survival.

The resource capturing by the powerful, which is an everyday happening even when the society is not amidst a major crisis, only aggravates when it faces one. It forces the powerful within the community to capture more zealously than before and more than their requirements. The latest example of this was the scarcity of Masks, Hand sanitizers, and PPE kits during the COVID- 19 pandemic. People hoarded masks, sanitizers, even oxygen cylinders, and concentrators. The vulnerable majority of Indian society died in streets, hospitals, and in their own houses while some had stocks of food and necessities which is lasting still, two years since the pandemic began.

Fortunately, the fate of these two regions changed with the timely intervention. Rajendra Singh, a doctor by profession landed in Kishori village in Thanagaji Tehsil. With the help of a village elder, he understood the core problem of the region and addressed it with the right approach. He established Tarun Bharat Sangh, an NGO through which he built more than 10,000 structures in the region and made it water sufficient. Later on, he got international recognitions like Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2001 and the Stockholm water prize in 2015 and was nicknamed the waterman of India.

The same arduous journey was made by a 17-year-old school-going youngster from Lapodiya itself. Laxman Singh, a local, not only brought the society together by his hard work but also made the village a prosperous community of farmers who could now afford egalitarian values and earned their good name back. He developed an indigenous system of water conservation called ‘The chauka system’ and is implementing it through his Gramin Vikas Navyuvak Mandal for years now.

At a social level, climate change is going to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, this is often not talked about or brushed aside as it does not qualify as an object of immediate concern or perhaps is not catchy enough. With just one of the many consequences in its purview, these stories serve as a window to what could be the potential impacts of a fast-changing climate with its multifaceted consequences, on society. Yes, it will destroy biodiversity and put life around the planet in trouble. But it will also twist and test the social fabric which binds us to one another.

The impact will be non-uniform, it will vary across class, caste, community, and gender. Some will pay the price heavily, others will become the price which is to be paid; the sacrifice which is to be made. At our current pace, especially with the conservative policies of certain groups and the misinformation campaigns being run on social media across the world. The world will have to pass through this upheaval, even if it’s for a short period. Societies will have to go through this churning for a little while. Humans as a species will survive and thrive, there is no doubt about that, but maybe you will find yourself stuck in a flood and waiting for the water to recede.

Maybe the conditions will be funny and full of horror at the same time. Desertification of agricultural land in a developing country may keep a young farmer unmarried. His infertile land may become a measure of his virility as a man. In many parts of the world, having large livestock is considered a symbol of prosperity. Imagine them sliding down the social ranks as their livestock dies without fodder.

The world is planning and trying to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celcius by the end of the century. Do they have a plan to save the low-lying island nations from sea level rise? Where will they accommodate millions of climate refugees seeking shelter? You will be the first one to raise concern over them stealing your jobs, I bet. Scientists are developing more temperature tolerant varieties of food crops. But, is temperature the only threat to the food security of the world?

Despite my dark humor, I am not apocalyptic and I see hope. But we will suffer unless we double our efforts.

History teaches us that if not acted upon, the Knowledge becomes redundant. Don’t wait for the big organizations to take major steps. You as an individual, take a pick, choose your own little eco-friendly contribution to save the environment, and start taking small steps. Your contribution matters equally and much more.

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About Author

  • Ankit is an avid reader and a writer by interest who views life as a process of continues conquest. He is an environmental enthusiast and has a Master's degree in Environmental Studies.