Building resilient infrastructures in climate vulnerable communities in India

Evangeline Arethwala

25 January 2024

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

People from remote communities are not responsible for climate change, but they are the most affected by it. Climate change has no boundary, however people from urban areas can cope because of resources, unlike people from remote regions. This is why it is important for me to build the capacity of remote communities by diversifying livelihoods and building resilience.

Nabaghan Ojha

According the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, India ranked seventh among countries most vulnerable to climate change. Agriculture plays a vital role in India’s economy, providing livelihoods to about two-thirds of the population. However, the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation significantly affects this sector. Climate affected rural communities face internal displacement due to agricultural losses, making them vulnerable to poverty, unemployment, poor health, and food insecurity.

In 2016, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) commissioned a Technical Assistance programme to support the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Government of India, to develop effective responses to climate change in three states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.

The Infrastructure of Climate Resilient Growth (ICRG) programme was designed to ensure remote vulnerable communities in these states can respond to and sustain the challenges of climate change through strengthened livelihoods and climate-resilient infrastructure, using Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the largest social protection scheme in the world. Inn 2020, the programme was extended to three more states- Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Commonwealth Alumnus Nabaghan Ojha is the Programme Lead for the ICRG programme in Odisha. In his role, he engages with State and Union governments to develop and implement adaptive social protection models to mitigate climate change in local communities.

Investing in infrastructure

In recent years, India has suffered infrastructural losses and damage due to extreme climate events, putting future infrastructure investment at risk. Despite this, there is limited awareness of the importance of sustainable, climate-resilient infrastructure and its benefit to rural communities.

To address this overarching challenge, Nabaghan sought to introduce climate responsive planning and design using the MGNREGS rural infrastructures related to land, water and forests.

Through MGNREGS, the Indian government strengthens rural infrastructure such as roads, natural resource management and land development, by employing local people to build rural infrastructure that will serve their communities.

“Adaptive social protection is a key strategy to address climate changes, especially with both the adaptation and mitigation roles of the country. Through these efforts, it is possible to contribute significantly to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, with a particular emphasis on SDG 13 – Climate action.”

To enhance the existing MGNREGS programme in Odisha and provide the climate-lens required for the ICRG programme, Nabaghan identified that he needed to strengthen evidence on the negative impacts of climate change on rural infrastructure.

To do this, he partnered with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru to conduct a climate-modelling study on historical and projected rainfall until 2050 in the prospective project areas. The data showed significant changes in rainfall over time, correlating with increased damage to rural infrastructure and reduced livelihoods for rural communities.

Based on these findings, Nabaghan designed climate-resilient interventions which could be incorporated in MGNREGS rural infrastructure plans.

“The ICRG programme adds value to the existing national scheme and rural infrastructures. If MGNREGS is building a check-dam, we provide climate vulnerability analyses on predicted rainfall and how this will impact the dam in the future. For example, heavy rainfall and flash floods will wash away the dam and so we provide expertise on how check-dams can be constructed to be more climate-resilient in the future.”

Adapting to climate change

In 2017, Nabaghan delivered ICRG’s first integrated climate resilient infrastructure in Jashipur Block, Mayurbhanj district. The integrated strategy included building one core infrastructure along with a few complementary infrastructures to benefit the wider community.

Following the success of the initial project, Nabaghan delivered a similar CRW project in Badbil Gram Panchayat, Saharpada block, Keonjhar District, Odisha. This remote region experiences increasing drought and flood, forcing people to abandon agricultural activities and migrate to urban areas.

People participating in agricultural farming in a field

Community-based farming in Sahadapur, Odisha

To prevent further migration and displacement due to climate change, Nabaghan and his team devised ways to change the landscape by developing 17 hectares of barren land, building waterbodies such as check-dams, irrigation channels and plantation activities to support agriculture. As per the objectives of MGNREGS, this provided employment opportunities for local people representing 80 households to build the infrastructures.


