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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009

Managing Disasters and Displacement

Tuesday 17 November 2009, by S G Vombatkere



The article presents the political and economic impacts of various kinds of natural and man-made disasters and associated displacement of populations, and argues for a wider and more inclusive definition of disasters in the interest of human rights, social justice and equity for the victims of disasters.

Legislation, Disasters and People

Numerous disasters at national and international levels have caused governments to recognise the need for rapid and effective response to provide relief and succour to affected populations. Thus the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (hereinafter referred to as the Act), is a necessary, long-awaited legislation.

“Disaster” is defined in Section 2 (d) of the Act, as “a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area”. However, imminent disaster necessitating large scale, urgent movement of people is not specifically covered under the definition, even though an earlier (2003) Disaster Management Act by the State of Gujarat defines disaster as ”... an actual or imminent event, whether natural or otherwise”. Thus, notwithstanding that the definition of “disaster management” does speak of “evacuation”, “prevention of danger or threat”, and “threatening disaster situation”, the definition of “disaster” in the Act recognises only the post-disaster situation and for that reason can be considered a legal infirmity.

Some natural events can be anticipated even if accurate prediction may not always be possible. For events such as cyclone or flood, early warning is possible and in some places, systems to activate mitigatory response by evacuation of people to safe areas are already in place. Also, some man-made situations like war or conflict can be anticipated, and again evacuation of people or provision of shelters is possible. However, whether the imminent disaster is natural or man-made, a system-imperative of effective disaster management is scientific forecasting, early warning, political commitment and planned, orderly evacuation to operationalised relief camps. Evacuation of large numbers of people for an unspecified period from their homes, livelihoods and occupations may be enforced with little or no notice. But even for those who may escape the direct effects of the disaster because they had been evacuated earlier or otherwise protected (as inside a disaster-proof shelter) or had fled of their own accord, there is immense human suffering, less only in degree to those actually hit by the disaster event. The hardship and uncertainty of existence in relief camps is heightened by anxiety whether their property would be safe from the disaster event and from looters.

The effects of the disaster are compounded when evacuated people cannot return to their original homes and livelihoods for a protracted period or not at all in the foreseeable future. Such permanently displaced people are subjected to the combined trauma of personal helplessness, social dislocation, physical deprivation, economic destitution and political dis-empowerment that has long-lasting effects on the individual and collective psyche of people of all ages.1 The point at issue here is not the reason for displacement, or whether they have been displaced to a distant place in a different social milieu or merely
by a few dozen kilometres, but that they have lost a great deal due to their displacement, and have no hope of getting it, or something even close to it, back. They are permanently diminished individually, socially, economically and politically and unable to cope with the situation, notwithstanding relief aid that may flow to them.

Human-induced Displacements

It is necessary to view displacements not only through the prism of natural disasters. Historically, there have always been people who have been permanently displaced as raiding warlords abducted them as “prize”. More recently, over 50 millions of African people were taken into slavery to North America in a well-managed European operation spanning two centuries. (That makes an average of about 680 people every day for 200 years.) But once across the Atlantic Ocean, they were not even allowed to live in one place as families or linguistic groups, being deliberately separated, child from parent, sibling from sibling, wife from husband, and sold by slave traders. They faced double-disaster—first by being kidnapped from Africa, and again in North America where they were unable to even live together, while the indigenous North American people were displaced and decimated for their land in the USA and Canada. Many other such large-scale human disasters can be quoted, but in the 20th Century, displacement of Bikini islanders or Diego Garcia islanders and Australia’s aboriginal people are only a few further little-known examples of the shame-filled histories of colonial forces.

When the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa in March 1959, about a hundred thousand of his followers also came into India by various routes. They were displaced from Tibet because of its politico-military disaster and sought asylum in India. And they were rehabilitated with grant of lands even as far south as in Karnataka, not by the people who caused the disaster but, following a hoary tradition, by the independent Indian state.

