Some root causes of disaster vulnerability in Gujarat

from American Friends Service Committee
Published on 31 Jan 2001
Ben Wisner
The estimated death toll is 20,000 and raising. The city of Bhuj is described as "bombed". An area larger than all New England has been devastated. Why? How could this happen? Is it merely an "act of God" that we have to accept as part of the human condition?

To understand the root causes of such tragedy, one has to look at economic, political, and cultural relations.

Gujarat is an economic power house in India. As such, one sees there in microcosm the enormous gap between rich and poor that characterizes India itself, and the world. Much of this economic growth is linked to global markets. Its successful economy has come at the cost of having to accommodate somewhere a very large population of unskilled labor. These people have migrated there from all over northern India because their lives as landless laborers elsewhere were untenable.

The disruption and fragility of rural life in northern India can be traced back to the "green revolution", that began in the mid 1960s with the introduction of hybrid, high yielding varieties of wheat. These varieties did, indeed, yield much more than traditional seeds, but they required irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides that the small farmer couldn't afford. As larger farmers produced more, they squeezed the smaller ones out, eventually buying their land. Many landless laborers were produced in this way. Now, 30 years later, many of their children are crowding the shanty towns that surround Gujarat's cities.

A few years ago a cyclone came out of the Arabian sea and killed 10,000 people in Gujarat. Many of them were such unskilled labor migrants living in makeshift hutment around the coastal ship breaking and scrap metal center. This should have been a forewarning of how vulnerable poor wage migrants are.

Gujarat is to be the major beneficiary of the water diverted by all the dams on the controversial Narmada river system (see Arundhati Roy's passionate little book, The Cost of Living. London: Flamingo, 1999). It needs this water for irrigation in an attempt to anchor the livelihoods of some desperately poor rural people in its hinterland who have not benefitted from the state's economic growth or the earlier "green revolution." If it doesn't do something like this, they, too, will move to the cities whose names we are reading in news accounts of the earthquake. Over the past few years these towns have been sprouting hutments, encroachments, and squatter settlements for this precise reason.

One must also consider the cultural as well as economic and political situation of the tribal (adavasi) people in India generally and in Gujarat in particular. Many of the people who may have been losers and not winners in the growth stimulated by globalization, especially in the isolated northern parts of Gujarat, where the shaking was most extreme, are ethnic minorities. They have received very few government services over the years, tend to be displaced by so-called development projects, and often end up among the poorest of urban squatters when they are displaced.

Both the poor and the middle class suffered in the cities. On the one hand, there is an aging building stock and lack of maintenance. On the other, some new structures may well have been built without proper adherence to codes and not properly inspected. It is unlikely that the percentage of masonry buildings that are earthquake resistant is any higher in Ahmedabad or Bhuj than it is in Delhi, and that is only about 10%.

In Gujarat's boom economy the market for middle class apartment houses grew rapidly. Contractors and developers may well have hastened to meet this demand without proper attention to the Indian building code.

Finally, one must be struck by the widespread destruction or disruption of lifeline infrastructure: health care, water, electricity, telecommunication, rail communication. There is no lack of knowledge about how to protect infrastructure from earthquakes. In fact, the scientific and technical learning curve, since Kobe lost later and burned uncontrollably in 1995, has been very steep. Since two large hospitals collapsed in Mexico City in 1985, there has been an enormous amount of work on ways to shore up (retrofit) and otherwise protect hospitals.

One has to ask why, in a country as rich in highly accomplished scientists and engineers, steps seem not to have been taken to protect essential infrastructure. In El Salvador about 40% of that country's hospital capacity as lost. But WHO and other authorities know how to protect hospitals. There is no reason why the civil hospital in Bhuj needed to collapse on patients and staff.

* Ben Wisner is a researcher in the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, Ohio. He is vice-chair of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, vice-chair of the International Geographical Union's Commission on Hazards and Risks, and a research coordinator for the United Nations University's project on urban disasters. He is author of 'At Risk: Natural Hazards, People's Vulnerability, and Disasters' (London: Routledge, 1994).He is also a member of AFSC's Emergency & Material Response Program advisory committee.

Jason C. Erb
Assistant Director
Emergency & Material Assistance Program
American Friends Service Committee
1501 Cherry Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

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