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Environmental Degradation, Mobility and Human Rights: Conceptions of Rights Among Migrants and Displaced Persons

Info: 37232 words (149 pages) Dissertation
Published: 11th Dec 2019

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Tags: Environmental StudiesHuman Rights

Environmental Degradation, Mobility and Human Rights: Exploring the conceptions of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons in Bangladesh

Table of Contents

List of acronyms

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

I. Conceptual framework

i. Issues of terminology

ii. Rights based articulations with respect to environmental degradation and mobility

iii. International and national instruments for rights protection

iv. Human rights: universal values or culturally embedded

v. Alternative theorizations on citizenship and ‘vernacular rights cultures’

II. Literature Review

i. Literature on the migration-rights-environmental degradation nexus in Bangladesh

ii. Literature on rights conceptions in Bangladesh and in similar contexts

iii. Literature on elite conceptions of the poor

Conclusion

Chapter 3: Context and Methodology

I. The Context

i. Selection of the case

ii. Background of the respondents in relation to environmental degradation and mobility

II. Methodology

i. Research approach and shifting research questions

ii. Participant selection and data collection

iii. Data analysis

iv. Issues of privilege, limitations and ethical considerations

Conclusion

Chapter 4: National instruments for those affected by environmental degradation

I. Interventions in immediate aftermath of an environmental episode

II. Issues relating to temporary shelters and land compensation

III. State led prevention measures

Conclusion

Chapter 5: Conceptions of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons

I. Understandings of rights

i. Rights as having access to basic, material needs

ii. Rights as charity

iii. Rights as exclusively held by those with privilege

iv. Rights as held communally

v. Rights as in the liberal tradition

II. Perceptions of the state

i. Experiences of adverse treatment

ii. Experiences of voting and representation

iii. General attitudes towards the state

Conclusion

Chapter 6: Narratives of rights among government officials

I. Reluctance to engage in rights based approaches

II. Material provision centric viewpoints

III. Conceptualization of the poor as ‘passive’ and ‘surviving’

IV. Paternalistic attitudes; state as provider of charity

V. Preoccupation with financial and technical constraints

VI. Different discourses at national and international levels

VII. Disconnects between and within various arms of the state

VIII. Limited awareness of how interventions operate in practice

Conclusion

Chapter 7: Conclusion

Summarizing the main themes

Reflecting on the argument of the thesis

Further reflections

Contributions of the thesis and further questions

Bibliography

I. Primary Sources

II. Secondary Sources

List of acronyms

BCCSAP  Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan

C3ER   Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research

CDMP II  Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme Phase II

GoB   Government of Bangladesh

IASC   Inter-Agency Standing Committee

ICCCAD  International Centre for Climate Change and Development

IOM   International Organization for Migration

IPCC   Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

IDPs   Internally Displaced Persons

NAPA   National Adaptation Programme of Action

NSMDCIID National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate Induced Internal Displacement

OHCHR Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

UDHR   Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UNDP   United Nations Development Programme

UNFCCC  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

UNHCR  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNICEF  United Nations Children’s Fund

USAID  United States Agency for International Development

Chapter 1: Introduction

The problems of climate change and environmental degradation have emerged as issues of global concern over the last few decades and with this there has been an increased focus on the nature of the relationship between climate change and human mobility. However, this relationship is little understood and strongly contested; yet there is a degree of consensus on the fact that climate change will have a bearing on mobility in areas under environmental stress. Therefore, it becomes important to understand how climate change could affect the rights of those vulnerable to these impacts. In light of this, several arenas within the policy making and scholarly discourses have drawn attention to the need for the protection of rights of those potentially displaced by climate and environment-related impacts. However, what is missing in such narratives is an understanding of how notions of rights are actually conceptualized by those impacted by environmental degradation and mobility.

The central question that this thesis addresses is: How do environment-related migrants and displaced persons in Bangladesh conceptualize notions of rights? This thesis explores these conceptualizations and argues that such conceptions are not completely akin to Western, liberal notions of rights as enshrined in the international soft law instruments that are applicable for the protection of rights in the context of environmental degradation and mobility. Nevertheless, the thesis finds the presence of entitlements among environment-related migrants and displaced persons, which are somewhat nebulous and an overlap of both liberal conceptions with notions that are more contextual. However, regardless of what these conceptions are, the thesis argues that an exploration into these notions and the articulations of rights themselves point towards a greater structural issue, that is the sharp imbalance of power between the Bangladeshi state and some of its most marginalized citizens, imbalances that render the marginalized in a state of perpetual vulnerability. Thus, the exploration of rights in the context of environmental degradation opens a new window on the structural issues that permeate all aspects of the socio-economic fabric of development in the country.

The study is set in the context of Bangladesh, a country that experiences a considerable amount environmental degradation, and a significant degree of rural-urban migration. Given the frequency of episodes of environmental stress, there is a substantial amount of state policies, interventions and so on that focus on such issues. In this context, concerns of environment-related mobility are also gaining traction. However, absent in such discourses is the need to consider concerns of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility. Also dominant in state narratives is a highly material centric and technocratic viewpoint, where matters of power distortions are seldom acknowledged. On the other hand, the academic discourses on rights, environmental degradation and mobility assume the universal applicability of Western, liberal notions of human rights. Thus, an exploration into conceptions of rights sheds light on the need to move beyond the narratives outlined above by considering the contextual element present in local interpretations of rights and the imbalances of power these point to.

The thesis is based on an inductive qualitative approach, utilizing the tool of open-ended, non-standardized interviews in order to explore the articulations of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons. The study finds that the respondents demonstrated latent senses of entitlements and conceptualized notions of rights as follows: as having access to basic needs; as a form of charity from the state; as held by those with privilege; as held communally; and also in ways more akin to the liberal tradition. Additional themes that emerged in the interviews were the lack of effectiveness of existing state instruments for those impacted by environmental degradation, the inaccessibility of the state by the marginalized seeking remedies for their dispossession, the importance of having political connections when securing access to state resources, the reluctance of government officials to engage with the trope of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility and the paternalistic attitudes of the state.

Chapter 2 presents the conceptual framework on which the study is based, which comprises two parts. The first centers on the discourses of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility mentioned above. The second consists of the alternative interpretations of notions of rights in the literature, especially Madhok’s (2009) trope of ‘vernacular rights cultures’, which enables a richer understanding of the entitlements and notions observed among the respondents of the study. This chapter also presents the literature review of the study. Chapter 3 explores the context in which the research takes place, the background of the respondents and describes the methodology employed in the research. It also highlights the methodological challenges faced during fieldwork, which point to the empirical material of the thesis. Chapter 4 examines how the national instruments for those affected by environmental degradation operate in practice by presenting the respondents experiences when attempting to seek assistance from the state. Chapter 5 explores the conceptions of rights articulated by the respondents and perceptions they have of the state. Such conceptions and perceptions have been shaped by the experiences the respondents have had in attempting to access the state in the aftermath of disaster; hence Chapter 4 acts as a backdrop for Chapter 5. Chapter 6 presents the other side of the narrative by exploring the articulation by relevant government officials on issues of rights, environmental degradation and mobility. Chapter 7 is the concluding chapter, which brings together the various empirical themes presented throughout the thesis and provides some reflective comments. The thesis concludes by presenting some further questions and the unique contributions of the study.

Chapter 2: Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

This chapter lays out the theoretical framework of this research and outlines the literature relevant to the study. Two distinct bodies of literature inform the conceptual basis of this research. The first part of the framework centers on the discourses on human rights with respect to environmental degradation and mobility. The second part of the framework comprises of alternative theorizations on rights and citizenship. This portion of the framework focuses particularly on the analytical theme of ‘vernacular rights cultures’, which can be used to understand the somewhat nebulous articulations of rights among the respondents in this study. These two, separate theoretical discourses are considered to be best suited as a basis for this research, given that the first part of the framework outlines what rights environment-related migrants and displaced persons might be entitled to, and the second part of the framework illuminates how these rights can be interpreted and experienced differently depending on the context.

Section I of this chapter presents the conceptual framework outlined above; it addresses issues surrounding the terminology utilized in the thesis, presents the discourses on rights with respect to environmental degradation and mobility and the key rights based frameworks that are articulated within these discussions. Additionally, this section briefly delves into the debates surrounding the universality of human rights and articulates the alternative ways in which conceptions of rights and citizenship have been theorized. The concept of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ is introduced here.

Section II presents the literature review relevant to this study; this section is necessarily brief given that there are limited scholarly works that examine the notion of rights among citizens who have experienced environmental degradation. However, a few seminal pieces that address how poor citizens in various parts of the world conceptualize ideas of rights, entitlements and citizenship are highlighted in this section. Although these studies do not center on issues related to mobility or environmental degradation, the themes that they present in relation to notions of rights and citizenship echo those represented by the respondents in this research and are hence of relevance to the thesis.

I.            Conceptual framework

i.            Issues of terminology

Given that the study focuses on the rights articulations among environment-related migrants and displaced persons, it is imperative at this stage to outline the contentions surrounding the concept ‘environmental refugees’ and how the terms ‘environment-related migrants’ and ‘environment-related displaced persons’ are used in this study. The phrase ‘environmental refugees’ was first used by El-Hinnawi in 1985 (Piguet, 2008), although some have cited that Lester Brown originally coined the term (Saunders 2000) (Black 2001). The concept was then popularized by a number of studies such as Jacobson (1988), who predicted that there were more than 10 million such people in the globe at the time and Myers (1993), who predicted that the number was higher (Lonergan, 1998). Similar alarmist predictions were extended by Westing (1992), Ramlogan (1996) and, more recently, by a host of aid organizations such as Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth and so on (Morrissey, 2009, 2011).  Morrissey (2009) (2011) argues that such predictions occurred within a broader political context, whereby portraying environmental refugees as a huge problem was needed to justify interventions for environmental protection. However, Kothari (2014), McAdam (2010), Boano et al. (2008) and others have criticized the methodology employed in generating estimates of ‘environmental refugees’ as having little empirical justification.

Earlier critics of this approach were Bilsborrow (1992), Suhrke (1993), and McGregor (1994), who took issue with the overly simplistic relationship implied in the concept of ‘environmental refugee’, where environmental change is portrayed as the sole driver of migration. These authors, on the other hand, recognized the complex ways in which migration decisions are shaped, usually in conjunction with factors such as poverty and other sociopolitical factors. Suhrke (1993:5) categorizes this approach as the ‘minimalist’ school, which recognizes that migration “is not a mono-causal phenomenon” and therefore, that environmental change on its own is not a sole driver of migration. She classifies those who portray the relationship between environmental change and migration as a direct, cause and effect relationship as the ‘maximalist’ school, who “tend to extract the environmental variable from a cluster of causes and proclaim the associated outmigration as a direct result of environmental degradation” (Suhrke, 1993:6). Empirical work by scholars such as Hugo (1996) (2010), Bates (2002), Castles (2002), Barnett and Webber (2010), Waldinger (2015) and more have lent support to Suhrke’s ‘minimalist’ approach.

Within the minimalist school, however, there have also been more radical approaches, which question the use of the term ‘environmental refugees’ entirely. Lonergan (1998:6), for example, states that the idea of ‘environmental refugees’ is illogical, given that it is challenging to remove environmental processes from the social, political, economic and cultural processes that shape migratory decisions, and therefore, impossible to outline a deterministic relationship between environmental change and mobility patterns. Black (2001) also seeks to debunk the idea of ‘environmental refugees’ by suggesting that global inequalities and poor development planning create the conditions for vulnerability in the face of environmental change. It must be stated here, that all of the approaches highlighted above, (even the radical approaches) do not disagree on the fact that environmental change can have a bearing on mobility patterns; they simply disagree on the ways in which this relationship is articulated.

Given the conceptual issues with the use of ‘environmental refugees’ to denote those potentially displaced by environment-related factors, there is no internationally agreed upon term to define such populations. In an attempt to address these disparate views, the International Organization for Migration (IOM, 2007:1) introduced the concept of ‘environmental migrants’, who are defined as: “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”. Thus, this definition, although still contentious, represents a broad spectrum of trigger events and types of movement, which could arise in the face of environmental change (Adamo, 2008). The policy literature on climate change has also been influenced by these scholarly debates, with early Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports reflecting a more maximalist position (IPCC, 1990) and later reports highlighting the nuances in the linkages between climate change and migration (Raleigh, Jordan and Saleyhan, 2008). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), for example, first acknowledged the link between climate change and displacement in the Cancun Agreement drafted in 2011 in paragraph 14f (UNFCCC, 2011).

In light of the above discussions therefore, this study also considers the relationship between environmental stress and mobility as not direct and one that is influenced by a multitude of factors. Thus, acknowledging the contentions in the term ‘environmental refugees’, the terms ‘environment-related migrants’ and ‘environment-related displaced persons’ are used instead to acknowledge that the movement in question is partially related to environmental factors. Furthermore, although the term ‘tipping point’ is used in this study, to indicate a more prominent bearing of the disaster experienced on the decision to migrate, it does not imply a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two and acknowledges that the ‘tipping point’ occurs in a context of other sociopolitical and economic factors.

Additionally, there are tensions in the way the concepts of ‘displacement’ and ‘migration’ are typically differentiated in the literature. According to McAdam and Saul (2010:4) it can be problematic to determine whether the movement in consideration is one of displacement or of migration on the basis of whether a degree of choice was exercised in the movement. This is because in the Bangladeshi context, where movement is motivated by underlying conditions of poverty, the lines separating forced and voluntary movement are blurry, and most movement is likely to involve a degree of both choice and compulsion (Laczko and Aghazarm, 2009). Therefore, in a similar vein to McAdam (2012), I use the term ‘displacement’ to describe populations who have moved in response to a sudden-onset change such as cyclones, floods or a riverbank collapse, where the movement seems to be more significantly influenced by environmental factors and I use the term ‘migration’ to refer to a movement, which seems to involve a degree of decision-making. The intention behind distinguishing these terms is not to be categorical, however, rather the distinction is for ease of narration throughout the thesis.

A further contention with respect to terminology also lies in the difficulty in distinguishing between climate change-related environmental changes and  ‘ordinary’ environmental processes (McAdam and Saul, 2010). This was further substantiated in the interview I conducted with Bangladeshi climate scientist Ainun Nishat. According to Nishat, rivers in Bangladesh are naturally alluvial and erode the surrounding soil as they flow. Thus, he was reluctant to associate phenomena such as riverbank erosion with climate change. However, Nishat did acknowledge that the flow rate in the Jamuna River, one of the largest rivers in the country, was unusually high in 2016, which could be related to climate change; however he stated that it is still unclear to what extent this may be. Hence, to avoid partaking in debates regarding the extent to which events such as riverbank erosion and flooding are exacerbated by climate change, which are beyond the scope of the research, the term employed in this study to describe movement related to environmental degradation is ‘environment-related mobility’ instead of ‘climate-related mobility’ to acknowledge that both kinds of processes may be at play here.

ii.            Rights based articulations with respect to environmental degradation and mobility

This section presents the relevant theoretical debates surrounding concerns of rights protection with respect to environment-related mobility. A growing and significant part of the literature on the relationship between environmental change and mobility focuses on the human rights implications of such movements and how these rights should be protected. However, much of the discourse centers on mobility related to climate change, even though scholars such as McAdam and Saul (2010) acknowledge the difficulty in disaggregating climate change-related events from natural environmental changes, as aforementioned. Such scholarly work, while being critical of maximalist accounts on the relationship between environmental factors and mobility, is based on the argument that climate change is likely to have some sort of bearing on mobility, which in turn has the potential to impinge on the human rights enjoyed by those affected. Given that there are well-established legal and normative principles to protect the rights of migrants and displaced persons, these scholars advocate that such protection should be extended towards those whose mobility may be associated with climate-related factors.

However, there are currently no international legal frameworks that are tailored specifically to protect the rights of environment-related migrants and displaced persons (Zetter and Morrissey, 2014). This is because establishing such a framework has proven to be difficult due to conceptual issues of causality and terminology as outlined in the previous section (McAdam and Limon, 2015). Thus, scholars such as Zetter (2009, 2010, 2011), Kälin (2010), McAdam (2010, 2012) and so on, advocate for the need to consider the protection of rights of environment-related migrants and displaced persons by exploring the efficacy of existing legal and normative frameworks of ensuring rights protection. Given that most movement linked to environment-related impacts, is likely to be internal than cross-border (Hugo, 2010), the scholars cited above have advocated the implementation of the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in national frameworks as a way forward.

