ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

On Disasters

Vulnerable India: A Geographical Study of Disasters by Anu Kapur (New Delhi: Sage), 2010; pp xxi + 269, Rs 850.


--- - -
On Disasters Subhradipta Sarkar period, and finally, embarks on a discussion on the impact of globalisation in this discipline. Missed Opportunities Galore

hen in Chile 33 miners emerged from the underground alive after a 69-day ordeal, the entire world was awestruck! What was mesmerising was that the place of the incident was not any developed western nation, but Chile, a developing nation. So much so that in jest filmmaker Michael Moore told CNN’s Larry King: “...[N]ext time we have a hole (resulting in oil spill) in the Gulf of Mexico, we need to call in the Chilean government”.

Notwithstanding the fact that most parts of India are disaster-prone, meticulous planning and effective implementation in disaster management by the government are almost non-existent. Rather, there is an attitude of utter indifference. That is why even small-scale floods claim quite a good number of lives, yet we poohpooh the enormity of the matter using journalistic jargons, like “nature’s fury”. It took some mega-disasters in the last decade to shake the conscience of the Indian state to a large extent and affirm the fact that disaster management cannot be treated as a one off-programme of the regular administration, but requires special knowledge and expert intervention.

Vulnerable India: A Geographical Study of Disasters by Anu Kapur (New Delhi: Sage), 2010; pp xxi + 269, Rs 850.

Newer research and literature, gradually emerging in this area, have also played a pivotal role in this respect. And this work of Anu Kapur is a contribution to that knowledge bank.

Defining ‘Disasterscape’

Vulnerable India primarily deals with 16 types of geophysical disasters like floods to droughts, earthquakes to cyclones, dust storms to hailstorms – “the origin, evolution and functioning of which is independent of man” (pp 28-29). The book is broadly divided into three sections: “Fact”, “Response” and “Reality”. In the first section Kapur introduces a unique term disasterscape which she defines as “a place where human life is lost or damaged, relationships ripped and livelihoods disrupted” (p 5).

The Response section examines the traditional concept of natural disasters and the changes the western philosophy brought about – courtesy British rule – rues the missed opportunities in the post-colonial A disaster is not about the dead. Ironically, it is about the living (p 91).

In fact, our success in disaster management depends on the strategies and techniques we devise for the protection and amelioration of the living victims in the pre- or post-disaster situation. Whatever may be the origin of the term, there is no denying the fact that it was during the colonial era that an official structure to deal with disasters was set up. Whether it was the establishment of the Department of Revenue and Agriculture and Commerce in 1871 to deal with famines, or the Meteorological Department in 1875 to forecast storms, or to record the impact of disasters on people in the Imperial Census carried out from 1881 to 1931 – it was the British who sowed the seeds of modern disaster management.

After independence, disasters received stepmotherly treatment from every quarter of governmental activities. Citing various statistics, the author demonstrates that the five-year plans treated disasters as a fringe issue and confined them to relief and compensation. The First Finance Commission took note of the occurrence of several disasters, yet conceded “we have not taken these factors separately

january 1, 2011 vol xlvi no 1

Economic & Political Weekly


into account” and subsequent commissions repeatedly approved a meagre amount when compared to the actual demands of the states. Till date, we have failed to create a separate department or ministry of disaster management. We had failed to formulate a national law on the subject till 2005.

Even academia paid scant attention to the issue which is evident from the small number of theses available at the postgraduate level. The grievances of the author do not end with works undone, but also extend to those carried out with flawed planning. She elucidates it with a classic example from Bihar where the government spent Rs 800 crore between 1952 and 1998 on flood management only to witness the flood-affected areas increasing from 2.4 million hectares to 6.88 hectares! (p 181).

Wave of Change

In the past two decades there has been a new wave of mega-disasters, e g, the Orissa cyclone (1999), Gujarat earthquake (2001), and tsunami (2004) which attracted more attention towards the issue than ever before. Ironically, the 1990s were also declared as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction by the United Nations which called for an international cooperation on disaster management front. Then onwards several world conferences were held to review the progress and devise new strategies, etc, to which India was a party.

At home, some revolutionary changes in law and policy took place: the finance commissions allocated more funds for the purpose, the Tenth Five-Year Plan (200207) document had a separate chapter on disaster management, natural disasters, except droughts, were transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture to the more prestigious Ministry of Home Affairs. The most important event was the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, under which the national and state disaster management authorities and the national disaster response force came into existence. The National Centre for Disaster Management was upgraded to the National Institute of Disaster Management for undertaking research and c onducting training programmes and w orkshops (Chapter 6). Kapur maintains that recognition of the issue through those changes remained superficial and did not improve matters in practical terms.

Biting Realities

In the last section Reality, she has tried to explain the vulnerability of the Indian population. Although it “is complex and involves many tangible and intangible dimensions...some like social discriminations” (p 199), she has devised certain components and indicators in this respect; e g, (a) disadvantaged people comprising illiterate females, disabled people, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population, etc; (b) fragile living which include people living in kaccha houses, people living below the poverty line; and

(c) population lacking basic services like road linkage, persons to be served per doctor, etc.

She holds that the geophysicals have a greater impact on the vulnerable population, and thus these people contribute a larger share to the disasters cape. She has utilised these components and indicators to prepare a districtwise “vulnerability index” for the entire country and thus assessed the extent of vulnerability of the Indian population (Chapter 7). Kapur laments that lower income countries have suffered the brunt of disasters more compared to the higher-income countries (Chapter 8).

