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How the nexus of caste & education influence climate vulnerability in the districts of West Bengal

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

Chhandas Bhattacharyya

Sourav Chakraborty


Summary

According to the report “Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India using a common framework” (2019-20) published by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India; West Bengal is in the top 25% most climate-vulnerable states of India, with a relative rank of eight and multidimensional vulnerability score of 0.592. The report also calculates the district-level climate vulnerability indices based on twelve different criteria, according to which Murshidabad is the least climate-vulnerable district of West Bengal with a weighted vulnerability index of 0.531, whereas Coochbehar is the most vulnerable with a score of 0.681. Though the caste demography of the districts is not taken as one of the criteria for calculating the index, utilizing demographic data from the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly elections we find that the most climate-vulnerable districts have a very high concentration of SC and ST voters. We also find that the candidates who contest the assembly elections from the most climate-vulnerable districts are mostly class 10 and class 12 pass-outs, though in the case of the Lok Sabha polls we find highly educated candidates contesting and winning from the climate-vulnerable districts. The average representative in both Lok Sabha (~90.4% of the cases) and Bidhan Sabha (~90% of the cases) from the most climate-vulnerable districts are likely to be male. The major policy prescriptions we propose are — (1) To include the proportion of SC and ST voters in all future calculations of climate vulnerability indices for West Bengal, (2) Extensive land redistribution, (3) Livelihood programs such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) should provide gainful employment opportunities that create resilience against climate change, and (4) invest in the construction of climate-proof infrastructure.


Introduction

Vulnerability has been defined in the Fifth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) as the “propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected…. vulnerability encompasses a variety of concepts and elements including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt.” So, the indicators that are used to depict the situation of climate vulnerability can be defined as capturing either one of the two dimensions - sensitivity or adaptive capacity. The “Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India using a common framework” (2019-20) (henceforth referred to as CLAAPICF) report deploys fourteen indicators to assess the current status of climate vulnerability in the districts of India along these two dimensions. The indicators used in the case of West Bengal can be categorized as: -

Socio-economic and livelihood-based indicators: Female literacy rate, per capita income, infant mortality rate, and livestock per 1000 rural households.

Biophysical indicators: The yield variability of food grains, and the forest area (in ha) per 100 rural population.

Institution and infrastructure-related indicators: The number of NRM works per 1000 ha (MGNREGS and/or other schemes), the road density, average person days per household employed under MGNREGA, the health infrastructure per 1000 population, the percentage of households with an improved drinking water source, and the cases of vector-borne diseases per 1000 population (dengue and malaria).

As per the report, the major drivers contributing to the vulnerability of the districts were found to be lack of forest area per 1000 rural population (15 districts), low road density (18 districts) and a smaller number of NRM works per 1000 ha (MGNREGS and/or other schemes) (13 districts).
When climate vulnerability score>0.649 → Highly Vulnerable
0.6<Climate vulnerability score<0.649 → Moderately Vulnerable
Climate vulnerability score<0.6 → Less Vulnerable

In the present work, we show, using demographic data of the 2019 Lok Sabha election and 2021 Bidhan Sabha election that the caste composition of the districts (particularly the most vulnerable ones) is significantly interlinked with climate vulnerability.


Caste and climate vulnerability

Climate Vulnerability by Constituency type (2021 Bidhan Sabha Election)

We find that in Coochbehar, the most climate-vulnerable district, there are 45 SC reserved assemblies (i.e., assemblies with a high concentration of SC populations), followed by Jalpaiguri which has 39 SC and 13 ST reserved assemblies.


Climate Vulnerability by Constituency type (2019 Lok Sabha Election)


Here again, we find in the most climate-vulnerable range as defined in Figure 1, there is a massive spike in the number of ST reserved constituencies, followed by a rise in the number of SC reserved constituencies in Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri.


Climate Vulnerability by Candidate type (2019 Lok Sabha Election)

For 2019 Lok Sabha election we have data on candidate type also and here we find the graph roughly mimics the shape of that for constituency type. This suggests that reserved candidates on average compete from reserved seats only.