Kälin (2010), in particular, attempts to understand how various existing frameworks can be adopted in different scenarios of mobility related to environmental factors. He categorizes the assorted types of movement, which can occur in response to environment-related impacts, and identifies that movement can occur in response to sudden-onset or slow-onset disasters, as a result of government evacuation of disaster prone zones, due to climate change induced conflict over scarce resources and so on. These different cases can lead to either cross-border or internal displacement. For those internally displaced, Kälin (2010) also advocates for the use of the Guiding Principles given that its applicability does not necessitate predetermination of whether the displacement in question was due to a climate-related event. Thus, this research takes the body of work presented in this section as a starting point for examining how environment-related migrants and displaced persons conceptualize their rights. The following section discusses the Guiding Principles and related frameworks in detail to understand the specific rights such populations may be entitled to.

iii.            International and national instruments for rights protection

The 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are a non-binding set of guidelines, which identify the needs of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in securing protection from, during and after displacement with regards to return, resettlement and reintegration (UNHCR, 1998). Some of the rights articulated include the right to be protected against violence, to choose their own residence, to be protected against forcible return or resettlement, to an adequate standard of living, to humanitarian assistance and so on (UNHCR, 1998). These principles have formed the backbone of subsequent rights protection frameworks for climate-related displaced persons; for example, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Operational Guidelines and the IASC Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons are based on these principles (Brookings Institute, 2014). Thus, given the consensus on the applicability of the Guiding Principles to situations of environment-related mobility, this research uses the frameworks articulated above, as a basis for examining what rights environment-related migrants and displaced persons may be entitled to, and whether the conceptions of rights among this population are consistent with these principles.

Other frameworks are also worth articulating here. For example, Displacement Solutions (2013) has also outlined a set of guidelines called the Peninsula Principles, based on the Guiding Principles. They identify the following rights that climate-related displaced persons are entitled to: the right to humanitarian assistance, housing, land, food, water and sanitation, education, medical assistance, freedom of movement, the right to choose one’s residence, the right to relocate and so on (Displacement Solutions 2013, 2015).  The Nansen Principles are another framework that advocates the use of the Guiding Principles (Brookings Institute, 2014). There are also regional frameworks such as the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, also known as the Kampala Convention, which reflect the Guiding Principles (Brookings Institute, 2014).

This research seeks to understand local conceptions of rights in the context of environmental degradation and mobility in Bangladesh against this backdrop of the scholarly discourses and the normative frameworks highlighted above. An additional element that adds to this backdrop is how rights concerns in relation to mobility and environmental degradation are treated in the Bangladeshi national discourse. A mapping study by Displacement Solutions (2014) illuminates this; the study shows that there are 168 government and non-government institutions and stakeholders as well as 22 laws and policies that directly or indirectly address issues related to environmental degradation, mobility and rights in Bangladesh. Given that at the time of its publication, the National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate Induced Internal Displacement (NSMDCIID), 2015, was not yet released, the study notes that there are no comprehensive institutional frameworks for addressing the rights protection of environment-related migrants and displaced persons in the country. Displacement Solutions (2014) thus suggests that the current institutional apparatus is fragmented, and demonstrates the lack of coordination in relation to the issue at hand. For example, they note that although the National Land Use Policy identifies the need to distribute government-owned land (khas land) to landless peasants in general, this is not with respect to climate-related landless populations specifically (Displacement Solutions, 2014). Furthermore, they report that there are also direct government attempts at rights protection, which include the Climate Victims Rehabilitation project (Guchagram), and the Ashrayan project which sought to resettle landless, cyclone, river erosion and flood-affected families onto khas land (Displacement Solutions, 2014). However, they state that these are illustrations of the uncoordinated and short-term efforts at protecting rights, which leave a vacuum within the institutional apparatus for a comprehensive framework. It must be noted here, that within the main climate change policy documents of the state[1], namely the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy Action Plan (BCCSAP) 2009 and the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) 2005, there is no mention of rights with respect to environment-related mobility (GoB, 2005, 2009). Additionally, there is no legal definition of IDPs in any of the national frameworks, and the Guiding Principles have not been incorporated into domestic law (Zetter and Morrissey, 2014b). This lack of traction of rights based approaches within the national policies and frameworks is symptomatic of the power imbalances discussed in this thesis.

Having established the fact that there is such a void in the national institutional framework, it must be noted however, that the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) appears to be developing a greater awareness of rights based concerns in relation to environmental degradation and mobility. This is evidenced by the publication of a more recent policy document, the National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate Induced Internal Displacement (NSMDCIID), 2015. This document, published by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, states that climate change will have an impact on mobility and that this has implications on the rights and entitlements of those impacted. Surprisingly, the document acknowledges the aforementioned lacuna within its institutional apparatus on this issue and attempts to resolve this by creating “a comprehensive and realistic rights-based framework that respects, protects and ensures the rights of climate-induced internally displaced persons … in different stages of displacement and during the search for durable solutions” (GoB, 2015: 6). In a similar vein to the Guiding Principles, the NSMDCIID outlines the relevant rights and strategic responses that are needed in the three phases of displacement: the pre-displacement phase, the displacement phase and the post displacement phase. Some of the rights outlined in these phases include, the right to adequate housing and access to land, right to livelihood, right to security of tenure, right to participate, right to vote and so on (GoB, 2015). Given that the document acknowledges the Peninsula Principles, the Nansen Principles and the Guiding Principles as key international instruments, it is unsurprising that the majority of the rights outlined in the paper are in line with those articulated by the three frameworks listed above. However, to what extent the NSMDCIID serves as an adequate framework is yet to be understood. Additionally, there are concerns as to if and how the NSMDCIID has been operationalized. This is especially so, given that most of the government officials I interviewed (including an official from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief), were unaware of the existence of this document. These issues are examined further in Chapter 6.

Thus, the international frameworks highlighted above and the relevant national policies and strategies form the analytical basis for determining what rights are applicable in the context of environmental degradation and mobility and how environment-related migrants and displaced persons conceptualize these rights.

iv.            Human rights: universal values or culturally embedded

The scholarly discourses and frameworks articulated above, take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a starting point for analyzing what rights are likely to be relevant in the context of environmental degradation and mobility (OHCHR, n.d.). Given that these discourses formed the background to this research from its inception, the notion of human rights that I took with me to the field were akin to that expressed in the UDHR, of human rights being a universal set of values applicable for all citizens in a nation, irrespective of the context. It must be noted here, that at the start of the research process, prior to entering the field, the central question of the project was slightly different. Initially, the focus of the project was to examine if environment-related migrants and displaced persons in Bangladesh were aware of these rights as enshrined in the several legal, normative and policy frameworks highlighted above, and thus if there was gap between what was articulated at the state level and at the local level. However, during the process of fieldwork, very different narratives were emerging from the respondents when asked about rights. Thus, the focus of the research necessarily shifted; instead of trying to examine if the respondents were aware of their rights as articulated in the Guiding Principles and so on, the research turned to examine how the concept of rights itself was understood in the specific context of environmental degradation and mobility. While these notions are explored in plentiful detail in the empirical chapters, the shift in the focus of the research is relevant to note here given that it alludes to a tension in the idea of human rights as being universal, as implied by the first part of the theoretical framework articulated above. Additionally, this shift in the research raised the need for a complementary theoretical framework, which is discussed in the following sub-section.

This debate on the universality of rights has been present since the inception of the UDHR. As noted by Le (2016), the American Anthropology Association and other cultural relativists flagged concerns when the Declaration was first drafted that the UDHR was based on Western principles, which were not reflective of local cultures and practices in diverse contexts. They took issue with a number of key points including that the rights outlined focused on the individual, thus overlooking other forms of social organization that are prevalent in non-Western contexts (Le, 2016). It is noteworthy that much of this debate is framed in a binary fashion, with ‘Western’ values being pitted against ‘non-Western’ values. This line of argument against the universality of human rights must, however, be tread with caution; as has been noted by defenders of universality claims such as Franck (2001) and others, such discourses on cultural relativity have often been abused by governments and authorities to justify inhumane and violent practices. Engaging in such debates goes beyond the scope of the research and thus this thesis does not intend to validate any one side of the argument. However, the debate is worth acknowledging here given that the conceptions of rights as represented by the respondents in this study seem to be somewhat distinct from universal ideas of rights.

v.            Alternative theorizations on citizenship and ‘vernacular rights cultures’

Therefore, as aforementioned, the shift in the research question begged the application of a corresponding theoretical foundation that could frame the distinct articulations on rights that were emerging from the evidence. This section, hence, presents the second part of the theoretical framework for the study and captures the alternative theorizations on conceptions of rights and citizenship. The debate on the universality of rights outlined in the previous section is also reflected on debates on how citizenship is interpreted in different contexts. These theories of citizenship are relevant to the research given that articulations on notion of rights are connected to the differential ways in which citizenship is interpreted and experienced; as Madhok (2009:2) states, conceptions of rights are a “core referent” of articulations of citizenship.

The concept of citizenship has been interpreted in multiple ways in the literature (Jones and Gaventa, 2002); however, the dominant theory of citizenship follows the liberal tradition, where citizenship is considered to be a legal status, which entitles an individual to a universal set of rights, granted by the state (Somers, 1993:588). As previously stated, this is the conception of citizenship and rights I adhered to at the inception of the project. However, the empirical material suggests that there seems to be a limited conception of citizenship as a legal status among the environment-related migrants and displaced persons in question. Despite this, there were expressions of entitlements among the respondents; thus this allows for the application of alternative theories of citizenship as a conceptual framework in this context. According to Ellison (1999), alternative theorizations of citizenship came in response to the critique of the liberal, universalist approach, given that “broad, all-inclusive notions of ‘citizenship’… effectively mask power relations which operate to the benefit of dominant groups” (Ellison, 1999:59). Ellison (1997) highlights that one such alternative was the ‘pluralist’ approach, which attempted to encompass diversity in their formulation of citizenship. Theorizations such as Lazar and Nuitjen’s (2013), for example, present citizenship in a similar manner and attempt to capture the diverse ways in which citizenship is interpreted and experienced in different contexts.

In a similar vein, Madhok (2009) attempts to understand meanings of citizenship and rights in non-Western contexts by utilizing the concept of ‘vernacular rights cultures’. She challenges the ‘orientalist’ notion that the spread of rights articulations in the non-Western world originates from the Western world and suggests that rights articulations in other parts of the world are based in “existing vocabularies and norms governing entitlements, roles and identities” (Madhok, 2009:4). She states: “vernacular rights cultures are not wholly derivative from the three major revolutions in the West – the American, the French and the English – or entirely oppositional to western notions and conventions of human rights, or … entirely discreet in form, in that one would be hard pressed to find hermetically sealed or ‘pure’ indigenous rights traditions but they are instead, interlocked into relations that are historically productively, intimately, and coercively produced and experienced” (Madhok, 2009:6). Reflecting some of the themes that emerged during the fieldwork phase of this research, Madhok (2009:10) argues that the international human rights language and the vernacular conceptions of rights do not necessary clash with one another in the local context, but that the contact between the two produces a specific kind of rights politics that “articulated in the vernacular, … seeks to particularise rights, but … paradoxically justifies this, … in a language of normative universalism”.

These alternative understandings of rights and citizenship and especially Madhok’s (2009) analytical trope of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ are of particular relevance to this research given that the interviews have reflected similar interactions between Western or liberal and universalist conceptions of rights as granted legally by the state and local understandings of rights as based in contextual norms and experiences. Hence, the framework of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ which considers this contact between the liberal theory of citizenship with more pluralist, contextually grounded theorizations seems to be a justifiable lens within which to view the rights conceptions of environment-related migrants and displaced persons.

II.            Literature Review

i.            Literature on the migration-rights-environmental degradation nexus in Bangladesh

There is a vast amount of work on issues of climate change and mobility with respect to Bangladesh. However, there are only a limited number of works that discuss the rights implications of such movements. There are studies such Biswas and Chowdhury (2012) and Naser (2013) that call for the need for rights protection for ‘environmental refugees’; however, their analysis is seemingly based on the assumption of a mono-causal relationship between climate change and migration. More importantly, these papers do not address how the issue of rights itself maybe articulated in the local context. In addition to this, the works of Zetter and Morrissey (2014a) (2014b) analyze existing mechanisms of rights protection in the national legal and normative frameworks in relation to environmental degradation, and how historical and political considerations have influenced the way rights are conceptualized in the country. While this is a step in the right direction, it focuses on the attitudes towards rights of the higher, policy-making echelons of Bangladesh and not of the environment-related migrants and displaced persons themselves.

ii.            Literature on rights conceptions in Bangladesh and in similar contexts

The work most relevant to the question presented in this paper is that of Kabeer and Kabir (2009) who attempt to capture citizenship narratives among the working poor in Bangladesh. One of the very few empirical works that explores these conceptions in relation to the poor in Bangladesh, they interview mostly informal workers in both rural and urban areas. They begin by refuting Wood’s (2000) understanding of the problem of governance in Bangladesh, who suggests that the poor in the country are prisoners who have a natural deference to power structures, given that inequalities are so entrenched, that the disadvantaged have no choice but to adhere to it. According to Wood’s (2000) analysis, the Bangladeshi state has been inaccessible to less privileged sections of society, given that the state’s resources are allocated through patron-client networks that are dominated by family and kinship groups (Kabeer and Kabir, 2009:10). Such networks extend throughout, from the highest levels of the state apparatus to the lowest administrative units, rendering those without influence or social connections in a disadvantaged position (Kabeer and Kabir, 2009). As is demonstrated by the respondents’ narratives in Chapters 4 and 5, Wood’s (2000) analysis is not entirely inaccurate. Indeed, many respondents noted that social networks played a significant role when attempting to secure access to state resources. However, Wood (2000) has also encountered considerable criticism from Sobhan (2000), who argues that power inequalities are not as deeply entrenched in Bangladesh as suggested, given that Bangladeshi society has considerable scope for upward mobility when compared to other South Asian countries that have deeply embedded caste inequalities (Kabeer and Kabir, 2009). Thus, Kabeer and Kabir (2009), on the basis of Sobhan’s (2000) argument, also counter Wood’s (2000) thesis, and contend that problems of governance are not necessarily inherent in the country. They demonstrate via interviews that while the language of rights and citizenship did not necessarily come naturally to all respondents, they also did not find the attitudes of natural deference to authority as posited by Wood (2000). As the authors state: “what we found instead was an active awareness of the injustices of the system among different sections of the working poor and vociferous condemnation of those who perpetrated them…if they were ‘prisoners’ of this system, they were prisoners with a well-developed analysis of the nature of their prison” (Kabeer and Kabir, 2009: 31). As is examined in Chapters 4 and 5, the respondents of this study too reflected similar attitudes that were reported in Kabeer and Kabir’s (2009) work.

Another related study comes from Hossain (2009) who explores how poor citizens in Bangladesh negotiate their entitlements and gain access to services. She suggests that such citizens engage in ‘rude’ forms of accountability, in the form of shame, embarrassment, the threat of violence and so on in order to put pressure on bureaucrats who are at the frontlines of service delivery (Hossain, 2009). She argues that in the context where mechanisms for formal accountability fail or do not exist at all, informal forms of accountability allow disadvantaged citizens to advance their interests (Hossain, 2009). In a similar vein to Kabeer and Kabir (2009) and the notions I encountered during fieldwork, Hossain (2009:318) states: “what I have learned from this exploration of how poor people try to get their due from frontline officials is that this ‘rudeness’ reflects a latent sense of entitlement, perhaps even rights, with respect to public services”. This theme of ‘latent sense of entitlements’ is that emerges strongly within the empirical material of the thesis and is explored further in Chapters 5 and 7. These two studies thus also lend support for the application of Madhok’s (2009) framework of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ as they demonstrate the unique ways in which rights and citizenship are articulated in the context of environmental degradation in Bangladesh.

