Disasters as moments of Change

By Ayesha Siddiqi

Floodwaters have finally begun to recede in the North East of India, with the Indian Meteorological Department saying no further rain is expected in the next few days. This devastating disaster however has affected millions of people many of whom are still living in temporary shelters. These people need to be told that in the run up to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris (COP 21) countries were asked to submit their pledges for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC)s are now revealing themselves to be highly unambitious and essentially “too little and too late” to prevent the most serious threats of climate change.

This summer has been equally brutal for neighbouring Pakistan’s. Here the southern region of Sindh faced one of the worst heat waves since records began with temperatures rising well over 45 C, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. This spell of extremely high temperatures was broken only with the arrival of monsoon rains that turned, much like in India, into dreaded flooding leaving many thousands homeless.

Climatic disasters have been ubiquitous in South Asia in recent times. And despite what the Republican Party political machinery, or the fossil fuel lobby may have us believe, it would be quite difficult to disconnect such extreme weather events from anthropogenic interventions into the earth system.

Because vulnerability to these disasters is so directly connected to people’s economic, social and political capital, it is hardly surprising that it is some of the world’s poorest people who suffer the most as a consequence of these disasters. What is perhaps less intuitive is that even in this age of neo-liberalism and rolling back of the state, when people’s lives and homes have been devastated by flood waters – whether in Somerset or Sindh – they articulate it as a failure of the state. It is still widely believed that it is the state’s responsibility to provide people with basic safety and security in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Disasters and the State

A panel called “Disasters and the State in South Asia” was convened at the Development Studies Associate (DSA) conference, that took place at the University of Bath last week, to discuss exactly what disasters are able to tell us about the state and its relationship with its citizens. Disasters, without a doubt, are intensely political moments. In the words of one Harvard professor they define the very basis of citizenship: “a citizen has a claim of right on the resources of her government when she cannot — simply cannot — help herself”.

It is the responsibility of the state to provide the bare minimum that citizens need to survive, even if they are unable to economically, or otherwise, thrive. The fact that the state, to some extent, fails at fulfilling this basic responsibility during disasters with heavy losses, results in the emergence of a certain political moment. It is a moment where the very basis of this state-citizen relationship is being questioned and even contested. It is state action or inaction that determines how this moment will unfold. While David Cameron was able to legitimise the Tory state, by showing up and providing the services that were needed in Somerset in the aftermath of the 2014 floods. The Bush administration on the other hand, was widely criticised for “state failure” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Failure, that resulted in further widening the gap between the state and its citizens, marginalised along race and class. The outcome of this political moment therefore is not pre-determined but very much a function of state response and citizen demand.

This was especially true in the case of Pakistan after the massive floods that affected the country in 2010 and also 2011. While almost all international attention during these disasters was on what Islamist groups were doing or not doing, far more pertinent to the lives of the millions affected was the way in which the state reached out to its disaster affected citizens. In the words of one disaster affected citizen had the state not provided the cash transfers and food aid “we would have starved to death”. So it is interesting that not only is a state that is widely considered to be weak and failing in international discourse, reaching out to its disaster affected citizens but also its citizens who are often seen to be powerless in the face of powerful political forces were also making new demands of the state. The response to the disaster ushered a new era of relatively progressive state-citizen relations in one of the least likely places in the region.

On ‘change’ after Disasters

Other researchers have illustrated how in the context of Tsunami rehabilitation in South India, governance structure increased and decreased in importance. People began to take their demands to more formal federal level institutions rather than local councils. What is therefore constructed as ‘normal’ significantly alters in the aftermath of a disaster. This is especially true of the relationship between the state and its citizens.

It is important to note that the panelists at the conference, who have been working on the politics around disasters for many years, were very clear in emphasising context and space and did not try to provide a roadmap for how progressive political change can be ushered in the aftermath of a disaster. Rather what they were keen to highlight was that disasters do open possibilities and these possibilities must be explored further and explored fully to see how they may result in transformation and progressive change.

If we are serious about ‘development’ being about more than just providing bags of food or emergency shelters then it is high time we seriously look at the post-disaster moment closely. And that we understand how it can drive the sort of progressive state-citizen relationship forward, that will not allow four children or four million children to swim out of their homes and wait for aid bags in temporary shelters.

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