As the country experiences an increased frequency of weather-related natural disasters such as droughts, floods, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and forest fires, it is the socially and economically vulnerable who are at the receiving end. They are in more compromised situations and have fewer coping mechanisms.

A latest study on impact of droughts catalysed by climate change on Dalits and the Adivasis of Marathwada region of Maharashtra points to the grim reality. Titled 'Droughts, Dalits and Adivasis', the landmark study has been done by National Dalit Watch (NDW) and National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR).

The Marathwada region, in eastern Maharashtra, spread over nearly 65,000 sq km is one of the most drought-prone regions of the country that has seen 22 droughts between 1870 and 2015. In the preface of the study Beena J Pallical who is the general secretary of Dalit Arthik Adhikar Andolanand NDW-NCDHR has underlined, "the present study in Kallam and Osmanabad blocks in Marathwada region of Maharashtra has revealed an inescapable intersection of the causes and consequences of caste and ethnicity (descent) induced pre-existing vulnerabilities in droughts.

"The study foregrounds the vulnerabilities and needs of Dalits and Adivasis, who are trapped in the age-old, sub-standard and exploitative living conditions, societal and systemic neglect, and languishing in a state of resource-lessness and lack of recognition.

"We, at NDW-NCDHR believe that disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate resilience must place human rights and social justice at the centre of all decision making, and those with the least resources and capacity merit greater assistance to become resilient in the face of a challenging climate landscape. In this regard, we impress upon the state's disaster management and climate change authorities to dialogue with the communities to encapsulate their needs and aspirations into the state's action plans."

The study employed a mixed method approach combining sample-based household survey with focus groups of Scheduled Castes (SC)/ Scheduled Tribe (ST) population comprising women, children, differently abled, senior citizens, labourers, marginal farmers, migrant labourers and a mixed group spread over 10 villages.

An interesting aspect stated was that, "data collection for the study took place in the latter half of 2021 when the world was embroiled in the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic affected India strongly, not sparing rural areas and intensely affecting the poorest and most marginalised populations, particularly in the second wave.

"The country witnessed large-scale reverse distress migration—from cities to villages. Within this unique rubric, several challenges occurred during data collection owing to strict regulations on movement, not to mention the fear among the villagers in interacting with the outsiders."

The findings underline that descent or social origin-based (caste/ ethnicity) discrimination, particularly untouchability, is experienced by Dalits and Adivasi people. The ST respondents who faced discrimination had been called 'thieves' (17%), 15% confessed a fear of facing caste-based violence, or have faced it in the past. This discrimination extends to drought relief distribution either through a delay (11%) or a reduction in amount of relief materials (21%).

At the same time the economic vulnerability is high, as marked by the majority accommodation in kutcha houses (96%), non-ownership of homestead land (58%) and monthly household income below Rs. 5000 (75%).

Majority of the people did not attend Gram Sabhas due to lack of information, time and exclusionary processes. Then there was a high level of indebtedness, hopelessness and sense of loss and drought related conflicts in the community. It was found that 21% of the women experienced an increase in violence during drought that was coupled with a high incidence of illnesses and malnutrition.

"People coped with drought by migrating (76%), selling livestock and compromising on food choices (75%). Nearly all respondents (93%) denied having benefited from the government's drought mitigation measures, and were neither enrolled in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) (80%) nor in any health scheme (89%). While public water bodies are the most important water source (63%), most people (72%) did not have adequate water for drinking and maintaining hygiene," the study underlined.

The document points out at the caste-based discrimination stretching across time (historically to the present), space (source villages to migration destination) and societal echelons (community-level to various officials). The intersectional categories of women, senior citizens, differently-abled, migrants and children face unique and more severe drought impacts.

While 47% of the respondents had witnessed a high to very high level of impact on conflicts in the villages caused by drought, 41% said drought had a medium impact on water-related conflicts. "The respondents live on a frugal average income of Rs. 40 per person per day. A majority of them do not own their homestead land and have no access to utilities such as water supply and electricity connection.