After 18 months and with investment of around 8 lakh under MGNREGS, 57 lakhs were leveraged from different schemes to introduce a variety of crops in the developed land and some infrastructure support to the villagers.  For ICRG, the implementation of waterbodies enabled Nabaghan to demonstrate the impact of these on drought-affected land and agricultural productivity which attracted interest and investment from wider stakeholders.

“Other government departments showed interest in IRCG’s work in Sahadapur. For instance, the Integrated Tribal Development Agency provided agricultural resources for the community to start farming. The Odisha Agro Industries Corporation installed water pumps and lift-irrigation pipes to support agriculture. The Odisha Livelihood Mission provided farmers with capacity building trainings and created self-help groups.”

This strategy gained popularity and as a result about a thousand climate resilient works (CRWs) were built across Odisha, benefitting over 2.5 million people.

As a result of the integrated project, households benefitted from employment opportunities and skills development and there was a decrease in the number of people migrating. The increased access to water has also supported farmers and communities to expand their crops and gain additional income from growing rice, mushroom and maize.

Due to the scale and success of the project and the integrated approach to ensuring the construction of climate resilient structures, Nabaghan is pleased to share it has been presented at UN Climate Change Conferences as an example of ways to adapt to climate change.

Developing a stakeholder network

Prior to joining ICRG, Nabaghan worked on another FCDO supported programme, the Odisha Modernising Economy Governance and Administration (OMEGA), a state level governance and finance reform initiative. He credits this in helping him form a strong understanding of governance and building government relationships which is important in his current work.

Whilst working at OMEGA, Nabaghan commenced a Master’s in Tropical Forestry through a Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholarship. Reflecting on his studies, Nabaghan feels the course broadened his understanding on climate change, natural resource management, and building community-based adaptation strategies. Studying alongside his work also meant he could immediately understand and apply his learning in real-world contexts.

“My Master’s provided me with actionable insights for addressing real-world challenges, particularly in the context of climate change.”

Nabaghan’s Master’s thesis explored community-based forest management as an adaptation strategy to climate change in India. Through his fieldwork and studies, he built connections with local community protection groups and forest management committees across Odisha. This laid the foundation to implement community-led initiatives for climate change adaptation at IRCG.

As a result of his Commonwealth Scholarship experience, Nabaghan introduced the Locally Led Adaptation and Mitigation (LLAM) model at ICRG, which seeks to engage communities in climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. He notes that while rural population may not know how to define climate change, they have traditional knowledge of the adverse effects of climate change. Through LLAM, Nabaghan engages local NGOs and civil society organisations to mobilise local communities to participate share this knowledge to support development projects

One of the ways in which he involves communities is by asking them to map out their priorities. He follows the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) model, which includes a prioritisation exercise, scoring technique, and analysing the durability, effectiveness and efficacy of a project. He also includes community games to promote awareness on climate change.

“We [ICRG] have introduced people-centred games such as Kunji, a card game, to promote awareness on the issues of climate change in their community and what they can do address these challenges.”

Through this community work, people from remote communities have been invited to share their experiences of climate change to support the successful implementation of the IRCG programme, and to contribute to state level government meetings and international platforms, such as the World Food Programme.

Securing a sustainable future

Nabaghan continues to use his networking skills to engage with government officials at the district and state level to advocate for the inclusion of remote communities in climate change policies and adaptation strategies.

He believes people in remote communities are highly capable of implementing climate adaptation strategies. Realising the success of the integrated approach to climate adaptation between ICRG and MGNREGS, in 2018 the Ministry of Rural Development introduced a new clause in the MGNREGS to adopt this approach in all its work.

“Pursuing my Masters was a game changer for me. Many things I learnt during my Scholarship I actually introduced in the ICRG programme. This is probably the reason why I got a leadership role in the FCDO supported projects I have worked on.”

Nabaghan Ojha is a 2014 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from India. He completed an MSc in Tropical Forestry at Bangor University.