Landscapes Disasters

Changing Landscapes of Disasters in India

By: Janki Andharia and Prabhakar Jayaprakash
With the global increase in frequency and intensity of disasters, the need to address diverse challenges in the field of disaster research and practice requires a perspective beyond the current hazard-centric one. The paper points to significance of structural, social, and political processes that define the relationship between communities, ecosystems and technologies in disaster research.
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Local risk landscapes are changing fast, with frequent and intense weather events, and societal and environmental stresses which are becoming increasingly uncertain and unpredictable. As a result, many current approaches towards landscapes disasters have only had a partial impact despite concerted efforts at development interventions.

According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Belgium, which maintains a global database on disasters, the frequency and intensity of landscapes disasters are on the rise. The Haiti earthquake in 2010, the 2011 floods in Thailand, hurricane Sandy in 2012, cyclone Haiyan in 2013 in Philippines, Phailin in 2013 in Odisha, and the Uttarakhand disaster in 2013, bring extreme weather events in focus. The 2012 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that extreme weather and climate events interacting with exposed and vulnerable human and natural systems can lead to landscapes disasters. Landscapes disasters reflect the spatially diverse and temporally dynamic patterns of exposure and vulnerability. Settlement patterns, urbanization, and changes in socio-economic conditions have all influenced observed trends in exposure and vulnerability. For example, coasts, small islands, mega-deltas, and settlements on mountains are exposed and vulnerable to climate extremes in both developed and developing countries, but with differences among regions and countries (IPCC, 2012).

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) ‘Hygo framework for action’, adopted in 2005 as a guiding framework on disaster reduction for the period 2005-2015, aims at “substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries”. As a consequence of rising number of landscapes disasters and the international attention they receive, considerable policy work is seen in most countries such as Bangladesh, Australia, and South Africa and financial allocation for disaster prevention and response is increasing. However most of these funds are for engineering-based mitigation measures such as construction of high performance structures, sea walls or sea levees and other infrastructure developments.

Environmental degradation, with deforestation, desertification, loss of wetlands for industrial growth, or loss of biodiversity due to mining or plantations, undermines people’s coping capacities and increases hazard potential. It is therefore important to recognise that natural and social systems are connected in disaster science, government policies and disaster related interventions. “By their very constitution, disasters spring from the nexus where environment, technology and society come together—the point where place, people and human construction of both the material and the non-material meet.” (A Oliver-Smith and S. Hoffman, 1999, ‘Angry earth: Disaster in anthropological perspective’, Routledge). The study of landscapes disasters therefore requires a more nuanced approach, and the concept of vulnerability has assumed considerable significance in disaster discourse. It is a conceptual link that examines the relationship between hazards, cultural practice, the context of people’s lived experiences, disasters, and development (J Andharia, 2009, ‘Vulnerability in disaster discourse: A conceptual review’, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Working paper no. 8). Vulnerability is a multilayered social and environmental space defined by the political, economic, and institutional capabilities of people in specific places and times. Hazard and vulnerability assessment (HRVA) is increasingly being undertaken from a regional and a geographic perspective. Although scholars are conducting landscapes disasters risk and vulnerability index based studies, their internalisation within policy framework remains weak in countries like India.

natural disasters
Natural disasters: 1975-2011

Further, the Disaster Management Act 2005 in India focuses mainly on catastrophes, mishaps, and calamities. Unwittingly, landscapes disasters are viewed as cataclysmic events. Much work remains to be done on vulnerability to landscapes disasters—a reality that confronts large sections of populations in India who experience everyday risks and struggles, which society accepts as ‘normal’. The disastrous impact of policies, neglect of certain sections of society or complacency of policy makers must also be recognised by new researches which seek to influence disaster discourse.