"Drought reduces the feasibility of agriculture impacting the livelihoods of the majority of the respondents. The Dalit and the Adivasi communities are thus caught in a vicious cycle of economic vulnerability exacerbated by climate change that leads to further intensification of poverty level," the document underlines.

People have to cope with shrinkage — compromise on various needs such as food, schooling and hygiene. Migration and debt are other distress-triggered mechanisms.

It has been highlighted that, "the state needs to take special measures to mitigate drought and tackle its impacts on marginalised communities by documenting and recognizing their special vulnerabilities, inclusion in disaster and drought risk management, governance, preparedness, drought relief assistance and social protection coverage. Information dissemination is one of its biggest weaknesses that causes most people to be deprived of intervention measures."

The public infrastructure such as public distribution system (PDS), Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), midday meals and health services were found to be weak, thereby worsening preexisting vulnerabilities and hampering coping mechanisms.

It has been sought that the School Management Committees (SMC) be empowered to monitor dropout during drought and other calamities in the region and take proactive steps to support the children in need together with panchayati raj institution (PRI) leaders and school administration.

According to the study, "the vicious poverty cycle is further catalysed by the vulnerability of political exclusion. A majority of the respondents could not attend Gram Sabhas. This further isolates them and stagnates their living conditions."

It has been recommended that the Dalits and Adivasis be empowered to their rights and grievance avenues. Dedicated complaints and grievance redressal helplines should be initiated accompanied with mass awareness campaigns.

At the same time Dalits, Adivasis, along with women, people with disabilities, elderly and other minorities should be represented in drought management policy and implementation committees at all levels of planning, execution and monitoring. Their participation in local governance should be enabled and strengthened.

The report stated that schemes should adapt to specific vulnerabilities, impacts and coping capacities of Dalits and Adivasis. For this clear instructions should be included in policy-level documents to ensure equitable distribution of relief material through the formation of panchayat level committees on drought management. Digressions should be penalised.

Another recommendation calls for fortification of drought information dissemination to enable the communities to benefit from the state's response measures. There is also a call for capacity building of self help groups (SHGs) in drought preparedness, state schemes and disaster risk reduction informed village and gram panchayat development planning and monitoring.

At the same time mechanisms for alternative sources of income must be strengthened to arrest involuntary migration. The funding for MGNREGS should be enhanced and the number of work-days and wages should be increased during drought. Schemes targeting sharecroppers, people engaged in lease farming and other informal wage-works should be developed.

A major intervention recommended is that the cultivators engaged in sharecropping and lease farming should be recognized and provided access to public credit and a range of schemes and assistance on par with landowning farmers in disasters.

In addition to this regular outreach campaigns should be organised to raise awareness about drought mitigation measures and their procedures. The PRI members and officials should be sensitised to detect community-level tensions caused by pressure of water scarcity and drought and be trained to prevent and diffuse potential outbursts of violence.

There is also a suggestion for community-level activities to raise awareness of mental health issues aggravated during drought and other hazards to boost public morale and psychosocial care and wellbeing. The document calls for conducting consultations with Dalit and Adivasi communities, leaders and civil society organisations to capture their resilience needs into the state's disaster management, drought management and climate action plans, respectively.

At the same time steps should be taken to ensure 100 per cent possession of identity documents by these communities, including the migrants. People should also be equipped in creating scheme related documents like insurance, animal ownership, etc.

During the course of the study it was found that the Dalits and Adivasis face the demonic reality of caste-based discrimination in not just their villages but also at their migration destinations. Additionally, the historical segregation from the main village continues.

It was found that the reality of caste is not just restricted to the villages but extends to all echelons of the society that includes government officials and people's representatives. The discriminatory bias the dominant caste officials carry, consciously or unconsciously, inevitably reflects in their disposition of duties.