Keep the poor in focus

That is what victims demand of the disaster management bill

By Mihie R Bhatt
Published: Wednesday 31 August 2005

Keep the poor in focus

-- After the Disaster Management Bill was introduced in parliament, field workers of the Ahmedabad, Gujarat based-All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (aidmi) sought opinions of victims of some recent calamities. People affected by the 1997 drought in north Gujarat, the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat's Kutch area, the 1998 cyclone in the state's Kandla port and the 2004 tsunami welcomed the bill. We queried them a bit more and they came up with their demands.

First, the focus has to be on the poor among victims, we were told. "The poor are the first to be affected and the last to recover," our respondents pointed out. They had a point. All records show that two out of the three disaster victims are from the poorer sections of society. "The bill does propose a string of funds to mitigate disasters. But it should make it quite clear that the finances will go first to the poor among the disasters victims," our interlocutors added.

Secondly, they wanted the authorities to ensure that damaged assets are replaced with durable ones. "Don't just give us a new shelter or a boat or a road or a shop but make these assets safe from earthquakes, floods or tsunamis," the victims said. They have a point, again. The shelters built after floods in Gujarat last year were lost in floods this year. The bill must ensure that this does not happen. The reconstructed assets must be safer and sustainable. They should also be insured against all future calamities. aidmi's experience with victims of two recent tragedies -- the Gujarat earthquake of 2001 and the Ahmedabad riots of 2002 -- shows that the victims are willing to pay for insurance if that takes care of their concerns, and does not merely serve interests of insurance companies.

Effete authorities The bill could easily result in a web of authorities across India. Salaries and establishment charges of these bodies could gobble up major part of public resources allocated for disaster management. But the new legislation must ensure that these bodies are not just cost effective, but also accountable to the victims. Local labour and locally available materials should be used for reconstruction. Doing that would ensure the economic recovery of the victims.

The new legislation must ensure that victims are active participants in the recovery process and not passive receivers of dole and compensation. There is a belief that disaster victims are passive recipients of charity. That's absolute perfidy. In India -- and in many other countries -- victims help each other, much before external help arrives. The poor recover with their own enterprise and innovations. For example, the 3,000 slum-based businesses with whom aidmi is working since the Gujarat 2001 earthquake have shown much enterprise. They have put in two to four times more money compared to the relief they received. Such relief work, however, is never reported in newspaper, and other media.

Let local bodies decide Finally, let state and national governments plan and finance, but local authorities must decide where to spend money and how. All disasters have local impacts. So, the responses must be rooted in local realities. Today, we rely on top-down procedures to assess damage, manage relief and promote recovery. In this process local democratic institutions such as panchayats and nagarpalikas are bypassed. So-called "swift response action" by the state and the Centre actually extends long-term recovery. A few lives are saved and some shelters are rebuilt, but recovery remains slow. Consider what victims of the recent tsunami have to stay:"The temporary shelters built by outsiders, government and non-governmental organisations have really delayed the reconstruction of permanent shelters in tsunami-affected areas."

The bill might well earn accolades in the short run. But it will not effect much change in India's disaster management capacity without addressing demands of victims of recent tragedies. Now it's up to us and the government to put their demands at the centre of the legislation.

Mihir R Bhatt is director, All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

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