However, the same independent India that gave asylum and land to Tibetans has been displacing its own citizens on a large scale in the name of development and progress, using the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. Based on a study of 54 projects, Roy2 has estimated that 33 million people have been displaced by large dams in India in the period 1949-1999, and that most of them were not resettled. This figure does not account for displacement for other projects like mines, thermal and nuclear power plants, industrial complexes, military installations, weapons testing grounds, railways, roads, and the expansion of reserved forest areas, sanctuaries and parks, but it may well be similar. Naming this as ”development-induced displacement” does not alter the fact of suffering and trauma in any manner. Compared to 50 million Africans displaced over 200 years by slave-trading Europeans, 33 million displaced in 50 years only for dams (an average of 1800 daily for 50 years) and that too within an independent, democratic nation, is shameful beyond description. Even worse, this displacement is continuing six decades after Independence in many states in India on a similar scale, for dams, mines, airports, harbours, expressways, industries and special economic zones, all under the rubric of “development”.

Multiplying the Discontents of Displacement

Permanent displacement occurs when projects that are planned and executed require land that is occupied by or used by people. In such cases, though admittedly the cause of displacement is not a disaster, the displacement itself is no less than a disaster for the people who are involun-tarily displaced, the project-affected families or PAF. The reason for displacement is ”public good”, “public benefit” or “public interest” that does not bear questioning because of the government’s eminent domain over all land.

The trauma of involuntary displacement is usually sought to be mitigated by awarding compensation for the loss of land, livelihood, etc., by offering “land-for-land” or cash or subsidised housing for those who are seen as having lost immovable property. Usually these measures are not acceptable to the PAFs, and in any case there are huge slippages in the implementation due to corruption and other factors. But that is not central to the present discussion.

Development-induced displacement is accompanied by what social scientists or displacement specialists call the “resettlement effect”, one definition of which is, “the loss of physical and non-physical assets, including houses, communities, productive land, income-earning assets and sources, subsistence resources, cultural sites, social structures, networks and ties, cultural identities and mutual help mechanisms”.3 PAFs are always unable to cope with the disastrous synergy of the components of the resettlement effect, and remain life-long and generational victims of development.

Those who do not possess immovable property in the form of a title to land or a “pucca” house do not even enter into these figures, and hence are not counted as a part of the disaster at all, even though they actually suffer the most. In most places, landless agricultural or forest-dwelling families outnumber those who have documentary title to their land by a factor of four. (Therefore the numbers of PAFs over the decades is certainly under estimated). It is impossible to quantify the psychological and social trauma at the time of displacement or its downstream individual and social effects. Suffice it to say that in almost all cases of development displacement, tribal (adivasi) or rural and poor people are a large majority of the PAF. It is estimated that 40 per cent of all involuntarily displaced people are adivasi even though they represent only about eight per cent of India’s population.

Large-scale forced displacement (euphemis-tically termed “involuntary displacement”) has been involved in almost every dam project, but the most visible in recent times have been the dams in the Narmada valley and the Tehri dam mainly because social activists like Medha Patkar and Sunderlal Bahuguna respectively, have been associated with the resistance to these projects and in demanding the rights of PAFs. In an ambience of judicial inaction and neglect by elected representatives, state governments use the police to enforce displacements, sometimes even in blatant violation of judicial directions for rehabilitation in advance of raising dam height. This has a multiplier-effect on the inevitable trauma of resettlement, and amplifies the disaster because of the PAFs’ feeling that injustice against them is state-organised.

Projects and Associated Disasters

Projects, whether of infrastructure or of corporate industry, that are not well conceived, planned and operated according to sound technical, financial and management principles, can become monumental failures, even economic disasters. The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project that seeks to connect 30 major Indian rivers by canals that source water from Himalayan rivers could be a set of economic and environmental disasters in the making since Ganga and other Himalayan rivers may have vastly reduced flow in coming years due to global warming. Thus, the ILR project could be an extremely expensive exercise in futility, and implicit are the component human and environmental disasters arising from each of the multiple dam-canal projects in the scheme.

