Houses of cards

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HOMES were rebuilt, but the pastures vanished. Money came pouring in but trades were lost. And now the reconstruction of the quake-devastated Marathwada villages by urban thinkers resembled a Babelian confusion. The result: the rehabilitation of the people ended up disrupting the village ecosystem.

"Everyone -- the government, the NGOs and individuals -- has done very good work to ameliorate our sufferings. Water was provided on a war footing and disease controlled. Roads and houses have been built. But no one is bothered about agricultural development. Do your programmes end once the houses are built? Are we rehabilitated?" Shivaji Madhav Jadhav's query had no concrete answers.

Jadhav, the sarpanch of Nandurga village in Latur district was speaking at a workshop on relief assistance and rehabilitation held at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Bombay, between January 9-11 this year in collaboration with the European Community.

Jadhav's demand was simple: give back the thousands of cobblers, potters, blacksmiths -- "all those whom you call the rural artisans" -- their trades. And that was just one of the many complex issues at hand.

S Parasuraman, head of the TISS's Rural Studies Unit, said that the workshop was organised to learn from the mistakes made in dealing with the Marathwada victims, "and formulate policies for disaster preparedness, relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation".

Jadhav's poverty-stricken village, which was once home to 2,756 people, was flattened. While the initial relief efforts were laudable, the state of rehabilitation today is sordid.

In Latur and Osmanabad, 52 villages are to be relocated. This militates against all modern precepts of earthquake rehabilitation, which emphasise rebuilding and relocation at the devastated sites themselves.

Of the 30,000-odd houses in these villages, nearly 8,000 are to be reconstructed with the help of a variety of donor agencies. The remaining 22,000 houses, and the infrastructure in almost all the 52 villages, are to be developed by the government of Maharashtra, aided by the World Bank.
Grand delusions But the grand designs of urban architects ignore local sensibilities. More than 33 types of "earthquake resistant" designs have been approved by the government. But, says Sreemay Basu, director, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, "I wonder how many of the designs would stand the test of science. For instance, Nubian vaults are no longer considered vibration resistant. Yet some groups are promoting such designs. It costs Rs 1 lakh to test a model. Given that Rs 1,100 crore is going to be spent on rehabilitation efforts, shouldn't the prototypes have been tested scientifically?"

The local people have their own ways with these new-fangled designs. Instead of living in them, they use them to store grain and other valuables. In most structures, a thatch lean-to (extension) propped against the toilet wall is the kitchen. "We find the houses too small. We did not want the toilet so close to the house, as it's unhygienic. But who asked us? We now sleep in the open," says a villager from Talan. Not only have the new, large village sites endangered the sense of community, they resemble industrial workers' barracks.

Timetested topography -- in drought-prone Marathwada, the fact that waterbodies determined the location of village sites -- has been largely ignored. The new sites have little access to aqua pura.

"This had major implications on construction activities, too," says Aromar Revi of The Action Research Unit for Development (TARU), a NGO involved in housing earthquake victims in Uttarkashi and Marathwada. In the absence of water, cement for reconstruction could not be thoroughly cured and lacks proper strength. "I would not be surprised if many of the buildings crack and ultimately crumble, causing even worse disasters," Revi warns.

About the relocation of Killari, the worst hit village, Praveensinh Pardesi, collector of Latur, said, "More than 400 families want to be resettled in their original village. They find the lack of water and the distance of the new site from their agricultural fields a major problem."

Most reconstruction sites are on marginal, rocky agricultural lands, with a sparse yield of tur (arhar). The fertile block-cotton soil is not considered suitable for construction. But the villagers once used these very areas as grazing grounds. Crop residues here gave them fuel. In effect, biomass availability has reduced, which is bound to further affect the village poor.

Chronic myopia
The administration's myopic vision was evident. "India does not yet have an effective policy to cope with and rehabilitate those affected by natural disasters," says Pradeep Kumar, a physician working with the victims of the Uttarkashi earthquake, reminding that we are midway through the United Nations Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

Of India's 33 states and union territories, 24 seem to be particularly prone to disasters like droughts, floods, cyclones and earthquakes. Most states suffer from more than one type of disaster.

Financial losses are immense, and relief expenses affect development work in other regions. The planners' dilemma is whether to sink money into disaster prevention/preparedness or to bank it for a rainy day, after disasters actually strike.

David Nyheim of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), Brussels, said, "The US Geological Survey has recently calculated that US$ 40 billion invested in earthquake damage mitigation over the next decade would reduce worldwide disaster losses by US$ 280 billion, a figure that accounts only for financial, not human and other less tangible, losses."

Yet disasters in developing countries are treated as unique events and relief measures ignore their socioeconomic and ecological contexts. Till recently, it was assumed by donor agencies and governments alike that more relief from developed countries automatically meant better natural disaster management. But such funds blur the gap in our understanding of the relation between disaster-aid and development.

In recent years, while the incidence of disasters has remained about constant, the magnitude of each disaster has increased. This is a direct consequence of the vicious cycle of poverty, population increase, increasing marginalisation of the people, and the degradation of natural resources. "While countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh are in geographically vulnerable locations, their main susceptibility comes from weak social and economic structures," says epidemiologist and CRED director Debarati Guha Sapir.

In turn, disasters botch up social and economic conditions, eroding existing health, education and other social services. Most disasters tend to further polarise social and economic divisions. Economically weaker sections, like the scheduled tribes, the scheduled castes, nomads, rural artisans and agricultural labourers are the worst hit.

