India’s Relief and Rehabilitation Efforts Need to Be Revised for a More Inclusive Approach to Disaster Management

India’s relief and rehabilitation efforts are short-lived and unable to comprehensively or proactively deal with disasters. With floods wreaking havoc throughout the country, there is a need to look deeper into the inefficiencies that currently mark these efforts and rethink how they can be made more inclusive and extensive.

The recent deluge of floods in Assam is not an anomaly. Based on the Central Water Commission data for years 1953 to 2016, an average of 26 lakh human lives are affected in the state every year due to floods. The data pegs the total damage of these floods at about ₹128 crore per annum. This year, over 2 lakh hectares of crop land has been affected due to flood water, critical infrastructure has broken down, and approximately 4.23 lakh people have been displaced.

However, inspite of having prior knowledge about these floods and the devastation they cause, the authorities have been unable to proactively deal with the disasters. Instead, they have resorted to reactive measures such as makeshift camps, distribution of relief material and repair of breaches in roads and embankments. This general ill-preparedness shown with respect to disaster management raises further questions about the government’s short-sighted approach to relief and rehabilitation efforts in the wake of the recent floods in Uttar Pradesh. 

Within this context, the following reading list explores the EPW archives to delineate the inefficiencies currently marking the country’s relief and rehabilitation efforts, alternative approaches to rehabilitation taken by the government, and the ways in which rehabilitation efforts can be revised and broadened so as to make them more inclusive.

1) What Are the Inefficiencies That Currently Mark Relief and Rehabilitation Work?

Dinesh Kumar Mishra observes that current relief and rehabilitation efforts suffer from serious flaws. First, interventions such as constructing houses after a disaster has struck, have now become more about the organisations that undertake rehabilitation efforts than about those affected. Second, considering the cases of downstream flooding, government officials often offer setting up of dams as solutions. However, these are not only superficial, but also suffer from bureaucratic sluggishness.Third, the increasing politicisation of relief work has hindered its ability to alleviate the plight of survivors and instead keeps their situation in the same disaster-stricken stages.

Relief however, is a political weapon and is a double-edged sword. It is a political weapon because by running relief operations, those who are favourable can be obliged and by not running relief, the opponents can be punished. At the time of elections both these commissions and omissions can be encashed. People become dependant on relief and that alone becomes their aspiration. It suits politicians that the people are dependent on them. It is a double-edged sword because a well managed relief programme postpones the debate about a possible solution much farther and if it is badly managed, it diverts the debate to the discrepancies in the distribution of the relief items. The real issues are relegated to background in either case. The debate does not go beyond the polythene sheets, ration, salt, candles and match-boxes, while the engineers strive hard to escape the blame of any flood related accident. Both often succeed because the issue is live only for three months, beyond which even the flood victims do not want to discuss it anymore, because it is sustenance, and not the flood that is of immediate interest to them.

2) Could Rehabilitation Efforts be Undertaken Through Public–Private Partnership Models?

Darshini Mahadeva analyses the state government’s decision to undertake rehabilitation efforts in earthquake-affected Gujarat through a Public–Private Partnership venture. This involved private entities adopting affected villages and constructing new houses for those who had lost theirs to the disaster.

However, private entities ended up losing on-ground support because they often tend to have a restrictive view of the village: 

(Private entities’)… treat[ment] [of the] village as [a] monolithic entity, invit[ation to] architects or engineers to design (thus having small variations in design with regards to use of material, size and facilities given), construction of a sample unit, caste-based acceptance or rejection, inability ... to handle grass roots complications, [their eventual] dejection … [and] withdrawal.

Given these issues, the government’s efforts to outsource part of the rehabilitation efforts to private entities invited criticism. The private actors’ inability to customise efforts to the community’s tastes and ways of life added to the perception of mistrust held by the people that the government was shying away from its responsibilities by passing the buck to those who could not be held accountable.

Not directly, but, indirectly, the people of Kutch have refused to accept privatising of earthquake rehabilitation efforts by the state government ... The Economic Times of May 18, 2001 reported that most of the 337 NGOs that had committed themselves to village rehabilitation have withdrawn from the field alleging lack of cooperation from the state administration and villagers. A report in The Times of India, Ahmedabad, June 13, 2001 states that of the 350 villages up for adoption, in only 130 the NGOs would go ahead with rehabilitation activities. In the rest, the gram sabhas have formally passed a resolution that they would handle the rehabilitation work themselves.