Nuitjen (2013) also presents an interesting study in the context of a World Bank funded slum-upgrading project in Recife, Brazil. Nuitjen (2013) attempts to understand how this project impacted the lives of the slum-dwellers by examining the discourses on citizenship and rights employed by the slum-dwellers and the state. In doing so, she captures the tension in the way citizenship is articulated formally in policy-making circles and how it plays out in practice. What is particularly interesting and relevant to this study is that Nuitjen (2013:12) finds that the slum-dwellers do not utilize the language of rights and citizenship, and instead use of the “language of patronage”. She states: “They (the slum-dwellers) are grateful for anything that politicians and officials do for them, which they see as gifts rather than rights. Their language of the political is framed in terms of gifts, favors, reciprocity and taking care” (Nuitjen, 2013:12). The respondents in this study have also noted similar sentiments, and thus a parallel theme of the notion of rights as being both an entitlement as well as a form of charity is strongly reflected in the empirical material of this thesis, which is further explored in Chapters 5, 6 and 7. Additionally, in tandem with the experiences of ‘vote buying’ that were reported by some of the respondents in this study, Nuitjen’s (2013) respondents also noted that their politicians bought their votes through exchanging favors and making empty promises. While the context of Nuitjen’s (2013) study is different to the context of this research, it is interesting to observe parallel themes emerging in seemingly unrelated situations. Thus Nuitjen’s (2013) work illuminates the differences in the ways rights and citizenship are articulated in diverse environments.

iii.            Literature on elite conceptions of the poor

Two other studies of relevance are by Bayat (1998 and 2010), which examine how urban disenfranchised populations in the developing world contest their marginalization. In these works, Bayat highlights four ways in which the politics of the poor has traditionally been conceptualized in academia. This categorization is relevant to this study, as it resonates with the government officials’ perceptions of the poor, as presented in Chapter 6. One of these categories, what Bayat (2010:48) terms as ‘the passive poor”, describes the poor “as a politically passive group struggling simply to make ends meet”. Bayat (2010:48) writes that such perceptions “… remained a dominant perspective for many years, informing much of the antipoverty discourse and policies in the United States as well as the Third World elites’ perception of the poor”. That this perception still exists in the minds of the Bangladeshi state is demonstrated in Chapter 6. Bayat’s (2010:48) second category for conceptualizing the politics of the poor is the idea of “the surviving poor”. This type of conceptualization goes only a step further from the idea of the poor as being passive, in that it implies “that although the poor are powerless, they do not sit around waiting for fate to determine their lives. Rather, they are active in their own way to ensure their survival” (Bayat, 2010: 48). This notion too, is reflected in the interviews with government officials, and the tensions in conceptualizing the poor as ‘passive’ or ‘surviving’ are explored in detail with reference to these interviews in Chapters 6 and 7.

Conclusion

To summarize, the key points to note in this chapter are:

  • This chapter presents the conceptual basis and the literature review that informs the study.
  • There are tensions in the term ‘environmental refugees’; hence ‘environment-related migrants’ and ‘environment-related displaced persons’ are used to acknowledge the complex relationship between environmental degradation and mobility.
  • ‘Choice’ is not employed as a tool to distinguish between displacement and migration in this research, given that in the Bangladesh context it can be difficult to separate mobility that is undertaken out of choice or out of compulsion. Hence, ‘displacement’ is used to describe populations who have moved in response to a sudden-onset change such as cyclones, floods or a riverbank collapse. This movement may be temporary and across short distances. ‘Migration’ refers to a movement, which involves a degree of decision-making.
  • The research also acknowledges that it can be difficult to distinguish between environmental processes that may be climate-related from those that occur ‘ordinarily’. Hence, the mobility in question in this study is labeled as ‘environment-related’ and not ‘climate-related’, to acknowledge that both kinds of processes may be at work.
  • The first part of the conceptual framework of this research focuses on the work of Zetter (2009, 2010, 2011), McAdam (2010, 2012) and others who advocate for the need to consider the impacts of environment-related mobility on the infringement on the rights of the population in question. Given that these scholars consider the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement as a suitable instrument by which to ensure the protection of rights of environment-related migrants and displaced persons, this research too, takes the Guiding Principles and other related instruments such as the Nansen Principles as starting points for the research. At the state institutional level, Bangladesh has outlined several policies, laws and so on that address some of the concerns raised by the scholars cited above. Most significantly, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief has recently released the National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate Induced Internal Displacement (NSMDCIID), 2015, which outlines a set of rights that affected populations are entitled to. Thus, in addition to the international instruments listed above, the study also uses the national instruments to inform the research.
  • However, given the nature of the articulations on rights obtained during fieldwork, a tension in the notion of rights as universal is noted in the study. To further substantiate the unclear yet distinct conceptions of rights noted in the interviews, a second and complementary theoretical basis is utilized. Alternative theorizations of rights and citizenship, particularly Madhok’s (2009) ‘vernacular rights cultures’ are used as an analytical lens within which to view these different notions.
  • Finally, there are limited academic works on the rights conceptions of environment-related migrants and displaced persons, especially in the context of Bangladesh. However, the empirical works of Kabeer and Kabir (2009), Hossain (2009), Nuitjen (2013) and Bayat (1998) (2010) stand out as influential and relevant given that they echo similar themes to the ones presented in this research, particularly the themes of the respondents possessing a ‘latent sense of entitlements’, the state as a provider of charity, and elite conceptualizations of the poor as ‘passive’ and ‘surviving’.

Chapter 3: Context and Methodology

This chapter is divided into two sections. Section I discusses the context in which this research takes place, and describes why Bangladesh is a suitable case for this research. This section also explores the background of the respondents by discussing the nature of their mobility in the context of environmental degradation. Section II presents the methodology employed in the study, explaining the research approach utilized, the processes of participant selection, data collection and data analysis. This section also delves into the issues relating to power asymmetries between the respondents and myself, the limitations this poses to the study and the ethical considerations involved.

I.            The Context

i.            Selection of the case

Bangladesh is considered to be an appropriate country for this research, given that it experiences a significant degree of environmental stress. According to Alam et al. (2011:52), over 50 million people in the country are impacted by environmental disasters every five years; the country experiences severe cyclones every three years on average, as well as heavy flooding on an annual basis. Hutton and Huq (2003) further note that given Bangladesh’s location on the delta of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Jamuna river systems, it is one of the most susceptible countries in the world to events such as flooding and riverbank erosion. Additionally, Etzold et al. (2013) state that there is increasing evidence that the occurrence of episodes such as cyclones, flooding, droughts, riverbank erosion and so on are increasing in frequency over time. Due to its exposure to extreme weather events and its high levels of poverty and population density (Sieghart and Rogers, 2015; ICCCAD, 2014), Bangladesh is often referred to as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change. Due to these factors, the Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index, 2015 lists Bangladesh as the sixth most vulnerable nation to climate change (Sieghart and Rogers, 2015).

Additionally, internal migration is a common occurrence in the country. Etzold et al. (2013) note that this region has experienced significant migration throughout its history, where people have been moving chiefly in search of better livelihoods. Furthermore, the authors state that with increasing urbanization, there has been a significant trend of rural to urban migration in the country from the 1970s. For these reasons, Etzold et al. (2013) argue that climate change cannot be considered the main cause of movement in Bangladesh; however, they state that there is sufficient evidence that environmental stresses have a bearing on people’s mobility in the country. They note that among the key environmental stressors that may influence people to move are events such as riverbank erosion and saltwater intrusion, which adversely impact agricultural yields and compromise people’s livelihoods. This is also shown in other studies; for example, Marshall and Rahman (2010), in a report on internal migration in Bangladesh, note that environmental stresses play a significant role in rural to urban migration trends, where a considerable proportion of migrants in Dhaka, the capital city, are from areas that experience frequent environmental episodes such as flooding.

Finally, a major factor that makes Bangladesh an interesting case for consideration is that due to its position as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change, Bangladesh plays an important role in shaping the international climate change discourse (Alam et al., 2011). As Huq (2016) notes, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) actively participates in international climate change negotiations under the UNFCCC, and is a member of numerous bodies set up by the UNFCCC such as the Adaptation Fund Board, the Green Climate Fund Board and so on. Additionally, the GoB has recently become increasingly vocal on such international forums about issues of climate change and mobility, as noted by Huq (2016) and by one of the government officials interviewed in this study. Thus, given the active participation of the GoB in molding the international agenda on climate change, it is interesting to examine how it fares internally when tackling issues of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility.

ii.            Background of the respondents in relation to environmental degradation and mobility

This sub-section provides the background of the respondents, and explores the nature of environmental stresses the respondents experienced, the nature of and motivations behind the movement itself and their lives prior to migration. In presenting this, the sub-section thus adds to the general country background described above and provides a deeper context within which the empirical material presented in the following chapters can be understood.

  • The nature of environmental stress experienced

Almost all of the relevant respondents interviewed had experienced environmental degradation in the form of sudden-onset disasters[2], specifically riverbank erosion and flooding. A significant majority had experienced both riverbank erosion and flooding; additionally, there were many respondents who reported experiencing either or both forms of environmental degradation more than once in their lifetime; some also reported to have experienced these episodes every year.

  • The motivations behind and the nature of movement

All of the respondents stated that a major factor influencing their decision to move was the need to seek livelihood opportunities. Most stated that there were limited livelihood options in their hometown or village, and that whatever options were previously available to them had been compromised by episodes of environmental degradation. Additionally, many who had lost the lands where they lived, opted to migrate due to a shortage of temporary or permanent shelter in their local area. Therefore, securing land and livelihoods were the main concern for the respondents.

The duration of movement observed among the respondents was both short-term and long-term. Additionally, there were respondents who had moved on their own, leaving their families behind in the village, as well as respondents who had moved with the entire household; this was especially the case for those families who had lost their property drastically due to riverbank erosion and thus had nowhere else to go.

  • Life before movement

All of the respondents experienced livelihood vulnerability prior to the occurrence of disaster. Many of the respondents experienced poverty from before; for example, they had very limited earnings, did not own cultivatable land, or any land at all. Some worked as rickshaw pullers, day laborers or agricultural laborers in land owned by local landed elites in the village. However, having said this, many respondents noted that they were able to make a living somewhat comfortably prior to the experience of disaster, as the cost of living in the village compared to the city was much lower, indicating perhaps that the disaster served as a tipping point[3] for movement. Another observation was that many respondents were unable to access healthcare and education in their village. Those who did attend school had to drop out after a certain point given that they couldn’t afford to continue, especially in the aftermath of disaster. Therefore, in all the cases observed, the disaster experienced exacerbated their precarious conditions greatly; those who owned land, found them destroyed overnight or completely inundated in floodwater. Others suffered as the lands they worked on in lost fertility or were destroyed.

II.            Methodology

i.            Research approach and shifting research questions

Given the exploratory nature of the central question of the thesis, which seeks to explore how environment-related migrants and displaced persons conceptualize notions of rights, I utilized an inductive qualitative approach. By employing such methods, I was able to explore the differing subjectivities, experiences and understandings involved at the individual level when conceptualizing rights. Furthermore, this approach allowed me to pay attention to the perceptions and agency of the actors in question. This is particularly apt in a context, where the relationship between the different factors is not clearly understood as highlighted in the previous chapter.

Additionally, adopting such an approach enabled me to make appropriate changes and refine the shape of the research as unexpected themes emerged during the process of data collection. As mentioned in Chapter 2, I initially started the project with the aim of understanding if environment-related migrants and displaced persons in Bangladesh were aware of their rights, as enshrined by instruments such as the Guiding Principles. In order to understand this, I decided to rely on primary data obtained via open-ended, “non standardized” interviews (Denzin, 1988: 116), with the respondents. The non-standardized approach is one where there is no pre-specified set of questions or a particular order in which the questions are asked. Instead, I identified beforehand, a schedule of themes to be explored in the interview, the majority of which were based on the international soft law instruments for rights protection, such as the Guiding Principles, outlined in Chapter 2. The non-standardized approach also did not necessitate that all participants be asked the same questions and thereby allowed me to tailor the interview to the respondent (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007: 117). This approach thus enabled me to create an informal atmosphere, where I could encourage participants to share their experiences and conceptions surrounding rights. This also allowed me to probe themes as they arose in the interviews. Given that I had decided to adopt an “interpretive constructionist” approach (Rubin and Rubin, 2004), to understand the participants’ perspectives, the non-standardized interview was particularly useful, as opposed to other methods of interviewing, or other qualitative methods, which allowed the generation of “thick” descriptions of the phenomena in question (Blaikie, 2010).  This may not have been attainable by the use of other methods, such as the survey method, where the details of participant experiences may be difficult to tease out, or by focus groups, given that the answers generated may be “produced” in a public arena for the researcher (Brockington and Sullivan, 2003:62). Both the interpretive constructionist approach and the non-standardized tool for interviewing enabled me to act upon the diverse and unexpected narratives on rights that were emerging during the interviews, and refine the focus of the research. As a result, the research focus shifted to understand the conceptions of rights itself among the respondents in question, rather than trying to understand if there was an awareness of the rights outlined in the Guiding Principles among those impacted by environmental degradation.

ii.            Participant selection and data collection

The data in this research were collected over a period of 10 weeks of fieldwork in Dhaka, Bangladesh, between July to September 2016. The participants of the study were selected from two different areas in the city. One of the sites was a group of slums in the Bhatara area of Dhaka, the other site was a garment factory in Savar, an area located a short distance away from the city of Dhaka, but within the Greater Dhaka area.

I had initially intended to focus the study exclusively on slum areas of the city, given that according to the literature, a significant proportion of migrants and displaced persons in Bangladesh live in slum areas (Walsham, 2010), and that more than half the slum dwellers in Dhaka city are migrants (Islam et al., 2006). It must be noted here, that empirical data on the location of potential environment-related migrants and displaced persons is non-existent (and also problematic to collect due to issues of causality), hence, the choice of sites were mainly guided by anecdotal data. Hence, in the early stages of the fieldwork process, I spent some time visiting and informally surveying several such slums in search of environment-related migrants and displaced persons. However, finding it difficult to locate the necessary respondents, I sought help from academics and researchers who had more knowledge about where environment-related migrants and displaced could be found. Based on these discussions, I gathered that such persons were typically employed as rickshaw pullers, day laborers, garment workers or as domestic help in the city. Such jobs generally offer limited scope for promotion or upward mobility, and given the low levels of literacy generally found among this group, these were the usual avenues of employment available to them. Hence, I moved my search to include rickshaw garages[4] and garment factories. I found one such rickshaw garage, where I interviewed nearly five migrants; unfortunately however, none of these interviews turned out to be relevant, as none had experienced any episode of environmental degradation. I eventually gained access to a garment factory that was owned by a family member; additionally, with the help of my research assistant, I was able to gain access to a group of slums in the Bhatara area in the city.

The respondents were identified on the basis of two criteria: first, whether they had moved from another part of the country into Dhaka city, and second, whether they had experienced any form of environmental degradation while they were still living in their village/home town. Thus, the sampling was not done at random. In the Bhatara slum area, a snowball sampling method of locating respondents was used. My research assistant was instrumental in this process. In the garment factory, a slightly different technique was used. The workers at the factory were informed of this study, with the help of the floor managers and were invited to volunteer if they were interested. Hence, a process of self-selection was at work here.

It is worth noting here, that in selecting the respondents, I encountered substantial difficulty in conveying the meaning of the terms ‘environmental degradation’, ‘disaster’, and so on to the potential participants and gatekeepers, even when utilizing the appropriate Bangla terms. Hence, I had to reconstruct the meaning of these concepts in everyday language by using the common examples of environmental degradation and disasters, such as floods, cyclones, and riverbank erosion in order to explain what the study was about and identify the relevant respondents. Even then, there were several instances when I was unsuccessful in communicating these concepts, and thus I had to eliminate many interviews from the data, when it became clear that the respondent was not relevant to the research. I conducted 55 interviews in total; of which 42 were relevant to the study. Hence, I had to discount a significant amount of interviews in order to identify the relevant ones.

The final number of respondents presented in this study however is 30, given that I had to drop 12 interviews from the sample. This was also due to a potential communication difficulty; these 12 interviews were from the garment factory, where I found that the responses were somewhat biased as the respondents were under the impression that I was a government official. This was despite having established my role as a research student, during the process of obtaining informed consent at the start of the interview. I suspect that this might have been due to the fact that I had visited the factory to conduct the interviews over several days during fieldwork. Hence, I believe that those I had interviewed in the earlier days may have discussed the nature of the interviews, which were centered on the state, particularly state provisions, with their colleagues, leading subsequent respondents to believe that I was a representative of the government, who was potentially in a position to help secure state provisions. The ethical implications of this are discussed shortly.

