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Barriers and enablers to climate adaptation: Evidence from rural and urban India

How are people responding to and planning for multiple risks, and how do these responses vary among social groups?
Jones Kalumbwa Mulomba


In India, ASSAR is exploring differential vulnerability and adaptive responses. Focussing on the largely semi-arid state of Karnataka in South India, we are examining how people in rural and urban areas are responding to climatic, socio-economic, infrastructural, and biophysical changes. One of our key research questions is: How are people responding to and planning for multiple risks, and how do these responses vary among social groups?

To answer this question, during 2015-2016, researchers from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) used focus group discussions, household surveys and life history interviews to collect information at settlement, household and intra-household levels in the rural districts of Kolar and Gulbarga and the urban district of Bangalore. In this brief* we have supplemented this information with extensive key informant interviews with State and District government officials, NGO staff and researchers.

This brief explores and details the drivers of vulnerability in Kolar District, Gulbarga District and Bangalore, how people here respond to multiple risks, the barriers constraining local adaptation, the relevant local actors and the enabling factors facilitating local adaptation.

*Download the full brief from the right-hand column. The key messages, barriers and enabling factor identified in the brief are summarised below. See the full text for more detail.

Key Points

  • Many people are moving out of agriculture to enter informal livelihoods in cities, where incomes earned do not significantly improve household wellbeing (at source or destination).
  • Migration decisions are shaped by both climatic and nonclimatic drivers. However, improving the viability of agrarian livelihoods is crucial to ensuring secure and dignified employment and to meeting India’s growing food and nutritional needs.
  • The current policy space views development as a binary rural vs. urban issue. We argue for a more holistic understanding of the rural and the urban: a rural-urban continuum of livelihoods, material flows, ideas, people and tradeoffs, where there are winners and losers on both sides.
  • While the current focus on watershed development with adaptation co-benefits is positive, it must be complemented by efforts to address the growing irrigation demand.
  • We unpack governance as a barrier to adaptation to note that implementation is slowed by the lack of staff – especially at State and district levels in line departments – rather than low awareness, misplaced intent and inadequate finances.

Adaptation Options

Rural areas

  • Most responses are around water management (drip irrigation, groundwater for irrigation), livelihood diversification (into wage labour and factory jobs), and credit access (taking loans, joining self-help groups).
  • Migration is a common livelihood strategy, but net incomes – after accounting for travel costs and stay in cities – are very low.
  • Villages closer to railway stations and connected to prominent bus routes have higher migration to cities like Bangalore, whereas people living in villages near state borders travel to neighbouring states such as Andhra Pradesh to work as agricultural labourers (on cotton or sugarcane farms).
  • Asset bases, social networks, caste and gender dictate responses. E.g. in Kolar, men tend to commute to Bangalore while women undertake agricultural labour 10-15km from their homes. However, such work is available only when rains are good.
  • In Gulbarga, there are examples of government- and NGO led water management strategies through the building of farm ponds and soil and moisture conservation structures.

Urban areas

  • Responses are usually in the form of short-term coping strategies suited to the uncertain locations and livelihoods of people living in informal settlements.
  • In response to localised flooding, some households simply wait for the waters to recede. Economically better-off families choose to raise floor heights to prevent water from entering their houses.
  • Migrant workers from West Bengal engaged in waste picking use networks with their labour contractors, friends and relatives to access informal employment, land for housing, water (via water tankers), and financial assistance during times of need.
  • In contrast, construction workers in these settlements do not usually have a steady contractor and thus cannot access such networks for coping.
  • In some cases, religious groups provide mutual support for their members, e.g. in Akiappa Garden a Sikh religious group supports access to finances and education for its members.

Barriers: What constrains local adaptation?