3) How Can Rehabilitation Efforts be Made More Inclusive?

Fair social and economic policies form an integral part of disaster management policies. Hans Nicolai Adam, Lyla Mehta and Shilpi Srivastava observe that the majority of the brunt during natural disasters is borne by those who are poor and only have access to severely inadequate infrastructure and housing facilities.

... Preparing for disasters has to go beyond improving forecasting accuracy alone. Responsive governance, coordination between civic agencies, public awareness and fair social policy are equally, if not more, important. This also raises wider questions regarding the current development model in India with its unequal, rapacious, and ecologically destructive practices. After all, these factors drive land use changes and atmospheric pollution, and aggravate climate change. In combination, they heighten the risks and susceptibility of large groups of marginalised.

Taking this point further, Kumar Das argues that there should be an accounting of the impact disasters have on the economic development of states, especially in those that are relatively backward and reliant on “crops and pastoral economies. ” Due to the lack of economic diversification and development, the devastation of natural resources in these states (such as Odisha) has a compounded effect on indirect variables such as livelihoods and opportunities. This further pushes them into vicious cycles of economic vulnerability (through food insecurity, nutritional insecurity, etc.), which eventually also hinders the economic growth of the country. Hence, as natural calamities have differential impacts, for states that are poor, disaster management policy should try to minimise the long-term effects calamities have on the states’ developmental processes.  

Jute farmers and weaving communities were destined to starve. The people of this region heavily depend upon coconut farming, banana farming and betel nut farming. All the coconut trees and betel nut trees were destroyed. As a result the coir industry of the state is completely shattered. The bamboo bushes are completely uprooted; as a result the basket making informal activities have been damaged. Most of the mango trees, the source of permanent income for many families, have been uprooted. Cashew growers and groundnut growers suffered the risk of livelihood. Similarly sugarcane growers in this regions have no hope of getting a penny from the land till today. The milk producers are suffering as cows were dead. There has been a serious crisis in the supply of milk and milk products in coastal districts till today. The procurement of milk by Orissa Milk Federation, which meets about 70 per cent of the demand, has been severely affected as the livestock population in Astarang, Kakatpur, Niali, Jagatsingpur, Balikuda, Ersama and Kendrapara were wiped out by the cyclone. More than fifty percent of the livestock population, which was an important source of income in the cyclone-hit districts were dead.

Additionally, Nikita Sud argues that intangible effects such as loss of livelihood doubly impact those who already suffer from marginalisation by society. For example, given the informality of their occupations, wage earners who have migrated to other places to earn already lack job security or access to stable shelter. In times of natural disasters, they’re made more vulnerable as their absence from the region’s records make them ineligible for compensation or benefits. Any rehabilitation effort then would naturally fall short until it makes space for those who do not “have a ‘card’, [or] a ‘stamp of legitimacy’.”  

Rudi found employment as a daily wage earner on the farms of the higher castes such as patels in December. She and her husband found shelter in the huts of some distant relatives. Come January 26, 2001 and Rudi finds herself without work. The attention of the patels who employed her has shifted to rebuilding their own houses, putting their own lives together. They do not have the resources to pay her. She has lost her shelter. Her relatives now live in a tent provided by a relief agency. They have no space for Rudi. Rudi and her husband, being migrants, are not registered in the village revenue records. They are not entitled to government relief. Non Government organisations often select beneficiaries using government records, ration cards and the like. Rudi is not registered and for all practical purposes she does not ‘exist’. She has not received compensation or a cash dole. She has not received food aid. She does not have a tent, kitchen equipment, clothes or any of the other relief material that have been doled out to the ‘legitimate’ inhabitants of the village. At the moment, Rudi is unemployed. And starving … Rudi’s immediate worry is not a roof over her head. It is survival.

Read More:

Dams and Development | Anant Phadke, 2002

Reflections on the Kutch Earthquake | Lyla Mehta, 2001



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