Out of the 30 respondents, 16 were male and 14 were female. Unsure of the nature of conceptions of rights among the population in question and whether it differed according to the person’s gender, I wanted to ensure that I had enough female participants in order to be able to capture any variation in conceptions. I did not, however, detect any such difference in conceptions that could potentially be influenced by the person’s gender. Furthermore, of the 30 respondents, 15 were from the Bhatara area and 15 were from the garment factory. The duration of the interviews varied, however, on average, each interview lasted between 15 to 20 minutes.

Additionally, I also interviewed various academics and government officials. I approached the academics, researchers and government officials interviewed in this study on the basis of information gathered from web searches, publications and word-of-mouth, regarding who or which organization or ministry was working on issues related to environmental degradation and mobility. I often used a snowball sampling method here too; for example, when interviewing one government official, I would ask if there were other relevant officials I could speak to. I interviewed and had informal conversations with six different academics and research officers working in local think tanks. These interviews provided contextual information on the nature of internal mobility of those affected by environmental degradation and the location of such populations. I also interviewed five different government officials; however only three of these interviews were relevant to the study. In fact, I also encountered significant difficulty in trying to locate government officials who were familiar with issues of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility. This was because, as explained by one government official and several academics I had spoken to, there are a limited number of government officials who work on issues of rights, environmental degradation and mobility. The empirical implications of this are discussed further in Chapter 6.  In addition to these interviews, I also used official documents obtained from the various academics, research officers, government officials and the Internet, to inform the material presented in this research.

Informed consent, either written or oral was obtained prior to all interviews. All interviews with the respondents were recorded on an audio recording device; additionally I also took notes by hand. Two of the government officials declined to be recorded; hence I only took hand written notes during these interviews. The other official interviewed allowed the interview to be recorded.

The interviews with the academics, researchers and government officials were conducted in a mix of both Bangla and English. The interviews with the environment-related migrants and displaced persons were conducted in Bangla. Given that I am a native speaker of Bangla, I translated the transcripts from the interviews from Bangla to English myself. As aforementioned, I had research assistance with me during the fieldwork process, from Mr. Shameem Chowdhury, who had some prior experience in collecting qualitative data for research[5]. I ensured that Mr. Shameem was aware of research ethics and issues of confidentiality. Mr. Shameem’s assistance was immensely valuable, especially in providing further background and context and facilitating communication with respondents who had different local dialects. Another advantage of working with a male research assistant was the fact that he was able to gain access to certain areas that were uncommon for women to frequent. In order to minimize distortions and bias in the interpretation of the interviews, Mr. Shameem and I would compare notes at the aftermath of each interview, and especially review the approach we were taking when asking questions.

iii.            Data analysis

At the conclusion of each day on the field, I returned to and examined the notes from the day, and logged in thoughts, observations and further questions I had in my fieldwork diary. I used these notes, in conjunction with the interview notes and transcripts to analyze the various themes that were emerging from the empirical data. Logging in these themes opened up further questions, which I would incorporate into subsequent interviews; therefore, the process of data analysis was ongoing alongside the process of data collection, to inform further avenues of research (Miles and Huberman, 1994). After the process of data collection was complete, I went back to analyze the notes to further clarify the relevant concepts and themes and examine the complexities. At this stage, given the refinement of the central question, I felt the need to go back into the literature to find a suitable complementary theoretical framework. Identifying a new framework also helped place the empirical themes in perspective and enabled me to understand the nuances in the data, make connections and identify overlaps. Additionally, even after identifying my main themes, I found myself going back to the transcripts of the interviews repeatedly to ensure any relevant but uncategorized material was not left out. Through this process, I was able to generate a final synthesis, and construct an overall narrative of the complex notions of rights among environment- related migrants and displaced persons. Additionally, I relied on the various documents obtained during the process of fieldwork, my interview notes and transcripts in order to understand the discourses surrounding rights at the state level, in a similar manner.

iv.            Issues of privilege, limitations and ethical considerations

The difficulties with communication outlined above are symptomatic the vast power differential between myself as a Western educated, middle class researcher and the migrants and displaced persons in question, most of whom had limited levels of literacy. Given the fact that I had to deconstruct the meaning of concepts such as ‘environmental degradation’, the scope for respondents to interpret these on their terms became reduced. Thus, my privileged position made it so that I ended up ‘imposing’ my own interpretation of these concepts onto the respondents, albeit out of necessity. Additionally, these communication issues also meant that room for nuance was limited; for example, I was unable to communicate about slow-onset processes of degradation, and thus all of the interviews revolved around issues of sudden-onset processes. Although, I attempted as much as possible to overcome these power differentials by communicating in as simple and accessible ways, by dressing respectfully in locally acceptable attire, or by sitting next to the respondent, instead of across a table from them, for example, the respondents and I were still acutely aware of privileged position I was occupying in relation to them. In fact, in a discussion about the class differences in Bangladeshi society and how this influences the resources and respect one is entitled to, one respondent pointed directly at me when discussing the behavior of the upper classes. Ironically, this is reflective of the main argument of this thesis; that an exploration into notions of rights and the conceptions of rights among the respondents themselves are reflective of the asymmetric distribution of power within Bangladesh, and the disadvantaged position the respondents find themselves in vis-à-vis these imbalances. The methodological implications of this power imbalance between myself and the respondents however, is that the narratives presented in this study may have been impacted in the direct ways I have articulated above, as well as in other indirect ways. To reduce these biases in interpretation, I would try to verify with the respondent, the perspectives that were being reported, during the interview itself, to ensure I had a better understanding of what the respondents were trying to articulate.

An additional limitation of the study is the fact that I was unable to utilize probabilistic sampling techniques, given the challenges in locating the relevant respondents, and thus the narratives presented here may not be fully representative of the populations in question or free of bias. Whenever I have detected bias in the data, however, I have sought to eliminate it or minimize it as much as possible.

In order to maintain the ethical considerations of the research, I ensured that interviewees participated on a voluntary basis. Given that most of the participants in the study were vulnerable, and had low levels of literacy, I strived to be sensitive in my demeanor and explain the objectives of the project and the associated risks in simple terms, via the process of obtaining informed consent. Despite this however, as aforementioned, there were participants who mistakenly believed that I was from the government, and thus in a position to assist them. Even when the respondents understood that I was a student and a researcher, I found that they still expected some sort of assistance or provision, simply by virtue of the fact that I was more privileged than them. I tried to dispel any such misconceptions as sensitively as possible. Furthermore, I have maintained confidentiality and anonymity and have kept my data, transcripts and notes thoroughly protected.

Conclusion

The following points provide a summary of the chapter:

  • The chapter explores the context in which the study takes place. Bangladesh is considered a suitable case for this research given that it experiences a significant degree of environmental stress, that internal migration is a common occurrence in the country and that it plays an active role in shaping the international climate change agenda.
  • The chapter also examines the background of the respondents as part of the overall context of the study, highlighting the nature of environmental stresses experienced, the motivations behind and nature of the movement and the respondents’ lives prior to migration.
  • Additionally, this chapter describes the research approach used in the study. An inductive, qualitative approach has been utilized, where data was collected via open-ended, non-standardized interviews.
  • The processes of participant selection and data collection are presented. The process of data collection lasted 3 months, from July to September 2016, and took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A total of 30 respondents were interviewed in 2 different locations in the city, 15 from the Bhatara area and 15 from the Savar area. Of the 30 respondents, 16 were male and 14 were female. Additionally, the challenges associated with these processes are explored.
  • The process of data analysis employed in this research is also examined.
  • The chapter concludes by presenting the issues relating to the position of privilege I held, the limitations this posed and the ethical considerations of the research.

Chapter 4: National instruments for those affected by environmental degradation

This chapter investigates how the existing national instruments for those who have experienced environmental degradation, as highlighted in Chapter 2, play out in practice. The chapter does this by describing the experiences the respondents had when attempting to gain access to state provisions in the aftermath of the environmental episode they experienced. The discussion points in the interviews that inform the analysis in this chapter, were based on the rights as outlined in the Guiding Principles, Nansen Principles, Peninsula Principles and the national instruments that were discussed in detail in Chapter 2. For the sake of simplification, this chapter refers to the body of the complex web of laws, policies, interventions and strategies at the national level as ‘instruments’. This chapter acts as a backdrop for the following chapter, which explores the rights conceptions of the respondents, given that the experiences that are presented in here inform much of these conceptions. In setting the stage for the following chapters, this chapter thus begins to allude to a portion of main argument of the thesis: that the narratives surrounding rights point toward the power distortions that frame the interactions between the Bangladeshi state and some of its most disenfranchised citizens.

The main finding in this chapter is that the existing national instruments are employed very differently in practice from how they are articulated and are thus not always effective. In establishing this finding and by highlighting the fragmented ways in which various forms of assistance are deployed by the state and accessed by those affected, the chapter highlights the uneven distribution of power between the state and its citizen in the context of environmental degradation in Bangladesh. The argument here is that these power asymmetries underpin the uneven access of affected populations to existing assistance and support. A more comprehensive understanding of the nature of these asymmetries and how it shapes access to the state is explored in Chapter 5.

The following sections of the chapter reflect the themes that emerged from the interviews with the respondents. Section I discusses the respondents’ experiences in securing state provided relief in the aftermath of the environmental episode, Section II articulates the respondents’ experiences when attempting to access state provided temporary shelters and land compensation and Section III examines the respondents’ narratives regarding state interventions to manage and prevent further episodes.

I.            Interventions in immediate aftermath of an environmental episode

While a significant number of the respondents reported receiving some assistance in the aftermath of an environmental disaster they had experienced, those who received such assistance noted that the provisions were insufficient and infrequent. These interventions were mainly in the form of material relief; for example, the affected families would receive a few kilograms of rice, lentils, or cash. However, the respondents who had received such assistance noted that they did not do so every time they experienced an episode. In fact, those who did receive assistance reported to have done so only once or twice in their lifetimes, whereas the frequency at which they had experienced degradation was much higher, and in some cases, on an annual basis.

There were a substantial number of respondents who reported not having received any assistance at all. The majority of the respondents, including those who had received some relief at some point in their lives, noted that the relief goods and cash rarely reached the ones who need it the most. They claimed that local political élites, or those in their village that had political connections absorbed much of the relief. One respondent, Momtaz, noted that in fact, the ones who received the relief in his village were not poor at all:

“There are some who always get the relief… they are the ones who are always with the local politicians. We do not get the time to devote to these activities, because we have to work to eat. Even those who are not poor receive relief if they have the connections. In fact, I would say that they (those who are relatively better off) receive more than we do”

This was further substantiated by Firoja, who noted when asked about the nature of assistance received after an incident of riverbank erosion:

“The most they (the government[6]) will do is to give 10 kilograms of rice, that too if you are known to them … they are always saying ‘we can’t give to you now, we will provide relief to you later’

Another respondent, Monir, reported that he did not receive any assistance at all, in the aftermath of a recent episode of flooding and riverbank erosion, in which he lost a portion of his land. He stated:

“I did not receive even the minimum relief of rice and lentils… our chairman does not look after us, he does not even come to visit. He only comes to visit us when it is election time and he needs our votes. Once the election is over and he has won, he does not even recognize us”

These statements reflect a few key points: first, the existing relief mechanisms from the state are not accessible to all, and are not necessarily distributed on the basis of need. The fact that political connections seem to be required to access the relief indicates that those that not part of the local political élite, who may be in need of the assistance, are excluded. The respondents’ narratives are thus reminiscent of Wood’s (2000) observation presented in Chapter 2, that the state’s resources are distributed via pervasive patron-client networks, which the poor are unable to gain access to. Similarly, the theme of patronage and vote buying is also reflective of Nuitjen’s (2013) study. This lends support to the argument that the implementation of existing instruments is far from effective. Second, that the state is accessible exclusively by those associated with power, and not by those who do not have such connections is symptomatic of the power asymmetries between the state and its citizens.

Third, these narratives also draw attention to the material nature of the assistance provided in the immediate aftermath of disasters such as riverbank erosion and flooding. That the state views its citizens’ needs under circumstances, where people who are living on the edge fall into further vulnerability by becoming landless overnight, as purely short term and material, is highly problematic. While on the one hand, emergency provisions of cash and food grain are necessary for short term relief, for many, as expressed by Firoja for example, this is not enough to protect them from the vulnerability that comes with a permanent loss of land and livelihoods. This theme is explored further in Chapter 6.

II.            Issues relating to temporary shelters and land compensation

A considerable number of respondents reported that the government had at various times constructed temporary shelters in their area in response to flooding or riverbank erosion. However, many noted that these shelters were not accessible as they were located a substantial distance away and were difficult to reach. Additionally, accessibility was further compromised by the fact that the shelters were typically overcrowded. The most prevalent complaint regarding the shelters, however was that they were limited livelihood opportunities available nearby. This was especially problematic, given that there were no food provisions for those seeking temporary refuge at the shelters, which meant that one would need access to a means of income in order to be able to eat. Hence, as a result of these issues, many respondents opted not to seek refuge in such shelters. Furthermore, the conditions in these shelters were reported to be far from ideal. For example, Shiraj, whose home in the village was flooded at the time of the interview, stated:

“They have constructed a flood shelter now, in a local school, where my family is at the moment… there are about 15 to 20 people staying in one room and there are only two bathrooms in the entire facility, one for men, one for women. There are about 150 people staying in the shelter right now”

 

Shiraj continued, discussing the lack of access to food:

“Who will give us food? We have to earn ourselves to eat… now everything in the village is flooded, so we have to travel to the city to work.”

 

Another respondent, Badol, who was also unable to gain access to a shelter near his home to due to overcrowding, stated that such shelters were not constructed with the consent and involvement of the local residents. Lalon, another respondent, further corroborated this, stating that the government had built a shelter on khas land, where several of the local residents, including his own father were living previously, without their consent. Lalon reported:

“No, there was no consent, the land was ours, but the influential people in our area, they have power to do what they want. We fought and protested, there was a lot of violence, but in the end we could not stop them from constructing the shelter”

 

According to the Khas Land Management and Distribution Policy 1997, such land is to be redistributed towards landless families, particularly those who have lost their land to erosion (Displacement Solutions, 2014). However, in this case the khas land was not redistributed towards Lalon and the other residents who had a legitimate claim over the land. Instead their settlements were destroyed to build a shelter to which they had not consented.

Despite the existence of policies such as the Khas Land Management and Distribution Policies of 1987 and 1997, the Land Reform Ordinance of 1984, and projects such as the Climate Victims Rehabilitation Project (Displacement Solutions, 2014), none of the respondents who had lost their lands to riverbank erosion, except one, reported that they had received any land from the government as compensation for their land loss. Any compensation that was received, if at all, was restricted to the relief outlined above. Only one respondent, Emon, reported that he was given land from the government in the aftermath of an episode of riverbank erosion to build his home. Subsequently, nevertheless, he lost that land to another episode of riverbank erosion, after which he did not receive any more support.

A number of issues are reflected here: first, once again existing interventions to provide temporary shelter to the affected populations are not adequate and not implemented appropriately, given that they are located far away, are often over crowded, and are not complemented with any livelihood compensation/protection mechanism. This is also demonstrated with respect to land redistribution policies; the fact that most respondents reported to have not received redistributed land indicates that the implementation of such instruments may not be very widespread.

Second, the fact that these shelters are not constructed in consultation with the local residents, and, in the case of Lalon, may be enforced upon them, is very contentious. It reflects both the paternalistic attitude and material provision centric viewpoint of the state in relation to protection of vulnerable groups against environmental degradation. These accounts suggest that in the process of providing assistance, the state does not necessarily consider the needs of the affected groups themselves. For example, had the locals been involved in the design and implementation of temporary shelter, the issues related to the lack of livelihood options, might have been addressed. The case of Lalon, demonstrates this further: the fact that the land as their due compensation was not given to them and that a shelter was constructed there without their consent is indicative of the fact that the state’s interests take precedence over the citizens’ interests. This is once again symbolic of the extent to which the state is able to exercise its power over its poorer citizens.

III.            State led prevention measures

There were contradictory answers to the scope of state-led disaster prevention measures. While the majority of respondents noted that the government interventions to manage episodes of flooding and riverbank erosion were minimal and infrequent, there were also a significant number who reported that the government did take certain measures in their area, such as strengthening river banks to prevent erosion. However these measures, in most cases, were reported to be ineffective. For example, a number of respondents noted that although the government took repeated actions to strengthen the river banks, the banks would continue to disintegrate. In some cases, it was also reported that despite genuine attempts from the government to take preventative measures, they were unable to do so due to various constraints. For example, one respondent, Rupa noted that the government had commenced construction on strengthening the riverbanks in her village; however, they were unable to continue given that the erosion was occurring at a faster pace than that of the construction.