The plan for a “chemical hub” SEZ in 2007 in Nandigram (West Bengal), led to organised resistance by land-losing and livelihood-losing people. The police force and party cadres used by the State to displace the people led to a socio-political disaster, with many deaths, rapes and permanent disabilities. However, due to the staunch resistance of the people of Nandigram, the plan for the SEZ was shifted to another area, thus stalling the displacement, but the effects of the disaster caused by state violence remain. The proposal for Tata Motors’ automobile factory and other accessories factories in Singur (also in Communist-led West Bengal) has had very similar effects as Nandigram on the affected people. While these two projects have almost destroyed the decades-long political supremacy of the communist regime in West Bengal (which is the concern only of the concerned political parties), the disaster inflicted upon the affected people cannot be neglected or simply treated as collateral damage.

There are many ongoing or upcoming human-cum-environmental disaster hot-spots of resistance around the country. A few examples are the Narmada valley dams (Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra), bauxite mining in Orissa by Utkal Alumina and Vedanta Alumina in Kashipur and Niyamgiri respectively, steel project by POSCO near Paradip (Orissa), Tata steel factory at Kalinganagar (Orissa), SEZs in Maharashtra and other states, Tipaimukh dam (Manipur), Polavaram dam (Andhra Pradesh), several dams in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, Sethusamudram Canal (Tamil Nadu), Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (Tamil Nadu), and Uranium mining at Jadugoda (Jharkhand).

If for any reason, a dam on a river or an embankment should fail structurally (like the Kosi embankment in August 2008) or if, due to bad planning, water is released in panic to save the structural integrity of the dam (for example, Ukai dam, Gujarat, August 2006) the downstream reaches of the river suffer serious damage with loss of life and property, which surely qualify as a disaster. But there are disasters even with normal functioning of a dam. When a dam is constructed for irrigation, power or flood control, it causes substantially reduced flow of water in the river, and results in permanent economic hardship to people living downstream, creating a situation with which they are unable to cope since it involves loss of livelihood. Thus, large dams cause disaster by initially displacing people from and drowning forests and wildlife in the submergence zone, and the disaster continues to play out as downstream people are adversely affected from year to year with too little or too much water. This is not to argue that there are no benefits from dams, but that the benefits do not reach those who lose out every year as unrecognized disaster victims.

Aggregating Little Disasters

Displacement disasters occur in border areas when circumstances force populations to move—or they are forcibly moved—during times of armed conflict or full-fledged war with neighbours, or when there is officially declared insurgency that disrupts normal civic life. In such man-made circumstances, the Act appears to be applicable even though it is not applied. But there are instances where the Act does not apply as on date, and this calls for formal reconsideration. For example, the forced displacement of families of Kashmiri Pandits from Srinagar valley due to civil unrest has largely gone unnoticed, but it cannot be denied that it was a disaster for the migrant families in terms of the definition in the Act, and due to inadequate resettlement, the disaster continues in their daily lives to this day.

At a family level, especially a poor family, serious illness or death of a bread-winner by suicide, accident or disease, undoubtedly is a disaster for the family, which is usually unable to cope emotionally and economically with the situation. Such a family is invariably ruined and its surviving members damned to misery and penury in town or city slums. Such “little disasters” aggregate into the fearsome figure of many lakhs of such unfortunates over the decades, which constitute a huge, on-going, silent disaster. Politicians who are focussed on intra- and inter-party power struggles, bureaucrats and economists who myopically focus on GDP growth, and the self-insulated judiciary, appear to be unaware of this. This on-going, accumulating disaster did not happen suddenly—it has been going on for decades, but has accelerated since India’s New Economic Policy of 1991 of economic reforms leading to privatisation and liberalisation.

The fortuitously appropriate absence of the word “sudden” in the definition of disaster in the Act, permits argument that any occurrence with ”... substantial loss of life or human suffering... ” is a disaster. But the meaning of “substantial” is necessarily subjective, depending upon the nature of the disaster, its magnitude and its immediate and longer-term consequences, and the possibility of people returning to their way of life, at least as it was before the disaster.

