Mili, Bhupen; Barua, Anamika (2017). 'Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment through the Lens of Capability Approach: A Case Study from Eastern Himalaya' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


  1. Introduction:

The impact of climate change varies within the same region due to differences in the level of vulnerability of different ecosystems, economic sectors, and social groups. Vulnerability have multiple interpretation and nuances in climate change literature (O’Brien et al., 2004). This study focuses on the contextual vulnerability which emphasized the capacity of an individual and social group to respond to, to cope with, or adapt to, any external stress placed on their livelihood, and well beings (Kelly & Adger, 2000). Vulnerability assessments are done using quantified set or composite of proxy indicators(Fellmann, 2012). These indicators focuses excessively on constraints and characteristics that are lacking in an individual/communities (income, access to school, health facilities etc.) while the factors (freedoms and opportunities) that contribute significantly to the ability of the individual/communities to convert resource into achievements still remains outside the purview of vulnerability assessments. It usually focused on what resources people have rather than what they can achieve from those resources, as such ignores specific circumstances such as social settings, opportunities and freedoms.

This study advocate Sen’s capability approach (CA) to understand the vulnerability of the rural mountain communities. As climate change threatens human development by limiting people’s ability to live long and healthy life, to have a decent standard of living, and to participate in community life with dignity and self-respect etc., (UNDP, 2009), it is important to look at climate change interventions from the perspective of capability approach.  The advantage of CA is that  it moves beyond the resource aspects to prioritizes capabilities, adopts a multidimensional views, and takes a broad focus on the constraints that may restrict human lives (Hick, 2012). The study proposes that vulnerability assessments should aim for improvement of people’s capabilities taking into account conversion factors and choices available to them.

 2. Methodology

   Study area

This study through a field survey in East District of Sikkim, Eastern Himalaya region of India, looks at the underlying causes of vulnerability of the communities by linking resources, capabilities and actual achievements.

 Technique used:

The techniques used to carry out the field survey were Focus Group Discussion (16 FGDs) and Household survey (141 HH) conducted in eight gram panchayat units.

 Methods Used:

The method used in the research for quantification of the variables was Multidimensional Poverty Assessment Tool (MPAT) developed by Cohen (2009).

The results of MPAT were further assessed through content analysis and interpreted through capability approach concepts to understand the underlying causes leading to vulnerability among the rural mountain communities. 

3. Results:


Assessment of multidimensional poverty in East Sikkim shows that there is mild and moderate deprivation despite various interventions and investments made, as all the ten components of MPAT have a score below 80% while a score of 80-100% reflects no deprivation. Among them education (46%), and health and health care (59%) are the two most important concern areas with relatively high level of poverty in the district. Similarly, the fundamental needs such as sanitation and hygiene (66%), food and nutrition (67%), housing and energy (66%), and water supply (75%) also require attention in the district as the status falls in the mild deprivation (60-80%). Although various initiatives have been undertaken by both the Central and State Government to improve the status of communities, achievements have been low in this regard.

Capability Approach:

This study for further analysis specifically focuses on the underlying causes leading to lack of achievements in three components - education, health and farm assets - as these are crucial for climate change adaptations. The responses from the household survey and FGDs shows that achievements in education, health and farm assets are mediated by the social conversion factors (institution of caste, tribe and gender). For example, in education, the perception on percentage of children who are likely to drop out of schools were higher among other backward caste (OBC) (50%) and Schedule tribe (ST) (67%) communities as compared to responses from the general caste (5%). Similarly, within the same caste and tribe, the perception on female child dropping out of schools were higher as compared to male child of the same household. There are also reports of variation in chronic illness with higher percentage of respondent among ST (49%) and OBC (29%) household who are suffering from chronic illness. Opportunities for employment is also limited among the communities with majority across caste and tribes dependent on subsistence farming. For example, 79% general, 83% OBC and 100% ST household are solely dependent on agriculture for livelihood and they were of the perception that they have undertaken the present occupation under compulsion.

This variation in capability to convert the interventions in education, health and farm into achievements could be due to various factors, however some of the most prominent observations made in the selected study sites are linked to traditions, history, and culture of the communities. It is important to mention here that intergenerational transfer of knowledge and human resources have influenced the capabilities of the present generation. For example, children of general household who had never suffered discrimination in the society have a better access to education/knowledge than compared to those children of OBC/ST household who have suffered historical deprivation/isolation in the society.  Caste system among Nepalese society in Sikkim are very similar to that prevalent in a Hindu society where the upper caste Brahmins still maintains social distinction and follows norms of caste purity/impurity. Occupations traditionally depend upon caste hierarchy in the society. For example, traditionally it is the general households who are the land owners, OBCs are mostly farmers and artisans, and the lower caste are the laborers and performers of menial task. Although agriculture is the primary activity of the communities, culturally they have their own occupation on the basis of the caste/tribe they belong to. Findings from the field also suggest that general communities are more educated as compared to the lower caste such as OBC and ST communities, who are socially and educationally backward, due to history of deprivation/isolation they have faced.

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