On the other hand, some respondents noted that the local politicians made empty promises with respect to taking preventative action. Firoja, for example, stated:

“They keep saying they will do something to stop the land from breaking, they say ‘next year, next year’ and then it never happens. By the time they act, people have already lost everything”

 

She continued on the effectiveness of the prevention measures taken:

“They just come and throw these big bricks into the river, thinking that it will stop the bank from breaking, you think that is enough? These do not work, it breaks again”

 

Another respondent, Badshah, reported:

“Many local politicians come to our village in the rainy season when it is flooding… they come in boats and tell us that they will do something to stop the flooding and we will not have any problems. They say this, but they have not done anything yet.”

Even when there has been success in implementing measures to prevent riverbank erosion, such as strengthening riverbanks, there are also issues as reported by Alo:

“They have successfully strengthened the riverbank on one side of the river, so there is no erosion happening on that side now. However, we are being prevented from settling there. If you want to make a house on that side, they (the government) say that you will have to buy land there to do it… Previously, they used to allow us to take a lease, but now they are not letting us do that. They say that we will have to buy land to stay there, but we cannot afford that”

According to Alo, generally, when such prevention measures are taken, the government does not allow people to settle on the riverbank given that the area usually needs regular maintenance. However, she noted that the government allowed influential people in the area who have money and resources, to lease the land and settle there. This is again indicative of a picture where power and influence allow for more benefits than would otherwise be possible to obtain, and is reflective of the systematic exclusion of the poor.

These issues pertaining to the effectiveness of state directed preventative measures again highlight the ways in which access to the state are shaped by the power imbalances that characterize the reality of those affected by environmental degradation. This is particularly reflected in the way in which local politicians offer empty promises to the local residents, a theme that is further explored in relation to voting in Chapter 5. As the respondents’ statements above indicate, although there are some actions taken to prevent environmental disasters, these occur within the context of an asymmetrical power distribution between the state and these citizens, where their interests are given less priority over the state’s own interests.

It is noteworthy, that many of the narratives captured in this chapter emerged organically in discussions surrounding notions of rights. Thus, in highlighting the ad hoc manner in which national instruments for environment-related migrants and displaced persons are implemented and accessed, this chapter begins to shed light on how explorations into rights conceptions point to the uneven balance of power between the respondents and the state.

Conclusion

This chapter thus illuminates the following few key points:

  • This chapter acts as a backdrop to the subsequent chapter by presenting the experiences of respondents when attempting to access state assistance in the aftermath of the environmental episode experienced, which in turn had a bearing on their conceptions of rights.
  • The main finding of this chapter is that existing national instruments for those impacted by environmental degradation are employed very differently in practice from how they are articulated and are thus not always effective. The reason for this lies in the asymmetries of power, which enable access to the state in uneven ways.
  • The respondents noted that provisions in the immediate aftermath of the episode experienced were insufficient and infrequent.
  • Additionally provisions were mainly focused on the material provision of goods, which were not enough to address the vulnerabilities of the affected groups.
  • The respondents also reported that political connections were needed in order to gain access to state resources.
  • Furthermore, it was noted that temporary shelters were often overcrowded, inaccessible and there were limited livelihood options nearby.
  • Moreover, none of the respondents who were eligible for land compensation, except one, actually received this.
  • Also, the respondents stated that their consent was not taken, nor was the question of their involved considered in implementing the interventions designed for them.
  • The respondents further specified that there were limited preventative measures undertaken to prevent future disasters; those that were undertaken were inadequate and ineffective.
  • Thus, this chapter begins to allude a part of the main argument of the thesis: that explorations into notions of rights point towards the power distortions between the Bangladeshi state and its most marginalized citizens.

Chapter 5: Conceptions of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons

This chapter presents the understandings of rights as articulated by the respondents, and their perceptions of the state. In analyzing these factors this chapter draws out the central argument of the thesis: that conceptions of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons in Bangladesh are nebulous and contextually bound and that explorations into notions of rights and the articulations of rights themselves point to the power distortions between the Bangladeshi state and the respondents. The chapter is divided into two sections. Section I presents five ways in which the respondents conceptualized notions of rights, and in doing so argues that these conceptualizations themselves are reflective of the asymmetries of power. Section II presents the interactions that the respondents reported to have had with the state, how this shaped their perceptions of the state and thus their conceptions of rights. This section thus draws out how the narratives surrounding rights and investigations into conceptions of rights illuminate the power differentials in question. Both sections have been sub-divided according to the relevant themes as they emerged in the interviews. Although the two sections have been separated, they are linked given that the respondents’ conceptions of rights were also influenced by their encounters with and perceptions of the state and vice versa.

I.            Understandings of rights

A majority of the respondents demonstrated limited familiarity with the term ‘rights’ or odhikaar in Bangla. There were a limited number of respondents, who, upon mentioning the term, immediately understood it; however, most required further prompts or explanations. There was also a significant number who had never heard of term before. Thus, in a similar vein to the methodological challenges of communicating various terms and concepts highlighted in Chapter 3, questions surrounding rights were at times difficult to convey. Despite this, however, most of the respondents did demonstrate a sense of entitlement or expectations with respect to the state, even if they were not couched in the language of ‘rights’. In fact, even those who had never heard the word odhikaar demonstrated this entitlement. This is reminiscent of Hossain’s (2009) observation of the respondents in her study demonstrating a ‘latent sense of entitlements’ as mentioned in Chapter 2. Thus, the terms ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ are distinguished from one another here; the word ‘rights’ is considered to be something more tangible as enshrined in normative or legal frameworks, whereas ‘entitlements’ describes something more intangible. The word ‘entitlement’ is used for when respondents demonstrated limited familiarity with the Bangla term odhikaar to denote that for them the notion of having ‘rights’ was something more intangible, and thus more akin to the concept of ‘entitlements’. An additional note here is that the majority of the discussions surrounding notions of rights and entitlements tended to shift towards and focus on the general rights and entitlements that are afforded to citizens and not the specific rights outlined in the various rights frameworks highlighted in Chapter 2 for environment-related migrants and displaced persons, even though my discussion points were framed around these specialized frameworks.

This section thus captures the five ways – which emerged in the fieldwork interviews – in which the respondents in this study articulated the conceptions of rights and entitlements. These five conceptions are: the notion of rights as having access to basic, material needs, the idea of rights as being a form of charity from the state, the conception of rights as equated with having privilege and respect, the notion of rights as held communally, as well as individually and the conception of rights as more in line with Western, liberal articulations. Although I have discriminated between the various ways in which the respondents have interpreted the concept of rights in these five groups, these categories are by no means exclusive, and are in fact related to one another to a significant extent.

i.            Rights as having access to basic, material needs

One of the most noteworthy themes to have emerged from the interviews was the notion of rights as analogous to having access to basic needs. A significant majority of the respondents, when asked what they considered to be their rights, responded that they considered having access to land, income opportunities, food and other basic needs as their entitlements. Thus, in the context of the loss of land and livelihoods in the aftermath of the episode, many respondents equated having access to rights with having access to relief goods and material compensation from the state. Whether or not one had access to material compensation and relief almost acted as a benchmark or a currency by which to understand whether or not one had access to their rights.

This can be seen in the example of Amit. Amit was one such respondent who had not heard of the word odhikaar. He had lost his land, which he used both for residential and agricultural purposes, to an episode of riverbank erosion. His and nine other families were affected at the same time, and they were promised compensation by the government, including redistributed land, which they did not receive. Struggling to support himself and his family in the aftermath of the episode, they decided to move to Dhaka. For Amit, the loss of his land is central to his plight, and the hope of being able to retrieve it through a redistribution scheme is part of what motivated him to come to Dhaka. He said:

“I came to Dhaka to find work to support my family and also to gain some media attention regarding my situation. I just want my land back, even if it a just a small portion of what I originally had, I just need enough to be able to do some agricultural work that I can use to support my living. This is what I am after, and we have also filed a case against the government for this”

Amit reports that although they were promised that they would receive land as compensation, other people in his village, who were more influential received the land instead. Therefore, the families decided together to sue the government for their land. What is interesting in Amit’s case is that although he stated that he had never heard the term odhikaar, he evidently conceptualized that the land, which was meant to be distributed to him as compensation, was his entitlement. It was something that he considered to have a claim over, something he was demanding as his, which is why he was fighting for it in the courts. An additional point to be noted here was the way in which he spoke about his land and the number of times he discussed it during the interview; it was clear that this was also something he desperately needed. He stated:

“I do not have any other requests, I do not need anything else, I just need a little bit of land on which I can settle … I just want to live with dignity on my own land”

It can be understood here that Amit’s demand for his land was out of necessity and it was central to his survival. Additionally, this entitlement for him was also a source of self-sufficiency and therefore respect and dignity. Furthermore, when asked about rights, Amit immediately pointed to his lack of access to the government land that was promised to him as compensation, which points to how he equated his lack of access to his material needs to lack of access to his entitlements.

Another respondent, Alo, presented a similar conception of rights. Unlike Amit, however, Alo was familiar with the term odhikaar. She characterized odhikaar as something that was hers, something that she needed and that she could demand from the government. She stated:

“We (those affected by environmental degradation) have suffered much loss. We are helpless in many ways and the government must provide support to us. But no one does help us, and there is no one we can go to voice our concerns. But this (ensuring basic needs) is definitely something the government must do for us”

 

Again, it is seen that the notion of rights is equated with having access to government provided relief and support. The statement above also reflects the underlying expectations and entitlements Alo had towards the government. Alo further stated:

“I have hopes that maybe the government can do something to help me, and then maybe I can go back home and do something of my own. If they want, they can help us, they can provide us with housing and job opportunities…  they can help me with my daughter’s education”

 

Even though Alo did not specifically outline housing, job opportunities and access to education for her daughter as her right, she did consider these her entitlements. Additionally, she considered the provision of these entitlements as the responsibility of the government.

Contrastingly, there were some respondents who did not harbor expectations towards the government in providing access to their basic needs, even though they conceptualized the notion of rights as having access to these needs. Badshah’s viewpoint is interesting in this respect. He too had lost his land to riverbank erosion, after which he did not receive any assistance but the basic material relief. However, although he was familiar with the concept of odhikaar, which he interpreted to be his basic needs, he noted that he did not have any expectation from the government to compensate for his loss of land or livelihood or to help in securing these needs. He stated:

“I do not really have any such expectation from the government. They fix the roads when they break in the aftermath of flooding, they strengthen the riverbank; that is enough … they do not help us to secure food or housing. So for me, I know that I will have to work and earn a living and that’s how I can survive … I also did not have any expectation that the government will provide me with my basic needs when I decided to move. I came to Dhaka to find a way to provide these things for myself

What is unclear in the above statement however, is whether Badshah considered the provision of his basic needs in the aftermath of environmental degradation as his responsibility, because he had experienced disappointment in the past when the government did not provide for him, or because he genuinely believed that it was not the government’s responsibility in the first place to do so. Based on other conversations during the interview, I would hypothesize that it was a combination of both factors, given that earlier in the interview he expressed his disappointment with local leaders who would come to visit the area and make promises to prevent further flooding in future, which would not come to fruition. This theme recurs frequently throughout this chapter; many respondents reported to have limited expectations towards the government, given the repeated disappointments they faced when making claims from the government in the past.

Similarly, Momtaz also considered the notion of rights as having access to his basic material needs and when asked if he had any expectations that the government should ensure his access to these, he stated:

“It is not enough to want these things, or to expect the government to provide these for us. I need to work to ensure I have these things, that’s how I can get them”

 

Thus, for Badshah and Momtaz, ensuring access to their basic needs, and thus their rights and entitlements was something they considered to be their own responsibility, attainable by their efforts and not via the government.

ii.            Rights as charity

There was a consistent expression among the majority of the respondents, both for those who were familiar with the term odhikaar and those who were not, that the provision of basic needs and protection in the aftermath of disaster from the government was a form of charity. Even in instances where respondents demonstrated a strong sense of entitlement, as in the cases of Amit, Alo and Chaity highlighted above, many of the respondents viewed the provision of basic needs or protection as something that had to be ‘given’ to them by the government. The language that the respondents utilized when expressing their conceptions of rights was indicative of this; for example, their ideas of rights were not expressed in terms of ‘taking’ or ‘receiving’ what they considered their due, but in terms of the government ‘giving’, ‘helping’ or ‘donating’ their basic needs to them. It seemed to convey a perception of the government or the state apparatus in general, as a ‘caregiver’. Such narratives bear similarity with Nuitjen’s (2013) study where she states that her respondents equate state provisions as gifts or charity instead of their rights.

Imtiaz was one particular respondent who conveyed this view of the provision of rights as charity from the government quite strongly. While he was unfamiliar with the word odhikaar, he referred to his entitlements as having access to his basic material needs such as housing, a source of income and so on. He also considered the government responsible for its provision. However when asked if he expected the state to protect his rights he stated:

“The government will not give anything to me. I will not ask them for anything either”

When Imtiaz communicated the statement above, there was a strong sense of self-pride being expressed as well as a sense of resentment towards the government. It was almost as if he considered it undignified for him to demand his rights from the government, and thus he felt that the action of demanding rights was a form of begging. Why Imtiaz felt this way is substantiated by other respondents’ accounts of their encounters with the state and the mistreatment they faced. As reported by many, sometimes the mere act of seeking their rights from the state can be a dehumanizing experience.

Rupa was another respondent who was unfamiliar with the term odhikaar. When prompted, however, she identified her basic needs as her entitlements and noted that she considered the government responsible for the provision and protection of these entitlements, especially in the aftermath of degradation. However, she also narrated that the government had not provided any support or assistance to her in the aftermath of the episode she experienced. When asked what her opinion was about this, she stated:

“Opinion… how can I have an opinion? Whatever the government gives to me, I have to accept it without question. If I forcibly ask them for something, they will not want to give anything to us, will they? So whatever the government gives, I will have to accept that wholeheartedly”

It seems from Rupa’s statement that she too conceptualized the notion of her rights as a government donation to her in the form of charity. Additionally, the statement also expresses a sense of resignation or acceptance on Rupa’s part; that regardless of what she thought or what she needed, she would have to accept the government’s actions without question. Other respondents too echoed similar sentiments of resigned acceptance.

iii.            Rights as exclusively held by those with privilege

One particular respondent, Lalon, provided a very interesting response to what he considered to be odhikaar. He linked the concept of rights with having power or influence and set up contrasts between him and those who have access to resources to illustrate this. He stated:

“If you have land and money, you have rights. I do not have money, my clothes are not good, and so I do not have rights. You are educated, you have a job, I am not educated and I do not have a job. I drive a van or a rickshaw… anywhere you go, you will be valued and respected. I don’t have any value and I cannot go to the places you have access to”

 

Lalon’s statements are very telling; he seems to convey that access to rights is a privilege or a luxury reserved only for those who have resources. Thus, according to Lalon, those who do not have wealth, education, formal employment and so on cannot have this privilege. He also draws attention to how the marginalized in society are not only prevented from accessing their rights in general but are also physically shunned away from spaces in society that are reserved for the elite. Additionally, Lalon addresses the importance of respect and dignity for the marginalized, something which other respondents also conveyed. He contends that with privilege comes being treated with respect and dignity; those that do not have power or resources, such as himself, are not treated this way. Thus, in addition to linking notions of rights with power and privilege, he also draws connections between having rights and having respect and dignity. This importance of having dignity can also be seen an underlying explanation as to why many respondents would conceptualize the act of seeking their rights from the state, which can often be a dehumanizing experience, as charity. Additionally, Lalon’s narratives also convey the same ‘class-like antagonism’ and a lack of deference towards those with privilege noted in Kabeer and Kabir (2009:31)’s work.

iv.            Rights as held communally

Another prevalent theme that emerged from the empirical material was the notion of rights as linked to family or communal life. The majority of respondents, when asked about rights, did not necessarily consider rights or entitlements in relation to themselves as individuals, but to their family or community. For example, Chaity identified the concept of odhikaar as the right for her and her child to a decent life, within which she singled out her need to provide an education for him. Other respondents similarly linked the term odhikaar with their family’s need for decent lives. Interestingly, a considerable number of respondents also associated the notion of rights as the government’s responsibility to ‘take care’ of the poor, both with respect to the poor in their local communities as well as in the country as a whole. In fact, when communicating their grievances with respect to the government, many respondents tended to speak for the poor in general, using words such as ‘we’ or ‘us’ to convey the government’s apathy towards them. This notion of rights as held plurally as well as individually is thus adjunct to the theme of cultural relativity and the alternative conceptions of rights and citizenship as flagged in Chapter 2,

v.            Rights as in the liberal tradition

Chaity was one respondent whose conception of rights was more similar to what can be termed as a typical notion of rights as in the Western, liberal or universalist tradition[7]. She was familiar with the notion of odhikaar, and linked it to her right to access education for her child, right to a decent standard of living in general but also specifically to her right to land compensation or shelter in the aftermath of the disaster she experienced. In fact, she strongly asserted herself by stating the following:

“This (access to shelter or land compensation in the aftermath of disaster) is my right as a citizen of Bangladesh and it is the government’s responsibility to provide this to me”

Another way to understand the parallels between local conceptions of rights with those of the liberal tradition is to examine the respondents’ narratives on political rights such as voting, which form a key component of human rights as conceptualized in the Western liberal discourse. On first glance, discussions surrounding political rights may seem irrelevant to the case of environment-related migrants and displaced persons; however the right to voting and political participation is one enshrined in the Guiding Principles and other related frameworks. Interestingly, there were a few respondents, who despite not knowing the term odhikaar, asserted their right to vote as very important. For example, when asked whether she considered voting to be important for her, Aisha stated:

“As a citizen of this country, it is my right to vote and I think it is very important”

I asked Chaity as well, if she felt that her vote was important to her and she replied:

“As a citizen of Bangladesh it is my duty and my right to vote. This is why I make sure I vote every time. Ever since I have become a voter, I have made sure never to miss it”

 

It is curious, therefore, to observe that even when rights are being conveyed as both an entitlement and a form of charity and when expectations towards the state are expressed as being limited, some respondents still demonstrate a strong attachment to their right to vote. This echoes with Madhok’s (2009) trope of ‘vernacular rights cultures’, where traces of Western conceptions of rights coexist and interact with more conceptions that are more contextually bound.