Achilles’ Heel

Despite its strengths, some aspects of the book require a introspection. Having an earlier opportunity to acquaint myself with the writing of Kapur through her a rticle “Insensitive India: Attitudes to wards Disaster Prevention and Management” published in this magazine in 2005, I find her to be preoccupied with statistics and Vulnerable India carries a mark of that throughout. In fact, such is the impact and spread of statistics that any reader would be tempted to conclude that a title “Vulnerable India: A Statistical Study of Disasters” would have been more befitting. For most of the portion of the book, it is a simple narration of statistics rather than going beyond the numbers and incidents and analysing them.

While the book explores the vulnerability of the population through numbers, there are more complex issues than presented therein. Let us elucidate with the example of the 2004 tsunami. The ocean-fishing communities were directly “affected” in terms of life, livelihood and property. However, there was a larger non-ocean fishing communities who were engaged in backwater and inland fishing, para- fishing (e g, shell collection, pearl collection, fish vending), coastal agriculture, etc, many of whose jobs were dependent on the ocean-fishing communities. Although the tsunami did not cause a huge loss of lives statistically among those communities, they suffered an i rreparable loss in terms of their occupational activities. Moreover, in the postdisaster era, while the ocean- fishing communities received much attention these people inland were largely neglected. And a frequent emphasis on numbers has actually hindered the absorbing nature of the text to a large extent.


Economic Political Weekly

january 1, 2011 vol xlvi no 1


Some portions of the book appear to be in total discord. In Chapter 3, “Traditional: Absorb and Appeal”, Kapur establishes the religio-cosmic cause of disasters. She has drawn many examples from Hindu mytho logy and attributed disasters to god’s fury and they are barely geographical. Again, in the next chapter “Colonial: The Idea of ‘Natural’ Disaster”, one would naturally expect to get information about the conceptual development of natural disasters and the administrative development regarding managing them in British India. Rather, it elaborately discusses the genesis of the term in Europe since the ancient ages but fails to link it to our colonial context.

After so much argumentation on the conceptual development of the “natural” disaster, Kapur misses an interesting notion developed in the recent past. Many scholars argue that natural disasters are primarily man-made and actually go by the concept of hybrid disasters. Though the so-called natural disasters are triggered by natural events, they are becoming increasingly man-made. Actually, they are so intricately linked that they must be considered together. Researches have indicated that floods and droughts are caused more by environmental and resource mismanagement than by too much or too little rainfall. Similarly, other disasters are also triggered by acts of nature, but magnified by unwise human actions.

The book should have travelled beyond the orthodox discussion of the impact of the geophysicals, and descended on issues related to climatic anomalies which resulted in certain unusual types of disasters to which the local population was not accustomed. It is of common knowledge that the north-eastern states are prone to flood havoc, but in 2006 the cumulative rainfall was deficient by 26% in the area. On the other hand, parts of Rajasthan – a state generally known for droughts – were severely hit by floods. Apart from widespread destruction of property, it claimed about 300 lives. The same was the case with the Mumbai rains in 2005. Such abnormal changes in climatic conditions have certainly aggravated the disaster situation in India.

Good Reference Guide

Regardless of certain flaws, one must concede that presentation of such diverse and detail statistics requires an enormous amount of research and such a collection would be hard to come by. It stands out in the crowd for its immense informative value. The book is an ideal reference material for students of disaster management, environmental science, environmental sociology, geography and development studies. The print quality, colourful graphs and maps will create an immediate positive impression on the minds of the intended buyers. Without exploring the contents of the book, it can be ascertained that the bibliography is of quite an exhaustive nature which in itself could be a rich platform for any further research in this subject.

Subhradipta Sarkar (subhradiptasarkar@ is with ITM Law School, ITM University, Gurgaon, Haryana.

New from SAGE!

Agrarian Crisis

Public Economics and Farmer Suicides

Theory and Policy Essays in Honor of Amaresh Bagchi

Edited by R S Deshpande and Saroj Arora Edited by M Govinda Rao and Mihir Rakshit

The essays in this volume bring out the multi-dimensional aspects of the agrarian crisis, and its impact on farmers’

Public Economics is a commemorative volume on suicides leading to public policy. A distinctive feature of

Dr Amaresh Bagchi, one of the foremost economic policy this collection is its holistic approach towards viewing

reformers of India, revered as a preeminent scholar in farm sector distress, instead of looking for isolated causes

tax policy and fiscal federalism in the country. Besides and solutions.

dealing with various important aspects of the subject of public economics and Dr Bagchi’s work—both theoretical The essays are based on the research and analyses and applied—other eminent scholars also add a personal conducted by academics and administrators from touch to the compilation. The reminiscences reveal different parts of the country. These examine the reasons Dr Bagchi, the man, as well as Dr Bagchi, the scholar.

for the growing agrarian crisis and increasing incidences of farmers’ suicides in specific regions of the country and

Dr Bagchi worked extensively on tax reforms, in particular, bring forth different shades of farm sector distress, which

the introduction of Value Added Tax. The essays in this in turn, leads to a better understanding of the situation.

volume critically analyse and discuss various issues The compilation also attempts to define a systematic

related to tax system reform in the developing world and policy line.

review the fiscal federalism literature from a developing and transitional country perspective.

Land Reforms in India, Volume 12 2010 / 464 pages / C 895 (cloth) 2010 / 364 pages / C 795 (cloth)

www.sagepub.inLos Angeles „ London „ New Delhi „ Singapore „Washington DC

january 1, 2011 vol xlvi no 1

Economic Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top