Worldwide experience shows that relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts often do not allow communities to return to pre-disaster levels of development. Rather, communities are left more vulnerable than ever.

Nyheim says that over the past 40 years, the immediate material damages due to disasters in Asia alone is about US $15 billion. But these figures relate to direct effects and not post-disaster impacts like epidemics.

In fact, as Sapir cautions, "The cost of disasters is difficult to ascertain." The death of a young man in floods can be roughly estimated in terms of his average estimated productivity. But how about the future mental health of his children?

"The environmental connection is ignored in interventions during disasters as well as for disaster preparedness. This can lead to more disastrous results in the future," says Dwarkadas Lohia of Manavlok, a NGO working in the neighbouring district of Beed.

"Relief operations often damage or reduce the effectiveness of local coping mechanisms," says Kumar." He spoke of how local medicine men and masseurs, and even those able to provide psychological stress relief, were ignored. Such men often have better access -- logistical and emotional -- to disaster victims.

Lohia adds, "For the first 24 hours, neither the government nor the NGOs could reach the affected villages. Yet hundreds of people from neighbouring villages came to their rescue. We did not try to involve them in the subsequent operations."

One consequence of this has been the total neglect of the mental health of the earthquake affected. "The general response of the bureaucracy to mental health issues is, 'How many people have gone mad?'" says psychiatrist Mohan Agashe (also a popular filmstar), the director of the Maharashtra Institute of Mental Health, Pune.

Disaster management consists of 2 stages: planning and preparedness. Pre-disaster planning comprises prevention and mitigation, or at least minimising the damages. Preparedness focuses on response, and emergency aid prepares ground for the reconstruction and rehabilitation phases, ensuring that vulnerability is reduced and recurrences are minimised.

Nyheim flays current disaster management for its ad-hocism: "Development planning needs to take into account the possibility of disasters so that scarce resources are not wasted when a disaster strikes. Often such disasters upset the very development initiative."

Nyheim emphasises the need to reduce people's vulnerability to disasters. This means the implementation of disaster preparedness measures at both the institutional level (governments and social organisations) and local community levels. Revi elucidates, "Communities learning to build earthquake resistant housing, using local knowledge and material, would go a long way in rehabilitating people in Marathwada, rather than importing prefabricated concrete slabs and constructing houses with them."

The immediate necessity is to "avoid isolated, short term, relief-based operations, which are geared more to the symptomatic manifestations of disasters," says P V Unnikrishnan of the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI). Unplanned relief work often leads to donors dumping medicine and food items which have crossed their expiry dates. "In almost every tinshed settlement, huge dumps of canned milk can be found. But most of them have gone bad. It is quite possible that many children consume them and fall ill," Unnikrishnan reveals.

Ignoring the cultural sensitivity of the victims leads to great emotional distress, with women suffering the most. Many women speak of how during the initial relief efforts they were offered high-heeled shoes. Neelam Gorhe of the Pune-based Stree Adhar Kendra narrates a touching experience. She was distributing saris among women victims, when someone asked, "Didi, you are a woman. Why are you distributing saris only? Don't we need blouses and petticoats, too?"

These minutae of consideration, often available only with those close to the victims, are often swept aside by the bulldozers of reconstruction. "In fact," says Lalit Mathur, former deputy director general, Council for the Advancement of People's Action & Rural Technology, "Such mobilisation may itself lead to generating a participatory development process and the mitigation of the impact of a disaster."

In turn, prepareness would require the development of institutional mechanisms for comprehensive community participation in the implementation of relief and rehabilitation, training for local human resource development, and the building up of information systems for relief and rehabilitation planning and cooperation.

At the macro level, it is necessary to develop structures for disaster response and reporting, preparing strategies for cooperation between the NGOs themselves and the government.

But how is all this to be done? Parasuraman says, "We require a needs-assessment and relief distribution agency, which could be centralised over several villages, but having counterparts in every settlement. This would enable the assessing of community needs and the proper channelisation of relief and rehabilitation efforts."

Parasuraman believes that apart from training people about what to with the aid they receive, "the donors also have to be educated about local people's needs and expectations." But ideological conflicts amongst NGOs often hamper this.

The role of citizens' committees at all levels and involving a wide spectrum of people could possibly help. Armaity Desai, director, TISS, is pragmatic. "We need to explore the possibilities of forming such bodies through panchayati raj institutions and bodies created under the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments."

Core issues like the pattern of post-disaster development, which increases the vulnerability of people by increasing their dependency on external agencies, have to be addressed. And, says Unnikrishnan, this is possible only through a national debate.

But the emphasis clearly has to be on economic and social development, as 2 UN resolutions have stressed. The UN also recognized the clear political dimensions of many disasters and emergencies and their consequences. The philosophy of both the resolutions is encapsulated in the concept of the "relief to development continuum" which includes 3 important ideas:

• That a continuum is being dealt with, instead of a set of rigidly defined stages of preparedness, relief and rehabilitation

• That the former concept of disaster management continuum has been expanded to include resumed sustainable development

• And that the aim of activities in the continuum must be to move from relief to rehabilitation and reconstruction to resumed development at the earliest opportunity.

But a treatment continuum, by definition, demands a continuity with the past, with traditions, cultural expressions and sensibilities, local community wisdom and the real needs of the people. There is no choice but to exhume this from the debris of disaster.