This section thus demonstrates the complex ways in which notions of rights are articulated in the context of environment-related mobility in Bangladesh. Here, rights are considered as having access to basic needs, which some consider the state to be responsible for, while others, perhaps due to negative interactions with the state, consider it their own responsibility. Simultaneously, there is a narrative of rights as being a form of charity from the state, even when there is a strong sense of entitlement. Additionally, rights are also considered to be something only the privileged have access to and thus conceptions of rights are equated with having dignity, respect and power. Analogous to these themes are the notions of rights as being held plurally as well as individually, with the importance of voting rights being strongly asserted. Hence, we can see here, as argued by Madhok (2009) that locally influenced conceptions of rights are not necessarily at odds with more Western understandings. The overarching theme that emerges from these narratives, however, is the imbalance of power between the respondents and the privileged sections that render the respondents marginalized. Thus, in this context, both universal and relative articulations of rights seem to be interacting in unique yet nebulous ways to form a conceptualization of rights that points directly to these power asymmetries in the Bangladeshi social structure. Therefore, a portion of the central argument of the thesis is demonstrated here: that the articulations of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons are contextually influenced and that these complex conceptualizations themselves are reflective of the sharp power distortions. Section II delves into this theme further by presenting the respondents’ conceptions of the Bangladeshi state.

II.            Perceptions of the state

This section captures the range of experiences the respondents had with various arms of the Bangladeshi state and subsequently presents how these experiences have shaped their perceptions of the state and their conceptions of rights. In doing so, this section demonstrates part of the main argument of the thesis, that explorations into conceptions of rights illuminate the stark power differentials between the marginalized and privileged sections of the Bangladeshi social structure. Again, these sub-sections reflect the themes that emerged within the interviews themselves; it is thus telling that the conversations surrounding rights inevitably led to discussions of negative interactions with the government and the disempowered position of the respondents with respect to the state.

i.            Experiences of adverse treatment

A significant number of respondents described experiences of negative encounters with the government when approaching their local leaders for assistance in the aftermath of an episode of environmental degradation. The narratives presented here, are particularly illuminating in understanding the underlying reasons why notions of rights were linked to charity. For example, Nurul stated that he had sought assistance from his local chairman after numerous episodes:

“I went for help on many occasions. I went to their offices several times, stayed there for prolonged periods of time and in the end I did not get anything. It is a huge hassle, they never give anything to you, and if they do it will just be 5-10 kilograms of rice. One time they just gave me 3 kilograms of rice and shooed me away, that too after I hung around their offices for three days. Because of these experiences, I have decided not to ask for help from them anymore. Instead of wasting day after day at their office seeking relief, and having no guarantee of receiving it, it is better to use those days to work and earn money. I can help myself more this way”

Nurul’s statement above also provides support to why some of the respondents considered conceptions of rights as being something that had to be achieved on their own. The experiences of mistreatment from the centers of power, as well as the repeated disappointments, seem to contribute to the idea that securing one’s rights to basic needs was something the government could not help them with. This is also seen in the case of Monir, who recognized that he had certain entitlements that were the government’s responsibility to protect. However, when asked if he had any expectations that the government will protect his entitlements, he noted:

“There is no point in having expectations. We go to the chairman; he is the one who receives the relief from the central government. But the chairman does not give us anything. When it is election season, he says he will give us this, he will give us that, and then after the election is over, he does not know us. He does not even let us stand in front of the gate

The last portion of the statement is telling. It demonstrates starkly, how the poor and marginalized cannot even physically access the government or occupy the spaces where the resources and the power are centered. It is significant here, that by Monir’s account, it was not just the office that denied them entry; it was also that they were shunned from the space in front of the office itself, almost as if the local chairman wanted to remove them from plain sight. This is also symptomatic of the highly paternalistic attitude of the state towards the poor.

Monir’s account shows the derogatory ways in which the poor are treated and ultimately dismissed. This also lends a possible explanation as to why the respondents demonstrated a strong need for self-sufficiency and dignity. Given that approaching the government for help, even if it was to demand what they felt were their entitlements, entailed being treated in a dehumanizing manner, they perceived government support as something akin to charity. Hence, for many, the idea of self-sufficiency, by living and working on one’s own land, where one would not have to depend on the government for help was very important. Monir’s statement echoes that of Lalon’s, quoted above, when he states that as a poor person without any resources, he does not even have the right to physically access the same places a wealthier person would. In fact when I asked Lalon the same question regarding his expectations towards the government he stated, in a similar vein to Monir:

“What is the point of having expectations from the government? They will give us nothing. I go to them and I try to talk to them, spend two days running after them and on the third day, they will say, “hey you, shoo! I have no time for you”; … they do not value us or respect us. And why will they? You (indicating the more privileged classes) do not even treat us with respect, so why will the government treat us any differently?”

In addition to highlighting the power differentials that exist in the Bangladeshi social structure, between the state and its citizens, Lalon’s statements above also pointing to sharp class divisions in urban Bangladeshi society between the upper and lower classes. Again, we can see the presence of the same ‘class-like antagonism’ noted by Kabeer and Kabir (2009:31).  Where the poor are not physically allowed to enter or occupy spaces reserved for the elite, and where they are treated without dignity and respect not just by the state, but also by the privileged classes, there is a sense that the power asymmetries in question exist not only between the state and the marginalized sections but also the between the upper/middle and less privileged classes in the country.

Additionally, these experiences of maltreatment are often made worse by experiences of physical violence in the hands of the state and the privileged in general. Respondents also reported incidents of police beatings, abuse from landlords and employers and discussed the precarious conditions in the city in which environment-related migrants and displaced persons have to live and work, with limited access to any form of support. For the respondents noted above, these experiences are part of the reason why many expressed resentment, disgruntlement and even hopelessness with respect to the state.

ii.            Experiences of voting and representation

Further perceptions of the state are captured here in relation to the respondents’ experiences with voting. Explorations into rights conceptions in many of the interviews naturally led to conversations about voting. The experiences captured here highlight why some respondents expressed a lack of trust and resentment towards the government and thus why they harbored limited expectations from the government. Additionally, the theme of patronage that characterizes the respondents’ interactions with the state emerges strongly in these narratives. Thus, in capturing these narratives, this section delves further into the power imbalances between the respondents and the state.

Lalon was one of the respondents who harbored much resentment towards the government. In his words:

“The government only thinks of itself… it is a government that has been elected without votes … I am a citizen of this country and I have a voter ID, but I still could not vote. I was prevented from casting my vote. So why should I accept this government?”

The right to vote for Lalon was very important, and he considered the current government to be illegitimate given that he was unable to cast his vote. His resentful attitude towards the state is a reflection of this experience. While Lalon placed importance in his right to vote, Amit, on the other hand, had a very different attitude towards voting. When asked whether he considers his vote to be of importance, he stated:

“What importance? We are the poor people back in the village. When it is election season, the local member chairman comes, gives us some cash and rice grains and in exchange, we vote for him. This is what voting is to us”

 

Amit did not consider it to be of much significance, given that he felt that he was compelled to vote a certain way in exchange for favors. This resonates with the theme of patronage and vote buying as presented in Nuitjen’s (2013) study. As with Nuitjen’s (2013) respondents, Amit’s experience highlights how the exchange of political favors and material resources characterizes the interactions between the state and its poorer citizens in Bangladesh. Wood (2000) also highlights this theme of patronage in his depiction of how citizens gain access to public resources in Bangladesh. Badshah too, recounted similar experiences. When asked if he voted, he stated:

“Yes I voted in the last election, and the local member chairman gave me some rice and lentils in return… this is what usually happens, whoever you vote for they give you some food grains… they give up to 15-20 kilograms of rice

In a similar vein to Monir, as mentioned in the previous chapter, Momtaz too noted that local leaders were only interested in them during election time. When asked if he considered his vote to be of significance, Momtaz stated:

“When it is election time, we are given immense importance (by the local leaders)… But after the election was over, they did not recognize us anymore”

 

This leads us back to Momtaz’s statement in the previous section where he suggests that having expectations are of no use in a context where the government seems to want to provide for its citizens only when its own interests are at stake. The above statement thus partially helps in understanding what might lie behind Momtaz’s notion of rights as being something that only he could achieve on his own, instead of something that could be granted to him by the government. Ultimately, the adverse experiences with respect to voting highlight the disillusionment and lack of trust the respondents noted towards the government, illuminating how investigations into conceptions of rights are reflective of the disempowerment of the poor in relation to the state.

iii.            General attitudes towards the state

As aforementioned, the majority of the respondents reported critical views towards the government, expressing a range of emotions from anger and disillusionment, to even hopelessness and resigned acceptance. For example, Mohima was one of the respondents whose expressions indicated a tinge of anger. When asked if she considered it the government’s responsibility to protect her rights, Mohima noted:

“Of course! It is the government’s duty to take care of the poor. But does the government fulfill its duty? It does not. If it did, I would have had my rights”

In addition to expressing her disappointment towards the government, the above statement also lends support to the observation that many viewed the government or the state as a ‘caregiver’. Mohima went on to suggest:

“The government has the capacity to take care of us if they want to, but they do not, so what is the point of expecting. I do not even know where to go to voice my concerns, I do not know anyone who will help me communicate with the state”

A few other respondents also noted that there was a lack of an outlet where citizens could voice their concerns and express their needs. Many expressed a feeling of hopelessness in relation to this. For example, Lalon stated:

“Who can we even speak to about our problems, there is no one in the government who will listen to us”

 

Samiul echoed a similar sentiment:

“There is no one to help us, there are no good people in government. Who will listen to us?”

Lalon’s and Samiul’s statements indicate that for the marginalized, the government and the state apparatus in general seems to be a distant and inaccessible entity. The state is imagined to be so far out of their reach, that many cannot even hope or expect it to do anything for them. Many of the respondents thus demonstrated a sense of resigned acceptance with respect to their difficult circumstances. Shafiul, for example, recounted:

“What expectation can I have? Whatever they (the government) do, whatever they give, it will be a lot for me”

 

However, at the end of the interview, when I asked if he had any other questions or comments, Shafiul stated:

“I do not have anything to say. Nor do I have anything to do. I just have one request, we are poor people, and if the government could do something for us, such as help us to find a stable source of income back in the village, I can go back home to my parents and be with them. I do not want anything else. This is what I consider my right

It is interesting, therefore, to observe that even when there seems to be a level of acceptance and resignation, there is also some sense of expectation or need. It indicates, perhaps, that given the opportunity, the respondents would be able to voice their needs and press demands. The problem is, however, as narrated by Mohima, Lalon and Samiul above, that there is no such platform or medium via which the state can be accessed. Thus the latent sense of entitlements observed among the respondents does not manifest itself for lack of an outlet. Again this demonstrates how consolidated the power of the state is that it seems to be completely out of reach from the most marginalized sections of the country. This would also help explain why some respondents noted having no or limited expectations from the state. Rumana, for example, stated that her expectation from the government was simply that they keep in contact with the poor:

“I would be happy if the government simply checked up on us to see if we are doing alright, and to offer advice to help us out in difficulty

This section thus captures the experiences of adverse treatment, the experiences of voting and the general perceptions and attitudes toward the state that inevitably arose in the interviews with the respondents when discussing notions of rights. It has demonstrated how the narratives surrounding conceptions of rights reflect the skewed distribution of power between the state and the citizens in the country. This leads us to investigate the other side of the narrative, namely the perspectives of government officials with respect to issues of rights, environmental degradation and mobility as presented in Chapter 6.

Conclusion

This chapter highlights the following key points:

  • The chapter presents both the conceptions of rights among the respondents and the perceptions the respondents had of the state. Section I captures the articulations of rights among the respondents and in doing so substantiated the part of the main argument which contends that the conceptions of rights are contextually bound and that these conceptions are indicative of the power distortions between the state and the respondents. Section II describes the interactions the respondents had with the state, the experiences of voting and their general perceptions of the state, thus lending support to the portion of the central argument that suggests that discussions surrounding notions of rights also point to the same power differentials.
  • The chapter reports that a significant majority of the respondents demonstrated limited familiarity with the term for rights in Bangla, ‘odhikaar’, and most required further prompts and explanations. Nevertheless, most expressed a range of entitlements and expectations, even if these were not couched in the language of rights.
  • It was found that notions of rights were conceptualized in five ways, which are not necessarily distinct from one another.
  • The first conceptualization entailed the notion of rights as having access to basic, material needs. Additionally, while some considered the government responsible for the provision of these needs, many noted that they did not consider it the government’s responsibility.
  • The second conceptualization was the notion of rights as a form of charity from the state. Moreover, also prevalent among the respondents was the perception of the state as a ‘caregiver’ or a ‘provider’.
  • The third notion among the respondents was that rights were something only the privileged has access to.
  • The fourth notion involved the conception of rights to as held both collectively and individually.
  • The final conception was of rights as more akin to the Western, liberal understanding of rights.
  • A significant portion of the respondents experienced adverse treatment from the state, especially when seeking assistance in the aftermath of environmental degradation. Many also recounted experiences of patronage and vote buying in the voting process. These experiences contribute to some of the disgruntlements expressed towards the state. There was also an indication that for many the state seems to be a distant and inaccessible entity.
  • Thus, the conceptions of rights among the respondents and the discussions surrounding these notions, which led to articulations on the interactions with and perceptions of the state, point to sharp power differentials between the state and its most marginalized citizens. The following chapter explores in detail how the unequal distribution of power manifests itself in articulations of government officials on issues of rights, environmental degradation and mobility.

Chapter 6: Narratives of rights among government officials

This chapter analyses the other side of the narrative on rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility, by presenting the articulation of rights conveyed by mid to senior level government officials from various ministries, ranging from the Ministry of Disaster Relief and Management to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that are responsible for issues related to environmental degradation and/or mobility. In doing so, the chapter substantiates how articulations surrounding the issue of rights, even at the national level, illuminate the asymmetric distribution of power between the state and the environment-related migrants and displaced persons.

As previously highlighted in Chapter 2, I found it particularly difficult to locate relevant government officials to interview. According to the various academics and one government official I spoke to, this is because there are a limited number of government officers that work specifically on issues of rights, environmental degradation and mobility. Out of the three officials interviewed, only one directly addressed the concerns of environment-related migrants and displaced persons. Interviews with the other officials revolved mostly interventions around environmental degradation and climate change. This difficulty in finding relevant officials to interview is indicative of the fact that issues of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility are not necessarily a high priority to the government despite the strong international standing of Bangladesh in climate and environmental change discourse and policy making. The following sub-sections denote the various themes that emerged in the interviews regarding conceptions of rights; once again these themes are not exclusive and overlap with another to a significant degree.

