Opinion

‘Disruption is needed after disasters’

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on September 22, 2014 Published on September 22, 2014

EDWARD SIMPSON, Author-anthropologist

Natural calamities can rupture the socio-economic status quo, as an anthropologist discovers in Gujarat



A natural disaster is a lesson in philosophy, in a way. It offers new insights on life and living. The Gujarat earthquake of 2001 was one such. So transformative was its outcome that it changed the political and socio-demographic contours of the state in ways unimaginable, as Edward Simpson, anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, describes this in his book, ‘The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India’, which was released in India recently. In an e-chat with BusinessLine, Simpson spoke about the quake and its politics. Excerpts:

Why this book?

I had conducted research in Gujarat before the earthquake. At the time of the tragedy in 2001, my attention was drawn to the safety and plight of my friends in the region. I think it is fair to say that then Gujarat was a very different place. Things have changed, quite dramatically. The research I went on to do was often led by the trials and tribulations of my friends. For some, the earthquake changed everything; for others, very little changed. Both groups, however, had to endure the utter disruption of the aftermath. Back then, amid the grief and the shock, people were angry, there were protests and endless discussion about the delays and inequalities of post-earthquake reconstruction. Now, it is difficult to recreate that time in our imagination. The towns of the region have almost changed beyond recognition. People expect and want different things. Although rather impressionistic, I sense that people are more mobile. There are improved roads, infrastructure and then of course there is the industry, and the pollution and new kinds of population that has come along with it. I hope in some small way that the book I have written is a record of this remarkable transformation.

This book is a long-term study of what happened after a catastrophic natural disaster. I am an anthropologist, so my research was among the people affected by the disaster and not primarily on the agencies who worked first with first relief and then rehabilitation. I encourage the reader to think as broadly as possible about what aftermath is. If we look at the evidence from Gujarat, we can see that earthquakes can be used to push particular kinds of future, politics and ways of being.

The shock of an earthquake can be used to bring about industrial revolutions, or land grabs, proletariats can be created, and new forms of culture and politics can be encouraged to emerge. I discuss at length in the book how people have played with history, promoted certain historical figures over others, attempted to flatten older regional distinctions within Gujarat, and bring new gods and temples to people.

Why a ‘political biography’?

Many people I know in Gujarat have a deep interest in politics. This has always impressed me about them and it has influenced the ways in which I have seen Western Gujarat transform.

It is well known that electoral turnout in India is high; however, it is less often discussed how impressive the general knowledge of ordinary people is about the local political scene is. I think people I know there saw the aftermath of the earthquake as a political problem perhaps more than they saw it as a logistical one. I have used ‘political’ in the title to capture some of this spirit, and but also to point to the fact that humanitarianism, planning and such other operations also are a kind of politics, and never value neutral — no matter what those engaged in such activities may claim.

How has the Gujarat quake affected the people’s and the government’s outlook towards life and administration?

The earthquake brought neoliberal governmental reforms into western Gujarat in rapid, and dramatic ways. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) were visible, perhaps for the first time. New agencies with new titles initially confused people. I think it is fair to say that the transition to the new forms of government, although necessarily hasty, was poorly explained, and this became the source of much confusion and then in turn anger in western Gujarat. A great deal of money was available to ensure that buildings were safer, and the population density of the major urban centres was much reduced. Unquestionably, many parts of the region are both safer and more accessible now than they were before. However, the sheer complexity of reconstructing, retrofitting and imposing new building rules on the urban areas inevitably meant that some shortcuts were taken. A price will be paid for this in the future.

It might seem a strong claim, but I think the aftermath, by which I mean the key reconstruction period of five or six years, left a greater mark on the outlook of people than the disaster itself. The disaster was a disaster, it was short, ruthless and brutal. The aftermath in contrast was long, difficult and exhausting. For those who lived in towns like Bhuj and Anjar, it is difficult to convey how much they suffered at that time. The noise, dust and uncertainty was incredible. But, gradually, I think, hope shone through.

It has become obvious to me that people understand this earthquake and its consequences in such utterly different ways. They will draw their own conclusions from what I have written, regardless of what I conclude. I think this is an important lesson. You and I will not see the same things in earthquake; neither will a local person see the same as the state. Trying to understand how and why this is the case and what it means for our interaction and mutual confusion is a positive way of improving conditions in the aftermath of future disasters.

I have also learnt that disruption is necessary in the aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster. No amount of post-disaster management will do away with disruption altogether. Therefore, disruption must be used creatively as a way of engaging the many agencies, institutions and ideas that come together in an aftermath. I have also learnt that people have a great deal of creativity, resilience, and enthusiasm for life.

These positive attributes were generally not capitalised on in the aftermath of this earthquake. The aftermath of an earthquake is a long process, and should be treated as such from the outset. Auditing policy and the relationship between new emergency policies and older policies should be a core part of any reconstruction programme. The confusion caused by a number of contradictory policies in Gujarat led to a considerable amount of anger and anguish, which could easily have been avoided.

You’ve titled a chapter, interestingly, ‘Hyperbolic Capitalism’. Does this phrase explain the growth of Gujarat (which is disputed by many ) in the past decade?

