Author: ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL
BENGALURU, India (AP) – Eight-year-old Jherifa Islam only remembers the river being angry, its waters eroding her family’s farmland and the waves pounding their home during rainy season floods. Then one day in July 2019, the mighty Brahmaputra river swallowed it all.
Her home in the Darrang district of the Indian state of Assam was swept away. But the accident set Jerifa and her brother Raja, 12, on a path that eventually led them to schools nearly 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) away in Bengaluru, where people speak a Kannada language so different from the children’s native Bangla.
Those first days were difficult. Classes in free government schools were conducted in Kannada and Raju could not understand a word of instruction.
But he persisted, reasoning that just being in class was better than months in Assam when flooded roads kept him out of school for months at a time. “At first I didn’t understand what was going on, and then when the teacher slowly explained things to me, I started to learn,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series exploring the lives of people around the world who have been forced to relocate by rising seas, drought, high temperatures and other things caused or exacerbated by climate change.
The children were born in a lowland village, surrounded by the Himalayas and a river. Like many parts of Northeast India, it was no stranger to natural occurrences of heavy rains and floods.
But their father, Jaidul Islam, 32, and mother Pinjira Khatun, 28, knew something had changed. Rains have become erratic, torrents more frequent and unpredictable. They were among an estimated 2.6 million people in the state of Assam affected by floods that year when they decided to move to Bengaluru, a city of more than 8 million known as India’s Silicon Valley.
No one in their family had ever moved so far from home, but any lingering doubts were outweighed by dreams of a better life and a good education for their children. The couple spoke a little Hindi – the language most commonly spoken in India – and hoped it would be enough to get by in the town, where they knew nearby villagers had found work.
The two packed what little they could salvage into a large suitcase that they hoped to one day fill with new things. “We left home with nothing. Children’s clothes, mosquito net and two towels. That was it,” Islam said.
The suitcase is now filled with school notebooks – and the parents, who have no formal education, say their lives focus on giving their children more opportunities. “My children will not face the same problems as me,” said the father.
The family fled from the low-lying Darrang district, which has heavy rainfall and natural floods. But rising temperatures with climate change have made monsoons erratic, with most of the season’s rainfall falling in days, followed by dry spells. The district is among the most vulnerable climate change in India, according to a New Delhi-based think tank.
Floods and droughts often occur simultaneously, said Anjal Prakash, director of research at India’s Bharti Institute for Public Policy. Natural water systems in the Himalayan region that people have relied on for millennia are now “broken”, he said.
In the past decade, Prakash said, the number of climate migrants in India has been increasing. And over the next 30 years, 143 million people worldwide are likely to be displaced by rising seas, drought and unbearable heat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported this year.
India estimates that there are about 139 million migrants, but it is not clear how many have had to relocate due to climate change. By 2050, cities like Bengaluru are predicted to become the destination of choice for nearly 40 million people in South Asia who have been forced to flee their homes by climate change, according to a 2021 report. World Bank report.
“Especially if you have aspirations for your second generation, you have to move,” Prakash said.
In the suburb where Djerifa and her family now live, most people are from the state of Assam, many are forced to migrate due to climate change and dream of a better future: There is Shah Jahan, 19, a security guard who wants to be a YouTube influencer. There is Rasana Begum, a 47-year-old cleaner who hopes her two daughters will become nurses. Their homes were also swept away by the flood.
Pinjira and Jaidul both found work with a contractor that provides housekeeping staff to the offices of American and Indian technology companies. Jaidul earns $240 a month and his wife around $200 – compared to the $60 he earned from farming. Raju’s new private schools cost a third of their income, and the family spares nothing. But for the first time in years, in their new home — a 10-by-12-foot (3-meter-by-3.6-meter) room with a tin roof and sporadic electricity — they feel optimistic about the future.
“I like being able to work here. There was no work for women at home. … I’m happy,” said Pinjira.
(AP Video/Padmanabha Rao)
For now, Raju dreams of doing well in his new school. He benefited from a year-long program run by the Samridhi Trust, a non-profit organization that helps migrant children re-enter the education system by teaching them basic Kannada, English, Hindi and mathematics. Teachers test students every two months to help them transfer to government free schools that teach in Kannada – or in some cases, like Raju’s, in English.
“My favorite subject is math,” said the 12-year-old, adding that his favorite time of the day was riding the bus to school. “I like to look out the window and see the city and all the big buildings.”
His sister, who wants to be a lawyer one day, learned Kannada faster than him and chats happily with her new classmates at a nearby government school, switching between her mother and adopted languages with ease.
Their parents alternate shifts to make sure someone is home in case of an emergency. “They are young and can get into trouble, or get hurt,” Khatun said. “And we don’t know anyone here.”
Their anxiety is not unique. Many parents worry about safety when sending their children to schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods, said Puja, who uses only one name and coordinates the Samridhi Trust’s after-school program.
Children of migrants often drop out of school, so classes are too difficult for them. But Raju finds his school “discipline” refreshing after a chaotic life in a poor neighborhood.
His mother misses her family and talks to them on the phone. “Maybe I’ll come back during their vacation,” she said.
Her husband doesn’t want to return to Assam – where floods have killed nine people in their district this year – until the children are in high school. “Maybe 2024 or 2025,” he said.
Every afternoon, the father waits patiently, scanning the street for Raju’s yellow bus. When he is home, the boy cheers him up with stories about his new school. He says he now knows how to say “water” in Kannada, but none of his new classmates know what a “real flood” looks like.
Follow Aniruddha Ghosal on Twitter: @aniruddhg1
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