Leader’s educational attainment and climate vulnerability

This is important because these are the people who have direct say in policy matters and it has been found in the recent academic literature that there is a strong negative correlation between educational attainment and disaster vulnerability, especially with climate risk vulnerability.

Though these studies use overall educational attainment but that effect only magnifies for the elected representatives.

Climate Vulnerability & leader’s educational attainment (2021 Bidhan Sabha Election)

In the most climate-vulnerable districts, those who are contesting in assembly elections are mostly class 12 pass-outs, followed by Graduate, class 8 and class 10 pass-outs.


Climate Vulnerability & leader’s educational attainment (2019 Lok Sabha Election)

For the Lok Sabha elections though, those who are contesting and winning from the most climate-vulnerable districts are mostly post-graduate degree holders.



Leader’s sex and climate vulnerability



Climate Vulnerability & leader’s sex (2019 Lok Sabha Election & 2021 Bidhan Sabha Election)

In the case of both Lok Sabha and Bidhan Sabha elections, the contestant is overwhelmingly likely to be male, ~90.4% for Lok Sabha and ~ 90% in case of Bidhan Sabha elections.


Policy Prescriptions

Based on our finding of strong interlinkage between caste and tribal status in the most climate-vulnerable districts of West Bengal, we propose the following: —

In future calculations of climate vulnerability index for the districts of West Bengal, the proportion of the population belonging to SC & ST categories should be taken into account.

The precarity of the scheduled caste and tribes in face of climate catastrophes has much to do with the issue of landholding as most of the agricultural land in rural India (which acts as a source of income, wealth as well as prestige) is concentrated in the hands of the upper castes. So, we propose extensive land redistribution, which will simultaneously address the caste question as well as mitigate the insecurity faced by the lower castes and the tribes in the face of climate disasters.

Percentage share of agricultural landholdings by caste group per agricultural census in India, 2015-16 (Source: Tandale, 2021)


Livelihood programs such as MGNREGA in India and Working for Water (WfW) programme in South Africa has already provided and should provide more opportunities for gainful employment that create resilience against climate change. For example, the WfW programme has already cleared 1 million hectares of land invaded by alien plants releasing an additional 50 million cubic tonnes of water annually. For MGNERA, 60 per cent of the workhours provided through the programme in 2012 involved water conservation and 12 per cent were related to the provision of irrigation facilities — activities that increase climate resilience.

Particularly from the Indian perspective, more investment should be made toward creating climate resilient infrastructure. This is because for every 1 million $ invested in the construction sector, in India ~650 jobs are expected to be created — a value which is one of the highest in the world.


Conclusion

Leveraging the framework of Islam and Winkel, we say that it is through the susceptibility and ability to cope and recover channels that the SC and STs of West Bengal are more vulnerable to climate change.

They are more susceptible because being landless they suffer more when prices of food increase due to climate hazards, whereas they have less ability to cope and recover because of their disadvantaged position in terms of asset ownership that hinders consumption smoothing.

Finally, the limitations of the present analysis must be mentioned. We have assumed that the climate vulnerability indices didn’t change from 2019 (the year for which we have the calculations) to 2021. Also, when aggregating the Lok Sabhas by districts, for the Lok Sabhas which have assemblies in two districts we have incorporated the whole Lok Sabha in the district in which it has greater number of assemblies. Notwithstanding these limitations, we hope the present analysis will make a meaningful addition to the debate at the intersection of caste and climate change, with special reference to West Bengal.

Note:

1. Ananay Agarwal, Neelesh Agrawal, Saloni Bhogale, Sudheendra Hangal, Francesca Refsum Jensenius, Mohit Kumar, Chinmay Narayan, Basim U Nissa, Priyamvada Trivedi, and Gilles Verniers. 2021. “TCPD Indian Elections Data v2.0", Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University — the data on election results have been collected from here.

2. Consumption smoothing is a concept in Economics which says that people desire a stable path of consumption throughout their lifetime and toward that end they transfer their income from high-income periods of their life to low-income periods. Climatic disasters cause uncertainty that hinders consumption smoothing and how much it is hindered depends on how much asset people own, that can be used as a buffer to mitigate loss of income due to disasters.

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