Lots of zeal and money

But Gujarat has not laid a sound foundation to manage disasters after the 2001 earthquake

By Mihir R Bhatt
Published: Tuesday 30 November 2004

Lots of zeal and money

-- The 2001 earthquake in Gujarat was among the costliest disasters in independent India. As per World Bank reports, the calamity is estimated to have caused losses of us $4.9 billion in terms of output. Adding the losses suffered by the informal sector can easily double this figure. Moreover, the state exchequer has been burdened with a huge fiscal deficit of us $2.2 billion in the three years since the calamity.

Recovery has, however, been rapid. This has been helped in good measure by generous aid from international institutions and non-governmental organisations (ngos). The World Bank alone has put up us $257 million in the first phase of recovery, ending March 2003. This sum is meant for rehabilitation and reconstruction purposes. The Bank has also lent us $442 million for long-term recovery from the calamity -- this phase is supposed to end in 2005. The largest chunk of the money donated by the Bank has gone towards reconstruction of houses, repairing roads and bridges, and in making dams safe.
Poor financial recovery However, neither governments nor ngos save communities, make up for their losses, or help them recover. Communities in India recover on their own, with their own efforts, time and money. Gujarat is no exception. In Bhuj, a study of 14 low-income areas by the Disaster Mitigation Institution, Ahmedabad, shows that in the two years following the earthquake 9,800 low-income families alone invested a total of Rs 130 lakh into disaster recovery. Of this, they spent just over half on improving their shelter and invested the remainder into their livelihoods and businesses.

But individual recovery is not enough. It must be scaled up. One way of doing this is improving the investment climate in the earthquake-affected region -- both for outsiders and for communities who have suffered. The earthquake-affected should feel safe to invest their savings, however small, in their farms, businesses, shelter, and in education. Secondly, the recovery process must be even more inclusive: local communities, local officials, local skills and institutions such as the panchayati raj bodies should be its main promoters. Outside inputs have value, but the returns on such inputs are very likely to diminish over time. Thirdly, communities and civil societies -- and not hired consultants -- should monitor the recovery process.
A long way The task of making the recovery sustainable and establishing a sound foundation for disaster management has just begun in Gujarat. The focus is on safer macro-infrastructure and on public institutions that can deal with earthquakes. For example, the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (gsdma) is today quite well prepared to mobilise and manage large financial capital. Hardly any other state in India or even elsewhere has such capacity. After the earthquake, the Gujarat government commissioned a review of the state's building code; it also prepared a vulnerability atlas for the state -- the first time such an effort has been undertaken in India. Reconstructed houses have been insured against 14 types of calamities by the state government -- also the first time this has happened in India.

However, Gujarat has yet to build capacities for better management of natural capital such as water and forests. Building up networks, affiliations, trusts and mutual exchange to reduce disaster risks has just started.

Increasing capacities of gsdma and local and international ngos is just one way of being prepared for future disasters. Not enough is known of what communities require in order to be better prepared for calamities. Community recovery initiatives-- such as those by the Kutch-based ngo network Abhiyan in 200 villages, the European Union with 11 partners, and that by the Self Employed Women's Association with 40,000 affected women -- must be scaled up. But today there is very little effort in that direction.

Mihir R Bhatt is director, Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad

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