Climate change is thwarting education in India

More and more young people are being forced into manual labour to help their families survive the financial impacts of floods and other natural disasters.

Had the floods in August 2019 not occurred when it did, Amruta Kamble, 21, would have been able to lift her family out of poverty. “I was 10 days short of finishing my apprenticeship in ophthalmic techniques,” she says. A first-generation student, Amruta would have been eligible for a job immediately after her apprenticeship.

The floodwater quickly entered her family’s one-room mud house, 500m from the Krishna River in Dhavali village in India’s Maharashtra state. 

The four-member family escaped the floods and moved 7km away, to Mhaisal village, for three months. “It took 14 days for the water to recede. We cleaned the house at least 15 times, spending 100 hours, and yet the stench wouldn’t go,” she says. The floodwater partially destroyed the house and ravaged the cattle shed.

A similar incident occurred less than 23 months later, in July 2021. Again, with little to no government support, the Kambles, already in debt of Rs100 000 (about R21 150), drowned in more debt to the tune of Rs30 000. 

8 December 2021: The floods in August 2019 denied Amruta Kamble the chance to lift her family out of poverty.

Amruta’s dream of becoming an optometric assistant dissipated as she began helping her parents to clear their loans from private moneylenders. She did apply for jobs, but was rejected because she had not completed her apprenticeship. Restarting that process is difficult as every hour spent not earning pushes people deeper into poverty. 

Since the 2019 floods, Amruta has spent the majority of her time milking two buffaloes and doing household chores. “I am helpless,” she says, as her landless parents are forced to travel longer distances to find work as agricultural labourers. Rain in what she calls “peak winters” means no work in the drenched fields, leaving cattle milk as their only source of income.

The effects of climate change are evident in her mother Pramila’s workdays. “I’ve got just eight days of farm work since October,” she says in the first week of December. “The changing climate has brought havoc. It’s like a flood in the middle of the drought.”

Common story

For Amruta, it will take clearing the debt, hoping the climate stabilises and no more floods for her to resume her education. But with India experiencing an average of 17 floods a year since 2000, these expectations are far-fetched. Moreover, a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the planet has warmed by 1.1°C since 1850 and this rise in temperature is projected to exceed 1.5°C in the next two decades.

The effects are already visible as Amruta’s story becomes increasingly common in the Global South, forcing several students across the education spectrum to drop out. “The damage has been done, and it’s the poor like us who are paying for it,” she says. Her fears are justified: a UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) report mentions that one billion children live in 33 countries identified as “extremely high risk”. These countries emit just 9% of global greenhouse gases, while the 10 highest emitting countries are responsible for 70%.

“Climate change is deeply inequitable. While no child is responsible for rising global temperatures, they will pay the highest costs. The children from countries least responsible will suffer most of all,” writes Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore.

29 August 2021: A house ravaged by floods in July 2021. Flooding destroyed the same house in July 2019.

A flood this year forced Aishwarya Koli, 17, to relinquish her admission to grade 11 just 17 hours after she had applied. A week earlier, her widow mother Rupali, 35, was set to harvest more than 1 200kg of peanuts and 60 000kg of sugar cane, which would have been enough to fund her education. 

But the overflowing Krishna River engulfed Rupali’s two-acre field in Maharashtra’s Arjunwad village, destroying the crops. The Kolis escaped the deluge, but couldn’t avoid homelessness for the next 15 days.

Aishwarya now spends four days a week helping her mother in the field. “We can’t afford hiring labourers,” says Rupali. As tenant farmers, they don’t have access to credit, insurance or compensation. “Even if the government surveys the field, it’s of no use. The landowner will get the compensation,” she says. Also, as part of an unwritten contract, they have to give 75% of their produce to the landowner. 

Limited choices

One in three children globally, which amounts to 850 million, live in areas that face at least four climate and environmental disasters. Aishwarya, who is among them, doubles as a henna artist. She has seen her older brother Onkar drop out of grade 11, which scares her. Onkar works as a cane cutter and does other manual labour jobs to bring in income, although it isn’t sustainable. 