Rural Areas

  • Physical assets
    • Small landholdings (2.87 ha in Gulbarga; 0.843 ha in Kolar).
    • Lack of adequate post-harvest storage facilities.
    • Smallholders are unable to invest in water-saving infrastructure (drip and sprinkler irrigation, farm ponds).
    • Indiscriminate use of fertilisers has depleted soil health and locked farmers into high-input cycles.
  • Information
    • Low usability of climate and weather information due to poor timing and limited practical applicability.
    • Low awareness of government schemes, especially in villages far from Gram Panchayat, and especially among women.
    • Low levels of trust in extension services and Krishi Vigyan Kendra.
  • Financial factors
    • Lack of credit facilities for investment in agriculture.
    • Families trapped in debt due to loans taken for input-intensive crops and unregulated borewell digging.
    • Mistrust of formal banking systems lead to continued dependence on moneylenders.
    • Finances from formal institutions enable investments in farm-based livelihoods, but access varies because the borrowing regime (fixed rules on interest rates, payback periods) allows economically better-off and educated individuals to benefit.

Urban Areas

  • Governance-related
    • Lack of legal recognition in the city undermines ability of informal settlement dwellers to avail rights to city services and resources.
    • Lack of policies protecting migrants makes ration and electoral IDs (and the benefits accruing from them) invalid in the destination.
    • Absence of tenureship rights and contested land holdings dissuade asset accumulation and belonging in the city.
  • Social factors
    • Language barriers for interstate migration leads to social isolation.
    • Caste, class, and religion divides undermine agency to gain access to basic services like electricity, water supply.
    • Insecure and discriminatory livelihoods— such as construction and waste-picking — leads to unstable incomes and socio-economic marginalisation.
    • Structural drivers of vulnerability, such as limited education, constrain entry into formal sectors of the economy.
  • Climatic factors
    • Erratic and intense rainfall constrain daily life and livelihoods through second-order impacts such as increased waterlogging and spread of communicable diseases.
    • Warming trend causes urban heat island effect, leading to health issues.
    • Water scarcity and dependence on shrinking groundwater fosters dependence on private tankers, at an added expense.

Enabling Factors: What facilitates local adaptation?

Rural areas

  • Location
    • Access to markets (either by living close to them or by owning vehicles) enables better returns from agriculture.
    • Proximity to taluk headquarter enables greater awareness due to better information flows and market access.
    • Proximity to Bangalore allows people to commute to diversify livelihoods, while the social and financial costs are much higher for people migrating from further away.
  • Information
    • Peer-to-peer, network-based information sharing through mobile phones (WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook) amplifies formal (i.e. through government line departments) communication channels.
  • Social and financial factors
    • Social networks help gain entry into jobs, especially for migrants.
    • Credit facilitation through village-level self-help groups enables savings and, in some cases, more agency to women. Enabling policy environment (for some)
    • Government schemes and service delivery build adaptive capacity, especially in drought-impacted villages. But benefits are differentiated by social position and location within the district.

Urban areas

  • Recognition and length of residence
    • Older settlements and legally-notified settlements have better participation in local governance processes, and better access to basic services.
    • Education enables opportunities for secure jobs and increases awareness of rights.
  • Social factors
    • Kinship networks and employment contractors provide migrants with critical services to help them cope with disruptions to livelihoods.
    • Those living in the city for longer than a few decades have associations to lobby for legal recognition of their settlements, basic infrastructure and services. Some settlements have received recognition in exchange for votes for local members of legislative assemblies.
  • Other actors
    • NGOs/civil society intervention in certain settlements has led to increased awareness about their rights and improved literacy rates.
    • Citizen action groups – especially those focusing on services (e.g. waste management, public transport) and environmental issues (e.g. lake rejuvenation, green spaces) – are increasingly acting as pressure groups on the local government, with adaptation co-benefits.
From page 2 of the brief. Photos: Ritwika Basu, Chandni Singh, Arjun Srinivas, Tanvi Deshpande and Kavya Michael © Photographers


This brief was written by Chandni Singh, Kavya Michael and Amir Bazaz, with input from Ritwika Basu, Arjun Srinivas, Harpreet Kaur and Tali Hoffman.

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