How are different communities impacted by the environment? – Discussion with Politics on Toast (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this discussion here.

Different communities also experience environmental problems and climate impacts differently.

The engaging discussion with Politics on Toast, a student group from Daulat Ram College, Delhi University, continued with no signs of stopping. After tackling the first question in our group discussion—how do different communities contribute to environmental degradation?—we tackled our second question. Here’s what came out of that discussion…

How do environmental degradation and climate change impacts differ for different communities?

While the richest 10% of the global population contribute almost 50% of the carbon emissions that drive climate change, the poorest 10% experience its worst impacts.

This is largely a factor of the economic and social status, which makes them more vulnerable to environmental problems because they lack the resources to adapt. However, that is not to say that the well-off communities in rural and urban areas face no problems; they do, but the problems are different.

The urban landscape

The urban environment is most stressed when faced with natural disasters and extreme weather events. There are also problems related to waste management, poor hygiene, lack of natural spaces and inadequate (clean) water.

Each socio-economic group faces this problem differently.


The low-income group

The low-income group in urban areas are often cramped into slums. The slums are, more often than not, in low-lying areas that were previously some form of a water body, or in areas in the outskirts of the city (and are therefore poorly developed with essential services and infrastructure). This puts them at substantial risk and is physically the most affected group in an urban landscape.

This group is also psychologically affected. When disaster strikes, they not only need to fend for their families with the meagre amenities they have, they also are likely to lose their jobs as an after-effect of the disaster. Most low-income groups are an assortment of migrants who depend on daily wage labour or do odd-jobs to make ends meet. They depend on the middle- and high-income groups for jobs. When disaster strikes, the middle- and high-income groups tighten their purse strings. We saw this in full display during the COVID lockdowns. This puts enormous stress on their mental health. It does not help that most members of this group have liquid cash, which may get destroyed if there is any form of natural disaster.

The middle-income group

This group is slightly better off than the low-income groups, but not by much. They have access to some basic amenities, and this they hoard when some form of disaster strikes. Several individuals in this group also face psychological worries because any form of disaster (physical or health-related) strains their limited savings. They are also likely to lose their jobs, which might slowly push them into the low-income group.


As mentioned in Part 1, this group has the ingenious ability to adapt through jugaad. This, more than anything else, is what helps them cope with disasters and find a way through.

The high-income group

You might think that the urban high-income group is left relatively unharmed because of their privileged position, but you’d be wrong. Yes, they live in well-off areas with the best facilities, but that probably makes them ill-prepared when any major disaster strikes. One student talked about how disruption in electricity and water during the Hyderabad floods put a lot of strain in the households near her home, because the situation was completely alien to them!

This group, largely comprised of business persons, are also at risk of incurring huge losses during major disasters like floods or pandemics. This, in turn, has a domino effect on the other communities of the city.

Every disaster is an opportunity, especially for high-income groups
Gap selling designer non-medical masks. Source: Sourcing Journal

But it is important to acknowledge that this group has the greatest bandwidth to adapt, not just financially but also psychologically. They are agile and have resources to quickly adapt. This group has greater choices, better access to basic resources and health, and a buffer to fall back on. So, they can withstand these losses better. The business owners and entrepreneurs make a business out of the negative impact and gain an advantage: designer masks for COVID, air purifiers for air pollution, RO water purifiers for water pollution.

The rural landscape

Between urban and rural communities, it’s hard to compare who gets impacted worse as the manifestation of these impacts is different.

The low-income group

The rural low-income community largely depends on outdoor work. When climate-related disasters strike, the natural capital they depend on for work is destroyed, leaving them unemployed. If this doesn’t happen, their employers (from middle- and high-income groups) discontinue their (mostly informal) employment to cut their losses.

They are usually equipped with the worst infrastructure and services available in the area. They depend on community resources, which is the first to disappear when there is a calamity.

village wells common resource
Access to village commons is critical for the low-income groups. Source: Tamil and Vedas

Access to resources is gender disproportionate. Women and children have to work more, especially if the men of the household need to migrate in search of work.

As a result of these hardships, they are forced to prioritize. If children of this community go to school, it is likely that they will drop out to lend a helping hand in the household, or to save money from the school fees.

Things are truly disastrous.

The middle-income group

Usually small, medium landowners. They own assets, so they face direct losses from climate impacts on their assets. They are left in a precarious situation after any disaster: do they stay and rebuild? Do they migrate? There is usually no guidance.

Like the low-income groups, they too suffer because infrastructure and access to basic services is quite poor in rural areas.


They are also likely to fall into debt traps. Members of this community borrow regularly from large landowners and moneylenders of the village, and with losses from disasters, they are left in a deep hole. They might have their assets seized and turned out, or they would have to borrow more to try and rebuild, leaving them much worse off than before.

Finally, the high-income group

This group also faces several challenges, the largest of which is through losses they incur on their assets. This group is dominated by large landowners, whose businesses are disrupted if their crops are damaged, or if the transportation channels are disrupted. They also face losses because the money they lent to other income-groups is virtually gone.

Even they face trouble accessing amenities, but usually harness their social standing to informally gain preferential access to better healthcare, water and electricity during any disaster.

Like their urban counterparts, though, they have a good buffer to fall back on. Therefore, they will bounce back easily, exploring new avenues if needed to return to their comfortable lives.

Clearly, each type of community contributes to environmental problems differently, and faces different impacts from the same event. Therefore, it hardly makes sense for government to define uniform policies as we try to minimize environmental degradation and seek to adapt to climate impacts. Can we use our understanding of the interaction of different communities with their environment to define better, customized policies? The students thought so and came up with some brilliant suggestions. We shall see what they were, in the next part of this series.

Featured Image Source: The Wire.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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