I used the word hyperbolic because the rate of growth in some parts of the region affected by the earthquake was tremendous. A frontier mentality emerged, and industry of various kinds appeared across the region. Factories were put up at a tremendous rate. People descended on the region to profiteer. A friend joked it had become like the ‘wild west’ of cowboy films. I’m not an economist, and neither has this been the focus of my study, but on the whole people I know well in Gujarat are generally much better off now than they were before. How much of that would have happened anyway, is impossible to work out. But growth for growth’s sake, the saying goes, has the same mentality as a cancer. Economic growth is of course the buzzword of the moment, but what about quality of life, what about the longer-term consequences of such rapid industrialisation for the environment, and the social conditions of those who live there? These are secondary concerns, and they should not be. I sensed a great deal of excitement in the aftermath of the earthquake about the coming of industry, towards the end of this research I also sensed something of a sadness at the realisation that industry had changed the world and the changes were not always good.

Usually, tragedies unite people, cutting across caste and other differences. But you witnessed a different story.

The people who worked in the initial weeks after the aftermath have talked about the spirit of collective help that prevailed at the time. A few journalists, unsurprisingly, went in search of stories of inequality and discrimination. Such practices were probably not difficult to find, given that most societies are also extremely discriminatory even in normal times.

The longer-term consequences of the reconstruction programme have, however, been more divisive, not deliberately, but in their mostly unintended consequences. In urban areas I think it fair to say that social class played a greater role in the redistribution of people than then caste. Not always so, but often. Then there is the endless question about Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. There was deliberate exclusion at times, of this there is no doubt.

But in the longer term, housing reconstruction and the reconfiguration of urban areas has led to a greater distinction between the two populations. This is complicated, and not simply a product of the discriminatory policies of the State. I want to be clear on this. Soon after the earthquake a good friend of mine, a Muslim, built himself a new house in a suburb outside Bhuj. He lived there quite happily, without receiving compensation money from the state. Then, the widespread violence of 2002 left him and his family feeling vulnerable and isolated in the suburb. In addition, the State announced its compensation policies. Being a sensible man, he realised if he returned to his old house he could claim compensation. Therefore, he along with many other Muslims abandoned their new houses and moved back to their old neighbourhood and have remained there ever since. The term ghettoisation is often used now in academic literature about the ways Muslims inhabit urban space in Gujarat, but it should be clear that there are at least as many push factors as there are pulls.

You talk about how, after the reconstruction process was over, villages were ‘adopted’. And some of these were divided based on caste.

In this book, I have tried to make it clear the post-earthquake reconstruction is a long process and should be understood as such from the outset. At first, the village adoption scheme, which was in effect a PPP, led to the reconstruction of villages at a very rapid rate. However, many people thought that the houses built were inappropriate, often being grid-like structures, concrete boxes grafted onto hillsides, and unbefitting the cultural sophistication of life in rural India. However, the longer-term nature of this research has shown that many, not all, of these villages are now inhabited highly successfully by people. Who have made these villages their own. Places that once appeared a bit like concentration camps are now often vibrant and prospering.

Much of the reconstruction process adopted a participatory planning approach. The sensible idea is that you involve people in decision-making about the future. However, when this was managed badly, as it often was, in relation to village adoption this often meant villages dividing along caste lines, unable to come to a collective decision.

Disasters offer regimes fertile avenues for testing and applying authoritarian systems, because the people are will be in a state of vulnerability at the time. Was this the case in Gujarat?

Narendra Modi came to power in the name of the earthquake. For some years, his reputation was closely connected to the ways in which post-earthquake reconstruction was handled. He visited the region a tremendous number of times. The story that was allowed to emerge nationally and internationally about earthquake reconstruction was always one of success. And, if the measure of success is infrastructure and industrialisation then unquestionably he was successful. However, if we use other measures then the story appears less like a success.

You discuss the socially divisive intervention by organisations like BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. Was this a general trend or an exception at that time?

I have used the word intervention to capture the spirit in which people in the region experienced those who came to help. The humanitarians, who probably mostly thought they were working for the good of humanity, brought ideas which were quite alien to the local population. I’m not just thinking here of foreign NGOs, but of Indian organisations which through the structure of the PPP public-private partnership could and did impose their ideas on local people while constructing villages.

The country is grappling with yet another natural disaster — the J&K floods — as we speak. What are the lessons from the Gujarat quake on disaster preparedness?

PPPs were a speedy solution to rural construction. However, they carried with them all sorts of discriminatory politics and imposition. Confusions and contradictions in policy caused deep anxiety and insecurity amongst people who would already have suffered terribly. The language policy could have been much softer.

I suppose the broader question raised by post-earthquake reconstruction in the book is one of the future. At the moment, the focus is on growth, industrialisation, and infrastructure. But, the fundamental design of this economy is fossil fuel based. Coal=electricity, and an economic system=petro mobility of both labour and capital. Is this sustainable as other institutions and countries worry about sustainability? The book ends by saying “proper hope is a gift”. But that’s not easy to come by. Especially to those who are stricken by such tragedies. Your comments.

Some of Europe’s great 18th-century thinkers were encouraged to consider what hope meant in the aftermath of the earthquake which happened at Lisbon in 1755. It struck me while doing this research in Gujarat that many people there were asking very similar questions. Similarly, they reflected on the cause and origins of the earthquake and why it affected them in particular ways. Hope is an interesting commodity or spirit or emotion. Learning how to work with and gift hope, alongside material succour, is a neglected part of the humanitarian project. Hope gives direction, enthusiasm, and expectation. These qualities it seems to me were discouraged in Gujarat by a manufactured state of confusion, where things were sometimes so ludicrous and hopeless.

The Political Biography of an Earthquake is published by Oxford University Press

Published on September 22, 2014
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