Integrating Sen’s Capability Approach in Climate Change Adaptation Projects : A Case Study from Eastern Himalaya

Mili, Bhupen; Barua, Anamika (2014). 'Integrating Sen's Capability Approach in Climate Change Adaptation Projects : A Case Study from Eastern Himalaya' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

IPCC (2007) makes it clear that climate change is real and is already taking place. The human development report (2007/08) states that the impact of climate change has threatened to erode human freedoms and have limited the choice of an individual. Governments in developing countries are continuously making efforts to enhance adaptive capacity of the local communities through various adaptation strategies. However, the adaptation strategies in developing countries are mostly project or resources driven. The problem with such project based approaches is that it focus on short  timescales and tend to neglect the longer- term perspective. Such approaches could be effective in the short run but they are not able to enhace people's capability nor generate opputunities or choices for people to lead a life that they have reason to value. Such project / resource based interventions do not realize that capabilities to convert resources into productive assets or to an opportunity vary from person to person, as it depends upon the socio- economic characteristic of an individual or community. In many instances as only a few benefits from such projects, it increases inequity amongst the local community. Therefore, climate change adaptation strategies need to be planned and implemented in such a way that in the long run, it can improve people's capability and enhance their resilience to climate change. In other words, there is a need to mainstream climate change adaptation strategies into the development policies of the region so that it leads to removal of major sources of un-freedoms in the forms of poverty, poor economic opportunities, social deprivation, repressive state etc.

Based on this argument a study was conducted in the State of Sikkim, India to see how 'Water Development Projects' initiated by the local government to enhance adaptive capacity of local community from natural disasters (including climate change) fails to show benefit due to absence of conversion factors and freedom of choice. The field survey was conducted in Namthang block  located in South districts of Sikkim. It falls in the rain shadow region of Darjeeling district and is a drought prone region. The local officials feel that the main reason of poverty in Namthang is water crisis. To overcome the problem of water shortage, the State and the local authorities have implemented a large number of physical interventions like rooftop rainwater harvesting; terraced field drainage trenches to increase the percolation of rainwater for recharge of ground water; spring shed development to restore the springs and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA) as an alternative livelihood program. These interventions were designed with an expectation that intervention in water sector would enhance availability and accessibility of water in the region, which in turn will ensure livelihood security, thereby reducing poverty and enhancing resilience to climate risk.

Specific questions

  • What is the water – poverty – livelihood relationship in the region?
  • Does social norms and customs limit community's (in particular women's) ability to participate in and benefit from water development projects
  • Will water intervention or water resource development projects be sufficient to enhance community's capability to convert resources into productive assets/ functioning by removing major sources of un-freedoms like poverty, poor economic opportunities, social deprivation etc in the study region? 

Technique and method used:

The techniques used to carry out the field survey were Focus Group Discussion and Key Informant Interviews.

The two main methods used in the research for quantification of the variables were Multidimensional Poverty Assessment Tool (MPAT) and Analytical Hierarchy Process. MPAT comprises two broad aspects Fundamental Needs and Rural Assets, Exposure and Equality


As mentioned elsewhere, one of the focuses of water development project was to enhance community's livelihood security. However, field survey revealed that majority of the farmers have very small land holding and therefore farming is mostly subsistence in nature. It provides food security to the people but not livelihood security. Thus, only a few farmers with large land holding and better access to market have benefited, which could enhance the inequity in the region. Although the water intervention in the region has benefitted some section of the population, the weaker section of the population has failed to benefit from such intervention due to lack of access to resources and limited public opinion. To reduce the hardship of women, the government has constructed various rainwater harvesting tanks to store water during rainy seasons, which can be also used during the dry season. Although women are responsible for collecting and providing water, the decision whether the tank needs to be installed at home or not rests with the men. Thus, social customs and norms limit women's access to participation and voice in the public and social sphere. In the implementation of MGNREGA, an employment guarantee scheme, the jobs created under the scheme are mostly temporary in nature and are generally unskilled manual jobs. Such jobs therefore do not generate a permanent or long-term employment opportunity among the villagers, thus not helping them in developing any kind of skills. Respondents also highlighted that lack of education, connectivity and economic opportunity as the main cause of lack of capability amongst them.

Although opportunities in the form of water distribution and employment opportunities in the form of MGNREGA were provided to the people in the region, it is also important to understand that people's ability to convert these resources into capabilities varies, due to personal, social, or environmental factors. Hence, such project-based approach to enhance community's resilience to climate risk, in the end fails to show benefits as it fails to expand community's capabilities and real freedom, due to the project's pre defined aims. It is important to understand community's as agent of change rather than merely beneficiaries of adaptation projects. This study therefore recommends that to enhance community's resilience to climate change, the interventions should be such that it enlarges the range of people's choices so that when climate disaster strikes them they will have a set of opportunities to decide how they would like to adapt to the new circumstances.


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