Inclusive Sustainability: Ensuring Climate Change Policies Address Persons with Disabilities

October 28, 2023

Among the most climate-vulnerable groups or weaker sections of society, persons with disabilities (PwDs) have been facing extreme challenges due to climate change and disasters than others. [1] As October and November are usually anticipated as natural disaster months in Odisha, the government and its leading departments usually meet to stocktake the preparedness proactively. Early this month, the government concluded such a high-level preparedness meeting by infusing effective coordination among relevant agencies. Are we providing active, advanced, appropriate care to the PwDs in such preparations, planning and executions?

Odisha has been the laboratory of climate change and natural disasters for over two decades, mainly after the heat wave of 1998 and the Super Cyclone in October 1999. Climate-induced disasters like floods, cyclones, heat waves, forest fires, drought, etc., have visited Odisha frequently. In the last 110 years, various disasters have happened 100 times in Odisha. Warming of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal (including the Arabian Sea) is expected to facilitate increased cyclogenesis in the Bay of Bengal with high-intensity cyclones in the coming decades. Heat waves and urban flooding will be a regular feature in the coming decades in India. As Odisha has been ahead in minimizing the loss of lives during disasters among other states in India, arguably, it is expected to devise a comprehensive strategy for the PwDs to deal with disasters on mission mode beyond only zero death targets.   

Due to discrimination, marginalization, inherent vulnerabilities, limited access to knowledge and socio-economic compulsions, the PwDs are disproportionately at higher risk from the adverse effects of climate emergencies. PwDs will likely have more difficulties during required rescue, evacuations, response, relocation or recovery. Inherent limitations make PwDs more vulnerable to extreme climate events, loss of ecosystem services and negligible prospects for adaptation and resilience. It is commonly observed that PwDs are left behind or abandoned during evacuation except with solid family values. Moreover, relocation places are inaccessible. Many times, the PwDs are not allowed in shelters as they wrongly perceive that they need complex medical services.

Despite 15% of the world's population being PwDs, the climate actions are not fully reflecting the seriousness of addressing the rights of PwDs. About 3.2 per cent of Odisha's population comprises PwDs, the highest in the country as per the 2018 (National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) Report.  While nearly 50 per cent are in the age group of children and youth, 3 per cent are male, and 3.5 per cent are female with multiple disabilities. In Odisha, PwDs are higher in rural areas than in urban areas. There are 2.68 crore PwDs in India who constitute 2.21 per cent of the total population. Out of which male constitutes 1.50 crore and 1.18 crore female. The PwDs include persons with visual, hearing, speech and loco-motor disabilities, mental illness, mental retardation (intellectual disabilities), multiple disabilities and other disabilities. Hence, PwDs, as the heterogenous group, require the employment of different but specific targeted requirements.

Although the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Sendai Framework (20215-30) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2015-2030 categorically put PwDs as one of the most climate-vulnerable groups dedicating special provisions, the PwDs have mainly been left behind in decision-making processes at global (UN Climate Conferences), national (national climate action plans) and local (state climate action plans, state disaster plans, city disaster or climate plans and village disaster plans).  

In a paradigm shift towards PwDs, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), adopted in 2006, mandates countries to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of PwDs during natural disasters, among others. Similarly, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWDA) 2016 of India directs the participation of PwDs in the disaster risk management (DRM) process. There are hardly any instances of active participation of PwDs in any of the DRM or Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) or any climate action plans irrespective of national, regional and local levels. Even the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMA), which are supposed to inform such PwDs of any risks under disaster preparedness, evade such responsibility.   

At the initial stage of the Pandemic in March 2020, the State government considered suggested measures to make the fight against pandemic disability inclusive, from making disabled-friendly facilities and quarantine centres to sharing information in an accessible format for the PwDs. Besides using sign language during COVID-19 updates as a means of communication for the deaf or hard of hearing, however, those concrete inclusive suggested measures remained in the paper.  Similarly, on December 20, 2019, the state government declared to establish a dedicated Cell for the PwDs headed by a PwD at Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) to address all issues related to climate change-induced disasters. However, it is yet to be functional as envisioned. The Odisha State Disaster Management Plan 2017 notes the vulnerability of PwDs. Merely taking notes or mentioning in detail the international and national provisions for the PwDs may not provide the required care to the PwDs. Can it be possible for all the information or press briefings of OSDMA to be available in formats accessible to PwDs, including sign languages, at least 24/7? Let us be sure that the OSDMA and Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) websites are PwDs friendly.

Undoubtedly and unintentionally, the PwDs are often left out of plans and decisions about their local areas and well-being while preparing. Consequently, the plans are ineffective in addressing the special targeted care for the PwDs. Hence, the participation of PwDs must be mandatory in designing and implementing climate change action plans and disaster management plans from national to local. In addition, the UN Framework on Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) has approved youth as one of the official stakeholders in the climate negotiating process during the last Conference of Parties (COP 27) in Egypt.  In Odisha, as the youth constitutes half of the total PwDs, it must be guiding principles to consider PwDs as primary stakeholder and facilitate their active participation in any decision-making process related to climate change and disasters.  


[1] The term' persons with disabilities' (PWDs) is used to apply to all persons with disabilities, including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Author Note
Avilash Roul (PhD) is a Senior Fellow at the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi, and a Principal Scientist at Periurban Initiative.