Silent and invisible landscapes disasters

In disaster management policies and risk reduction strategies, the significance of structural, social, and political processes that define the relationship between communities, ecosystems and technologies are overlooked. This has resulted in many communities experiencing what may be labelled as silent or invisible disasters. While droughts are acknowledged as slow onset landscapes disasters, many communities suffer from impacts of pollution or toxic wastes discharged mindlessly in water bodies that irrigate fields or wells or the air that people breathe causing ill-health and even death. Slow arsenic poisoning and fluorosis, which affects large populations who are forced to drink contaminated water, rarely attract the attention of disaster researchers. The Bhopal Gas tragedy and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are also cases in point. Similarly, malnutrition is an endemic condition for many women and children despite national growth.

Social discrimination, dispossession of traditional rights over ecosystems that communities depended on for their survival, and the resultant denial of access to resources—all constitute silent disasters from the perspective of communities experiencing them. For example, the Nicobari tribals of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands or the Alu Kurumba tribe, one of the six ‘Particularly vulnerable tribal groups’ (PVTGs) of Nilgiri district, in Gudalur block find themselves struggling for their basic entitlements in modern India. The cumulative impact of past colonisation, deforestation, lack of political determination to implement social policies (such as the Janmam Estates Act, 1969, and Forest Rights Act, 2006 in Gudalur) require disaster researchers to pay attention to pre-existing social vulnerabilities within a geographic area. Further, the nature and form of development promoted by national policies themselves create inequalities and privilege certain sections over others.

Nilgiris is a reserve biosphere. The forest land occupied by tea plantations constituted elephant corridors. The forest census of 1972 recorded eleven elephant paths in Gudalur and Mudumalai forest division. A study conducted by the Ooty Government College, 2009, cited in the newspaper ‘Dinamalar’, Ooty edition, 2012, highlighted that only one exists because of the electric fences laid by the plantations. In addition, the Alu Kurumba tribe trapped inside these plantations have lost their traditional rights and are now working as labourers in what was once their ancestral land (P Jayaprakash, 2013, ‘Events, Memories and Archives: The land struggles of Betta Kurumbas of Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, India’, M Phil Thesis, Tata Institute of Social Sciences). About 80,000 acres of forest land in Gudalur block were leased during the British rule to the tea and coffee plantation owners for 99 years. After Independence, the government of Tamil Nadu failed to resolve the issue and about 52,000 acres of forest land remained under the control of plantation owners and small and large encroachers although their lease had expired. A long-standing legal and political battle over this forest land ensued and people’s livelihoods dependent on wage work from plantations were affected. Forest rights committees have not been formed even nine years after the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2005, and the Alu Kurumbas remain voiceless and marginalised, and in fact are threatened with eviction.

These conditions illustrate the dominant development model promoted by the state which is “strategic and tactical in promoting, licensing, and justifying certain interventions and practices, delegitimising and excluding others” (J Crush, ed., 1995, ‘Power of development’, Routledge). Vulnerable sections of society, such as tribals, dalits, women, children and others, who experience such silent disasters, rarely receive the attention of disaster researchers or policy makers who typically engage with a ‘disaster focus’, chasing high impact hazard events because of their visibility and avoid examining historical conditions that produce disaster vulnerability through processes of systemic marginalisation.


Besides the conventional approach to studying rocks, solids and fault-lines for earthquakes, and tracking weather patterns and conditions, there are multiple spaces in disaster study for research, action and practice. There is a need to move disaster discourse forward by emphasising on structural and socio-political processes, acknowledging and acting on differences between geographies of physical terrains and of cultures, and looking beyond the imposition of a technical-reductionist framework.

Interestingly, the World Disasters Report published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Geneva rightly focuses on significant areas such as public health (2000), urban risk (2010), malnutrition (2011), forced migration—people forcibly displaced by conflict, political upheaval, violence, landscapes disasters, climate change and development projects, whose numbers are increasing inexorably each year (2012). These diverse themes help to provide global attention to significant areas of disaster research and practice. Disaster research requires integrating different knowledge types and experiences to generate scientifically reliable, context-appropriate and socially robust risk reduction activities.

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