I.            Reluctance to engage in rights based approaches

Both Officials A and B, and to a lesser extent C, demonstrated a disinclination to engage in rights based approaches in relation to environmental degradation and mobility. Official A, for example contended that human rights are accorded to environment-related migrants and displaced persons by virtue of being human; hence a separate instrument outlining a distinct set of rights for such populations, such as the Guiding Principles would be a less than fruitful exercise. The official stated:

“The main issue here is that we (the government) have considerable resource constraints, which is why we are not being able to adequately help them (the environment-related migrants and displaced persons). It is not about creating another guiding principle or soft law instrument, I don’t think we need another instrument to help them. There are instruments globally, regionally, and we have our own climate change strategy within that. It is a question of resource constraints and government priorities. This is yet another vulnerable group in a country with so many other vulnerable groups, so there are competing priorities. So existing interventions are limited and not enough. What we need is a huge and sustained intervention.”

Official A thus exhibits hesitation to engage in concerns of rights when he considers the existing instruments as sufficient to inform interventions or actions that are rights based. He made clear throughout the interview that he prioritized programs and interventions over establishing rights-based approaches informed by instruments such as the Guiding Principles. Official A’s reluctance to engage in the rights based approach is further demonstrated by the following statements:

“I mean, you cannot have an intervention that is not rights based, but you are not using that as a primary tool. You cannot ask the state, look, here you have citizens who have lost their house and their land to live and it is the right of the individual and entitlement of the individual and obligation of the state to go and help him or her… If you go and talk about rights (with environment-related migrants and displaced persons) that will not make any sense. What will they do with rights? Suppose we create another act in Bangladesh, which talks about rights, entitlements, privileges of displaced people. What will happen? The government will say that we don’t have enough resources; we are trying our best to do something. But then nothing will happen. That’s the problem. So that’s what I think that there should be a massive intervention to lift the people”

Similar to Official A, Official B also stated that the existing policies, instruments and so on were enough and demonstrated a dismissive attitude when pushed on issues of rights. He stated:

“There is no need to identify a separate set of rights for such people. You have the Disaster Management act that is sufficient; it specifies that such interventions are for vulnerable people, that is enough. Every program we have, we have specified that it is for vulnerable people”

Official C, in contrast to the other officials, on the other hand, stated that there was a need for a rights-based approach in relation to issues of environmental degradation and mobility. However his response was as a result of a leading question I asked, hence I am hesitant in considering this a valid response. Further doubt can be cast over Official C’s response by the fact that he did not elaborate as to how a rights-based approach could be undertaken with respect to environmental degradation and mobility. Nor did he mention the term ‘rights’ throughout the interview, except for the moment I prodded him. In fact he seemed to be unaware of what the Guiding Principles were, which can lead one to think that he perhaps agreed to the need for a rights-based instrument with respect to such concerns, in order to pay lip service to the issue.

II.            Material provision centric viewpoints

Both Official A and B’s statements above are indicative of the very material centric view of the state in relation to issues pertaining to environmental degradation. As seen in the passages quoted above, both officials focused heavily throughout the interviews for the need for interventions and programs that were focused on providing material relief. For example, when discussing existing interventions, Official B listed the various social safety net schemes such as cash transfer programs, employment generation programs and considered the provision of shelter and cash as adequate means of ‘helping’ the populations in need. Both Officials A and B seemed to suggest that the marginalization and disempowerment of those impacted by environmental concerns was due to their lack of access to material resources or basic needs. In fact, in all of the interviews the lack of access to basic needs was seen as the primary concern; however, no concerns on issues of power distortions were stated.

Official C too demonstrated a similar understanding of the issue at hand. When prodded on the need for rights-based approaches, he stated that concerns of rights with respect to environmental degradation and mobility could be adequately dealt with by improving interventions that provide relief and evacuation in the aftermath of disaster. This is again an indication of the material provision centered notion of the state that was presented in Chapters 4 and 5, the notion that vulnerability can be addressed to an adequate level by providing relief and access to basic goods.

III.            Conceptualization of the poor as ‘passive’ and ‘surviving’

Intriguingly, Official A’s statement “If you go and talk about rights (with environment-related migrants and displaced persons) that will not make any sense. What will they do with rights?” reflects an understanding of the poor as only concerned with survival, and hence not interested in concerns of rights. This is resonates with Bayat’s (2010) four categories of how the poor and their politics are conceptualized in academia, as articulated in Chapter 2. As aforementioned, one of the categories, ‘the passive poor”, describes the poor “as a politically passive group struggling simply to make ends meet” Bayat (2010:48).  That this perception still exists in the minds of what Bayat (2010:48) terms as “Third World elites”, is further substantiated by the following passage stated by Official A:

“Our society is still primarily concerned with survival. Twenty years ago, people in Bangladesh used to be able to eat only once a day, now we can afford to eat three meals a day. Before, we could not afford clothes, or sandals, that is that kind of society we are. You cannot compare this society to that of the industrialized, Western world. They live in a different world, we live in a different world”

Interestingly, this passage also echoes arguments made against the universality of conceptions of rights that were flagged in Chapter 2 of this thesis. What Official A, seems to allude to here is the argument that ideals of rights have more traction in Western contexts than in the contexts of poor countries such as Bangladesh, where people are merely interesting in ensuring their survival. This conception also seems to resonate with Bayat’s (2010) second category for conceptualizing the politics of the poor, which is the idea of “the surviving poor”. This does not afford any more agency to the poor over the categorization of the poor as ‘passive’. The classification of the poor as ‘surviving’ merely suggests: “although the poor are powerless, they do not sit around waiting for fate to determine their lives. Rather, they are active in their own way to ensure their survival” (Bayat, 2010: 48).

There are issues, however, with conceptualizing the poor as either ‘passive’ or ‘surviving’. Bayat (2010:49) states: “while resorting to coping mechanisms in real life seems quite widespread among the poor in many cultures, an overemphasis on the language of survival strategy… may contribute to maintaining the image of the poor as victims, denying them any agency. The fact is that poor people may also resist and make advances in their lives when the opportunity arises.” This statement of Bayat’s (2010) is extremely relevant here; it reflects the tension in the problematic view of Official A that issues of rights are not relevant to environment-related migrants and displaced persons, given that they are often merely struggling to survive. Not only does this deny such populations agency, it also reflects the highly paternalistic attitude of the Bangladeshi state in general towards its most vulnerable citizens. A paradoxical element of Official A’s notion of the poor as either passive or surviving, is that it simultaneously takes away the agency of the poor, while also ignoring the structural conditions of distortions in power that render the poor in its marginalized state.

IV.            Paternalistic attitudes; state as provider of charity

Additionally, Official A’s comments above, supplement the notion of the state as a paternalistic provider of material needs. To further illustrate the paternalistic standpoint of the state, the following passage by Official A is relevant:

“If you talk to the displaced people about rights perceptions and rights instruments, it will not make sense. It will not bring any immediate relief to them, to their life and they will not be interested. Now if you tell Bangladesh (the government), that this is the right of the displaced people, then you are nowhere. State will tell you to go to hell. But if you tell them, that look, these are vulnerable people who contribute to your economy, and they have to be given their basic needs, that makes much more sense. If you talk too much about rights, then we’ll shy away

Once again, the conceptualization of the poor as ‘surviving’ and ‘passive’ is demonstrated here. Furthermore, it depicts a strong aversion to engage in concepts of rights on part of the state. However, what these conceptions and statements reflecting the paternalism of the state allude to, most importantly, is the asymmetric distribution of power between the Bangladeshi state and citizens. Official A conveyed the notion repeatedly that since environment-related migrants and displaced persons are poor and have low levels of literacy, they will not understand the concept of rights, nor will any such rights-based approach be of use to them. This is indicative of the idea that it is the state that decides what must be done for its citizens without giving any meaningful space and power to the citizens themselves to press their demands. His articulation that the state will provide for the “basic needs” of such populations, not by virtue of this being their right, but in order to make them into productive members of the economy, is also reflective of this lack of power attributed to the populations in question. By refusing to acknowledge the rights and entitlements of poor citizens, and by setting the state’s status as a provider of material and basic goods by virtue of their benevolence and not obligation, the state ensures that maximum power is consolidated in the hands of the political élites and thus enables the continued disempowerment and marginalization of the such populations.  It is no wonder that a significant majority of the respondents in Chapter 5 conveyed the view of the state as a caregiver or that they interpreted the provision of their rights as a form of charity from the state, as this disposition was demonstrated in the interviews with the officials themselves.

Official B also demonstrated a similar attitude. For example, in listing the various material based provisions, Official B, also seemed to extend the idea of the state as a ‘helper’ of the poor, or a provider of charity. This was indicative in the language used to express the type of interventions that were undertaken. For example, Official B used phrases such as “we have given to them” or “we have provided for them” when describing the provisions available for those impacted by environmental degradation. Such phrases were also used by Official A, and thus indicative of the conception of the Bangladeshi state as paternalistic provider of material goods and a provider of charity for the poor.

Official C’s statements were also reflective of this theme. In expressing his concern on the matter of internal migration he stated:

“We are very concerned with this issue of rural to urban migration. Look we don’t know where to take them (environment-related migrants and displaced persons), there is a lack of land, so where will they go? We can’t keep them here (in the city), we can’t send them back. We are aware of the conditions in the slums, and that they are suffering from a lack of livelihood. When they come to the city, they are occupying state owned land, it is not their land, but we are not saying anything to them”

The language used in the passage quoted above is again supportive of the view of the Bangladeshi state as being paternalistic. The fact that the official states that the government is not evicting environment-related migrants and displaced persons who are living on state owned land in the city also conveys a sense of benevolence on part of the state in its decision to not act on the problem.

V.            Preoccupation with financial and technical constraints

Another point to note here is the focus on financial constraints. This was a theme that recurred in interviews with all the officials; there was a general consensus that it was difficult to do much to help those affected by environmental degradation due to the government’s limited fiscal and technical capabilities. For example, as quoted earlier, Official A stated when discussing his reluctance to engage in rights based concerns: “The main issue here is that we (the government) have considerable resource constraints, which is why we are not being able to adequately help them… It is a question of resource constraints and government priorities.” Similarly, Official B was quick to identify the lack of financial resources as a roadblock in the attempt to provide adequate assistance for those affected by environmental degradation. He stated:

“We definitely have a lot of financial limitations, we need to develop our use of IT for example, but we need more specialized training and skills”

This statement also demonstrates a very technocratic viewpoint that is reflected in many of the main documents of the GoB that deal with issues of climate change and environmental degradation, such as the NAPA and the BCCSAP. The adaptation strategies highlighted in the NAPA for example, include the provision of drinking water, construction of flood shelters, introduction of flood resistance crops, improving technical systems and so on.  The problem with this stance, however is that it fails to address structural issues of power distortions. The disempowerment of those affected by environmental degradation is thus considered by the state to be solvable by gaining access to increased financial resources, technology and skills.

VI.            Different discourses at national and international levels

Interestingly, however, while being quick to dismiss the need to acknowledge the rights and entitlements of those impacted by environmental degradation, Official A was keen to highlight the power imbalances between the developed and developing countries at the international level:

“Bangladesh contributes 0.005 per cent of the pollution (globally) and it is highly unlikely that ever it will cross 1 per cent. Even if you go full-fledged industrialized path, it will emit less than 1 per cent pollution … if you go up, if you are in the international plane, there you talk about rights. There you make polluters pay. So if they agree to pay for the act they’ve done, that can help. If they go and help them (the environment- related migrants and displaced persons) with money and technology that will help… At the international level you need rights and instruments, not at the grass root level. There (at the international level) you need to talk about equity”

 

This passage once again exhibits the GoB’s preoccupation with highlighting its lack of resources when it comes to issues of climate change and environmental degradation. While indeed resource constraints are a prohibiting factor in dealing with concerns of environmental degradation, this thesis shows that there are also structural problems, such as the uneven distribution of power in the social organization in the country, at hand. However, what this passage illuminates is the paradoxical attitude of the GoB, where on one hand it vocalizes strongly on the international arena the need to address the structural problem of power asymmetries between the developed and developing countries, and yet refuses to acknowledge the same with respect to the citizens they claim to advocate for.

VII.            Disconnects between and within various arms of the state

The interviews also illuminated strongly a lack of coordination between the various relevant ministries and offices of the state. For example, Official B, when citing the various acts and policies from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief that in his view, adequately dealt with issues of environmental degradation, did not mention the NSMDCIID, highlighted in Chapter 2, even though it was this very ministry that was responsible for the publication this document. In fact, the NSMDCIID was not mentioned by any of the officials interviewed, which raises questions as to what extent it is operational versus to what extent it exists to pay lip service. This is not to say that the NSMDCIID itself is without flaw; however, the acknowledgement of the need of a rights based approach with respect to environmental degradation and mobility is a step forward. Nevertheless, that both Officials A and B dismissed such an approach, is a signal that there are discords even within and between different sections of the state apparatus.

This was demonstrated further in the interview with Official C. Official C, who was from the Ministry of Environment and Forests and delegated with the responsibility for rights with respect to environmental degradation and mobility to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. He stated that such issues could only be handled through relief provisions, which were the responsibility of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.

These comments also exhibit a reluctance to take responsibility and a lack of will to effectively address concerns relating to access to rights for environment-related migrants and displaced persons. Official C’s comments further demonstrate the previously observed incongruity within and between different sections of the state apparatus with respect to this issue. In fact, this lack of coordination is visible by virtue of the very existence of the tangled web of laws, policies, interventions, strategies and so on that the state has created at several different points in time, as examined in Chapter 2.

VIII.            Limited awareness of how interventions operate in practice

The officials’ statements with respect to aspects of the existing interventions echoed with the theme of the lack of effectiveness in the operationalization of such instruments noted in Chapter 4. For example, both Officials A and B stated that the local communities were involved in the planning and decision-making processes of the interventions that take place. Official B in particular, highlighted this aspect stating that there were routine stakeholder consultations, where locals were involved in the designing of schemes at the union level. Additionally, Official B noted that there were complaint websites that locals were aware of and had access to. However, participation in the planning and decision-making processes of interventions was something that the respondents in the study specified that they were not able to do; furthermore no respondent demonstrated an awareness of the spaces to lodge complaints. In fact, respondents often stated the opposite, as demonstrated in Chapter 5, that they felt that the state was often a distant and inaccessible entity and that they had no outlet to voice their concerns. This is also reminiscent of some of the respondents’ statements of not being able to physically gain access to their local leaders’ offices when trying to secure relief.

Additionally, Official B also stated that the implementation of such interventions was monitored at every level of government, down to the union levels, to ensure that the relief reached those who needed it the most. Once again, this was in stark contrast to what the respondents had noted in Chapter 4, with a significant majority reporting that they did not receive relief where other locals with political connections had gained access to the relief instead. Such findings are indicative of the fact that the provision of space for participation and the monitoring and evaluation of such interventions falls short in practice. The fact that the participation of locals and the evaluation of interventions are given less priority further alludes to the presence of power distortions between the state and those impacted by environmental degradation.

Given that the all of themes from the interviews presented above reveal the various ways in which the populations in question are disempowered in relation to the state, this chapter thus demonstrates further how narratives surrounding conceptions of rights are indicative of the imbalances of power between the state and the environment-related migrants and displaced persons in question.