Her plan to become a cosmetologist and make-up artist was derailed, but she has enrolled in a year-long beautician course. She fears the changing climate will lead to early marriage. “No matter where I go, I can at least start my own business,” she says, though it is a “compromised choice”.

Every year, at least 12 million girls around the world are married before they reach the age of 18. And countries such as India, Malawi, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Mozambique have reported child marriages because of climate change.

8 December 2021: Floods denied Aishwarya Koli her hoped-for education.

“My dream is to live a debt-free life and never depend on others,” says Aishwarya. But she is aware that another flood or climate fluctuations could bulldoze her efforts in no time. “Our dreams are now dependent on climate,” she says, sobbing.  

Getting to class every day isn’t easy. “If there’s no money to travel, I take a leave.” And inconsistent attendance has made it difficult for Aishwarya to grasp the content of the course. She says her family doesn’t support her dream as they now have to spend their savings on health disasters caused by the climate crisis.

Rupali steps in: “After the 2021 floods, we had to sell four goats for Rs40 000 to raise money for everyday essentials. You need food to continue education.”

Rupali also has monthly medical costs, and the mounting stress and anxiety of loan repayments has led to additional inflammation, fatigue, body ache and other health ailments, pushing the family further into medical debt.

A labyrinthine system

“Once the link of formal education breaks, it becomes difficult for several students to refocus and join the course,” says Chaitanya Kamble, 29, a political science professor from Arjunwad who is also working on his doctorate in social sciences. “Professors should talk to the students and empathise, but also keep them motivated enough to resume the education.”

He suggests rethinking the education system. “Over 100 of my own students are forced to work full-time.” So, he started sending notes and allocated time for weekly “doubt-clearing sessions” at their convenience. This has yielded positive results, with several passing their exams and making their way through India’s labyrinthine education system.

But it’s easier said than done. With no other options available to him, Amruta’s father Dilip turned to cutting sugar cane, taking an advance of Rs30 000 from contractors. He will have to cut 90 000kg of sugar cane with nothing more than a sickle to clear this debt. Two months into the job and it has already cost Dilip his health as he now experiences unbearable knee pain. There’s a fear that Amruta might have to complete his job. “Cutting sugar cane while raining is risky and causes fractures,” he explains.

Chaitanya, himself a flood victim, says many students have lost their documents and certificates to the floods. “During such times, the educational institutes should help them procure documents for free instead of trivialising the problem, which relieves students of the burden.” Every additional bureaucratic task is another barrier for students.

Knock-on effect

The unemployment that follows floods and climate disasters affects even those who escape the direct consequences of these events. Anil Humne’s single-room mud house in Kolhapur’s Bhadole village survived the 2019 and 2021 floods, but the 21-year-old’s educational prospects didn’t survive the subsequent unemployment. 

“In 2020, I quit my art course in the first year as I couldn’t afford the fees,” he says. He began working as an industry labourer, lifting heavy loads and sorting scrap. “That work isn’t regular,” he says, and it forces him to keep working in the informal sector for meagre pay. 

His parents have also found it challenging to find work since the August 2019 floods. “There are heavy rains in the morning, followed by extreme heat, and it gets cold in the evening,” says his father Dhondiba, 45. “A month after recovering from flood, the March 2020 lockdown devastated us,” he adds. In India, 121 million people lost their jobs within a month of the country’s ill-planned national lockdown.  

29 August 2021: Flooded banana and sugar cane fields in Haripur village in Maharashtra state.

Before thinking of resuming his education, Anil looks at the weather. It has only led to failed attempts so far. “How will you study without a single rupee in the pocket?” 

Solutions exist to help these students, although it’s not only a question of will. Advanced countries have to reduce their emissions, but also step up to help the Global South. Historically, 23 developed countries are responsible for half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, while more than 150 countries have contributed the other half. 

“We have to keep adjusting our dreams as per the changing climate,” says Amruta. Unfortunately, these adjustments have worsened the quality of life for millions through many irreversible forced decisions.

25 August 2021: Flood-affected residents in Ghalwad village, Maharashtra state.

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