Conclusion

The following are the main points to note in this chapter:

  • In presenting the articulation of three government officials, from different ministries, on issues of rights with respect to environmental degradation and mobility, the chapter corroborates how explorations into notions of rights indicate the power distortions between the state and the marginalized. That each of themes has emerged from these interviews directly speaks to this central argument of the thesis.
  • The chapter notes that there are a limited number of government offices and ministries that cater specifically to issues of environmental degradation with respect to mobility, indicating that concerns of rights in such contexts are of low priority for the government.
  • On the whole, there was reluctance on part of the government officials interviewed to engage with issues of rights in relation to environmental concerns and mobility.
  • The officials demonstrated a material centric understanding of how to deal with issues of environmental degradation. They conveyed a notion that the provision of basic needs was enough to solve the disempowerment of the populations in question.
  • The officials also articulated a perception of the poor as ‘passive’ or ‘surviving’ and therefore, not concerned with issues of rights. Thus the officials were dismissive of the rights based approaches highlighted in Chapter 2.
  • Overall, there was a sense of the state as a provider of charity for its citizens, not by virtue of it being the state’s obligation, but by virtue of their benevolence. This was accompanied by a strong sense of paternalism especially when conceptualizing the poor as being intent on survival and thus uninterested in rights based concerns.
  • Furthermore, they articulated a technocratic approach to solving such issues. The officials were quick to outline financial and technical constraints as key hindrances in being able to provide adequate support to those impacted by environmental degradation.
  • The GoB’s paradoxical position of being a vocal critic of structural imbalances of power in the international realm, and yet sidelining the same concerns at the national level, was also reflected.
  • With respect to administrative issues  clear disconnects within and between sections of the state apparatus were observed, with different officials and documents conveying contradictory messages. Moreover, there was reluctance towards taking meaningful responsibility for the issues at hand.
  • Additionally, there is limited commitment to ensuring the meaningful participation of those impacted by environmental degradation in the planning of interventions that are geared towards them and the adequate implementation of these interventions. Thus, there are stark differences between what is articulated in paper, and what occurs in practice.

Chapter 7: Conclusion

The central question this thesis seeks to address is: “How do environment-related migrants and displaced persons conceptualize notions of rights?” The thesis attempts to address this question by using the theoretical discourses extended by McAdam (2010), (2012), Kälin (2010) and Zetter (2009), (2010), (2011) regarding the need for adopting the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement for the protection of environment-related migrants and displaced persons, and Madhok’s (2009) trope of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ as the conceptual basis for this study. In doing so, the thesis finds somewhat nebulous conceptions of rights among the respondents and argues that explorations into notions of rights and these conceptions themselves point to the sharp power differentials between the Bangladeshi state and its most marginalized citizens. Thus the overarching argument of the thesis is that narratives surrounding the notion of rights and the complex conceptualizations of rights that emerges from these discussions act as a window into the power distortions in the Bangladeshi social structure.

Summarizing the main themes

Each of the themes, both of the methodological and the empirical kind, presented in the different chapters of this thesis, point towards this power distortion. Chapter 3 discussed the methodological challenges I faced when communicating with the respondents and the privileged position I occupied in relation to them, both of which are indicative of the disempowerment faced by respondents. Additionally, the chapter highlighted the challenges encountered when attempting to locate relevant government officials to interview, suggesting perhaps that less priority is given to concerns of rights in relation to environmental degradation and mobility.

Chapter 4 demonstrated how the plethora of instruments at the state level relevant to environment-related migrants and displaced persons operates less than effectively on the ground. The chapter drew attention to the fact that assistance for the respondents in the aftermath of environmental episodes, was limited to material relief, access to which was reported to be infrequent and restricted to a few with political connections. The importance of influence, power and political connections were highlighted here, given that the respondents noted that only the privileged were able to access state resources, rendering those without such connections at a disadvantage. The theme of vote buying was also reflected strongly in this chapter. Further issues were presented with respect to the inaccessibility of government provided temporary shelters, issues of overcrowding and the lack of livelihood options nearby, all of which made temporary shelters a less than adequate measure for the respondents in the face of environmental degradation. Additional problems that were illustrated were that the populations in question did not have the scope for participating in the design of measures that were meant to assist them, nor was their consent sought in implementing such measures. Furthermore, state interventions to prevent further degradation were reported to be infrequent and in many cases, ineffective.

Chapter 5 delved into the five ways in which the respondents conceptualized notions of rights. The majority of the respondents were unfamiliar with the Bangla word for rights, which is odhikaar, however, a significant majority demonstrated what Hossain (2009) calls a ‘latent sense of entitlement’. The first conceptualization conveyed the idea of rights as having access to basic needs. While some considered the state responsible for the provision of these needs, others, perhaps due to past experiences of disappointment and adverse treatment from the state, did not. The second conceptualization pointed to the notion of rights as similar to the state providing charity; these conceptions were complemented with perceptions of the state as a ‘caregiver’. The third way in which rights were thought of was the idea of rights as exclusively for those with privilege. Simultaneously, having rights was also equated to being treated with respect and dignity. The fourth conceptualization was the idea that rights were held not just individually, but communally as well. The fifth notion of rights communicated by the respondents bore similarity with more Western, liberal notions of rights. Chapter 5 also analyzed the perceptions the respondents had of the state, which lend explanatory power to the conceptions of rights noted earlier. Such perceptions were shaped by negative encounters with the state, where respondents demonstrated a sense of disillusionment towards the state. Some considered the state to be a distant and inaccessible entity, and with a lack of adequate space to voice their concerns, the observed latent senses of entitlements remain dormant.

Chapter 6 analyzed the other side of the narrative by presenting the government officials conceptions of rights with respect to environmental degradation and mobility. The government officials exhibited a disinclination to engage meaningfully with issues of rights, and a material provision centric viewpoint as solution for the disempowerment of the populations in question. The officials also conveyed a conceptualization of the poor as ‘surviving’ and ‘passive’ and thus considered rights based approaches as irrelevant to them. In doing so, they displayed their paternalistic approach towards the poor, and extended the idea of the state as a provider of charity, akin to the narratives of the respondents presented in Chapter 5. Furthermore, the officials demonstrated a pre-occupation with technical and financial constraints, furthering the notion that access to the material alone is enough to empower the disempowered. Additionally, the chapter examined the differing attitudes of the state regarding the need to acknowledge structural problems of power imbalances at the international realm versus with respect to their own citizens. Finally, there were also traces of a lack of coordination between and within different sections of the state apparatus; additionally the chapter also highlighted the probable denial of the state officials when it came to assessing the effectiveness of the relevant instruments in practice. All of these themes thus substantiate that the discussions surrounding notions of rights, as well as the conceptions of rights among the respondents themselves are indicative of the asymmetries of power between the state and environment-related migrants and displaced persons.

Reflecting on the argument of the thesis

At first glance, it would be easy to argue that since most of the respondents were unfamiliar with the term ‘odhikaar’, or with the notion of rights as encapsulated by the Western, liberal tradition, environment-related migrants and displaced persons show limited inclinations towards rights based claims. Further,  theoretical tropes such as the rights-based approach or instruments such as the Guiding Principles have limited applicability in the context of environmental degradation and mobility in Bangladesh.

However, despite the finding that the conceptions of rights among the population in question are not entirely in line with Western notions of rights, nevertheless a significant majority of the respondents expressed a sense of entitlements and in relation to those entitlements being unmet, feelings of disempowerment and marginalization: this lends support to the argument that the picture is not black and white. Indeed when we analyze the narratives on rights as articulated by the respondents against Madhok’s (2009) framework of ‘vernacular rights cultures”, we can indeed find indications of local conceptions of rights, articulated in the five ways highlighted above, that are not necessarily in complete contradiction to Western conceptions of rights, but are grounded in local realities and influenced by local experiences. Similar to Kabeer and Kabir (2009)’s thesis, the respondents in this thesis demonstrated an acute awareness of their disempowered position, of the injustices they faced and voiced their concerns against the state and the privileged in general. Thus, to write off the narratives of the respondents in this study as simply lacking any sophisticated understanding of human rights would be grossly inappropriate; indeed conceptions of rights and entitlements are present in alternative forms that are influenced by local contexts.

What is of greater significance in this thesis, however, is the fact that the discussions on notions of rights during the interviews and the alternative conceptions of rights that emerged from these discussions were all centered on one common thread, that of the stark imbalances of power in the social organization in the country and how these imbalances contributed to the marginalization faced by the respondents in very concrete ways. This leads us to move beyond issues of how rights are conceptualized; regardless of whether Western understandings of rights are present among this population, or whether something more nebulous is reflected, ultimately, the fact is that environment-related migrants and displaced persons are unable to gain access to what they consider themselves entitled to: this is due to observed asymmetries in power. That narratives surrounding rights highlight these power distortions is shown in Chapters 4, 5 and 6, where almost every empirical theme that emerged from the interviews when discussing rights pointed to the issue of the asymmetric distribution of power in the country. Additionally, Chapter 5 also demonstrated that the conceptions of rights themselves were reflective of the same structural problem. Whether it was to communicate ideas of rights as meant exclusively for those with privilege, or as a form of charity, or as having access to basic needs, every articulation on what the concept of rights was considered to be illustrated the same central argument. It is telling that none of the discussion points or questions in the interviews mentioned the term ‘power’; the narratives reflecting the disempowerment and marginalization of the respondents vis-à-vis the state are what naturally came forth when discussing notions of rights.

Thus this thesis argues that explorations of the notions of rights among environment-related migrants and displaced persons and the ways in which they conceptualize their rights serve as a window into a more fundamental, structural problem of distortions of power in the Bangladeshi social organization.

Further reflections

Some reflections can be made here. First, given that conceptions of rights in this context are not entirely akin to Western, liberal articulations of rights and that there is curious interaction between notions that are more contextually grounded with notions that are in line with the liberal tradition, similar to what Madhok (2009) states as ‘vernacular rights cultures’, we cannot take for granted the complete applicability in such contexts of soft law instruments such as the Guiding Principles, which are based on these liberal conceptions of rights. The danger of making this argument, however, is the risk of characterizing such populations as the ‘surviving poor’ or the ‘passive poor’ and thus justifying the Bangladeshi state’s paternalistic attitudes towards this group. This is especially undesirable given that such attitudes greatly contribute to the observed power differentials between the state and the citizens of this study. Hence, despite the fact that rights conceptions among the environment-related migrants and displaced persons in this study are not necessarily akin to those captured in the Guiding Principles and ‘western’ rights-based approach, this study still considers the application of the Guiding Principles as necessary in informing national policies, interventions and so on to address issues of environmental degradation and mobility.

However, the contextual element in the interpretation of rights is still an issue and thus a question must be raised regarding how such interpretations can be incorporated into soft law instruments. These are further questions that this research raises, and regardless of how and if it can be achieved, it is imperative to acknowledge that conceptions of rights are not necessarily universal and are interpreted in ways specific to the context. Ironically, given the purpose of soft law instruments in the context of environmental degradation and mobility, failing to acknowledge these can lead to issues of power distortions being sidelined, as in the case of Bangladesh, where relevant rights based approaches have actually been adopted into the national framework via the NSMDCIID, but there is limited meaningful commitment to these principles, partly due to these power distortions themselves.

A second reflection here is that exploration into conceptions of rights point to the material centric, technocratic view of the state with respect to issues of environmental degradation and mobility, which is highly contentious. As discussed, this view is reflected throughout most state discourses on climate change and environmental degradation, and is ultimately problematic given that it ignores structural impediments such as the power asymmetries that render the marginalized in their disempowered position. This position is reflected in much of the mainstream academic discourse on issues of climate change in the country as well; studies are quick to highlight the need for finances, technology and so on in order to be able to address the problematic effectively. While this may be so, an overemphasis on the need for finances and technical assistance, undermines the deeper problem at hand. Ultimately, the problems of marginalization of the environment-related migrants and displaced persons cannot meaningfully be addressed without acknowledging the role that power distortions have to play in rendering the populations in question in a perpetual state of disenfranchisement.

Contributions of the thesis and further questions

As discussed, attention to structural issues such as power asymmetries have been scant within the national and international discourse on issues relating to environmental degradation in general and especially in relation to environment-related mobility. This thesis thus attempts to redress this by drawing attention to the need to consider these structural problems. Furthermore, within the international and academic discourses on rights, environmental degradation and mobility, is it assumed that values of human rights are universally applicable, leaving issues of power distortions to become unintentionally sidelined. Hence, this research also highlights the importance of considering the contextually-bound interpretations of notions of rights. It is in these two ways that this research attempts to provide a novel contribution to the literature.

This research however, opens up more questions, one of which is the question of how to incorporate these contextually bound interpretations into international normative rights instruments. Additional issues crop up with respect to the conceptions of rights themselves; the notions of rights among the population in question may not be limited to the five conceptions observed in this study. Thus, these ideas need to be probed further to gain a fuller understanding of how rights are articulated. Furthermore, these conceptions need to be investigated further with respect to the asymmetries of power observed to see how they interact with one another and the implications of these interactions. The nature of these power asymmetries also needs to be further understood. Thus, rather than offering firm conclusions, the thesis raises further theoretical questions regarding the nature of the conceptions of rights and the power distortions observed. Only with further exploration of these issues can the vulnerabilities associated with environmental degradation and mobility be meaningfully addressed.

Bibliography

I.            Primary Sources

  1. Interviews with environment-related migrants and displaced persons
Number Pseudonym Gender Date Location
Goni Male 27th July 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Johir Male 27th July 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Mala Female 28th July 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Shumi Female 28th July 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Badol Male 31st July 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Emon Male 31st July 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Imtiaz Male 31st July 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Samiul Male 31st July 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Lalon Male 1st August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Shafiul Male 1st August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Amit Male 3rd August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Firoja Female 7th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Aisha Female 7th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Farzana Female 7th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Rehana Female 8h August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Momtaz Male 8th August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Monir Male 8th August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Shiraj Male 9th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Rupa Female 9th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Badshah Male 9th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Alo Female 9th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Chaity Female 10th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Nurul Male 10th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Mohima Female 10th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Kamran Male 11th August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Hasina Female 13th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Morshida Female 13th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
Nasir Male 16th August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Rumana Female 18th August 2016 Bhatara, Dhaka
Taslima Female 18th August 2016 Savar, Dhaka
  1. Interviews with government officials
Number Official Ministry Date
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs 25th August 2016
B Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief 31st August 2016
C Ministry of Environment and Forests 4th September 2016
  1. Interviews with academics and researchers
Number Name Designation Institution Date Location
Tasneem Siddiqui Founding Chair/ Professor of Political Science Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU)/ University of Dhaka 25th July 2016 Bijoynagar, Dhaka
Mahmudol Hasan Rocky Associate Researcher Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) 25th July 2016 Bijoynagar, Dhaka
Farah Kabir Country Director ActionAid Bangladesh 30th August 2016 Gulshan, Dhaka
Tanjir Hossain Manager – Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Justice ActionAid Bangladesh 30th August 2016 Gulshan, Dhaka
Ainun Nishat Professor Emeritus Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research, BRAC University 6th September 2016 Mohakhali, Dhaka
Roufa Khanum Lecturer and Coordinator Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research, BRAC University 6th September 2016 Mohakhali, Dhaka

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[1] The term ‘state’ is used to denote the political apparatus of the country in general, and encompasses the various arms and institutions by which its conducts its functions. It is differentiated from the term ‘government’, which is used to refer to the specific group of people in charge of running the state, which is currently led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, of the Bangladesh Awami League.

[2]This was as opposed to more slow-onset processes such as increased salinization. The reason for this, however, was due to issues of translation and communication faced during participant selection, which is discussed in Section II of this chapter.

[3]I am identifying the experience of disaster as a ‘tipping point’ for migration, in the context of conditions of poverty, thus keeping in mind the conceptual challenges of directly linking environmental degradation and mobility as outlined in Chapter 2.

[4] A rickshaw garage is a structure in which rickshaws, a commonly used form of transportation in Dhaka city, are parked. These rickshaws are generally owned by a proprietor who rents the rickshaws to rickshaw pullers in exchange for a certain proportion of their earnings. The rickshaw garage I visited was a structure made of bamboo and tin sheets; accommodation was also provided for the rickshaw pullers. The rickshaws were kept on the ground level, and the rickshaw pullers stayed on the second level.

[5] Mr Shameem Chowdhury held a Master’s degree from the University of Dhaka, and had worked as a researcher for various local and international organizations including USAID and UNICEF.

[6]Although, as aforementioned, the term ‘state’ has been used throughout the study to denote the political organization of the country, in the interviews, when asked about their interactions with the state, the respondents tended to speak specifically about the current government, led by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the locally elected officials in their area. Hence, although the respondents used the terms ‘state’ and ‘government’ somewhat interchangeably, the specific objects of their narratives were the elected leaders of their local constituency and the country. Thus, throughout the thesis, when conveying the respondents’ perspectives, I use the term ‘government’.

[7] I refer to notions of rights that are reflective of the principles enshrined in the international rights frameworks outlined in Chapter 2 as ‘Western’, ‘liberal’ or ‘universalist’. This is in line with similar characterizations by scholars such as Ellison (1997) (1999), Jones and Gaventa (2002) and Madhok (2009), articulated in Chapter 2.

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