Depending upon the nature of the disaster or its threat, “substantial” would necessarily be determined by reference to a “whole” by an arbitrarily chosen ratio. This is where the contact of politicians and bureaucrats with real-time ground situations is vital, to decide what is “substantial”. Sadly, such contact is lacking since many politicians in the electoral game are extremely wealthy. Crorepatis by their own pre-election declarations,4 they appear to have distanced themselves emotionally from the very poor public, especially rural or adivasi, and are almost never seen at disaster sites at the time of crisis. Even the Mumbai “26/11 attack” on the high-end Taj Hotel did not arouse enough empathy for the Maharashtra Chief Minister to visit the scene until days after the terrorists were flushed out, and then almost like a tourist. Top politicians are physically distant from the public because of their high category security cover, or their fears of coming within shoe-throwing or spitting range of people with a grouse, of whom there is no dearth. They are also insulated from public opinion by various levels of bureaucracy who act as “filters”. While it is understandable that every person at high levels of governance or administration is subjected to information-overload and so “filters” are a necessity, part of his/her job is to devise his/her own methods to keep in touch with the public and keep those “filters” under control.

Therefore, in actual practice, apart from aerial survey of a disaster-hit area or second-hand media reports from the ground, top political leaders are largely unaware of the real-life ”... coping capacity of the community of the affected area” with regard to disasters. As an example of emotional distance or skewed priorities, the Maharashtra Chief Minister spends time and effort to address the media regarding rape charges against actor Shiney Ahuja (this could as easily be done by the police officials or bureaucrats), in preference to addressing the on-going disasters of displacement of lakhs of slum dwellers in the same city. This demonstrates the increasing distance between wealthy people who are in power and the inarticulate poor. And this top-level blindness to the on-going, aggregating “little disasters” adds fuel to violent movements directed against the State. Thus, the ground swell of social discontent and unrest grows... Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns.

Time-scale of Disaster

The dictionary meaning of the word disaster is, “a sudden event such as an accident or natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life”. As it should be, disaster is more accurately defined in the Act. The important difference between the two is that the word “sudden” or any synonym or suggestion of suddenness is absent from the definition in the Act. Famine or drought, for example, is a disaster which is not a sudden occurrence, whether it is man-made or due to natural causes. Since government has to necessarily intervene in famine or drought situations to provide relief, the word “sudden” quite appropriately does not occur in the Act. However, the absence of “sudden” does not change the disaster-effect of displacements due to development projects.

Climate Change Disasters

The scale of environmental disaster-induced displacement (migration) that is anticipated due to climate change is likely to make earlier mass-migrations look like picnics. Climate change is very slow and barely noticeable even on a year-to-year basis, but it is happening, and disasters due to these changes will be faced not only by the people who migrate but also by the people living in the areas to which they migrate. This poses a disaster threat to national and international security. For the sake of completeness, it is necessary to say that beyond a certain “tipping point” (which is difficult to determine), the changes may not be slow but on the other hand may well be frighteningly rapid.

Governments’ Responsibility

But leaving aside climate change disasters, even if governments do not take precautionary measures against natural or man-made disasters or cannot pre-empt certain disasters, at least government’s empowerment by well-intentioned legislation like the Disaster Management Act, 2005, can be used to mitigate suffering of populations who are victims of disasters. Numerous projects in the past have necessitated the displacement of huge numbers of families, and a number of on-going projects all over India continue this trend. Since involuntary displacement for project affected families (PAFs) is, according to Section 2(d) of the Act, “a catastrophe or grave occurrence from man-made causes, which results in human suffering and destruction of property, and is of such a magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area”, PAFs deserve to be treated as victims of man-made disasters. Responsive and responsible Central and State Governments that claim to represent the people cannot afford to do less.


1. Fadiman, Anne, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down —a Hmong child, her American doctors and the collision of two cultures, Pub: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1997.

2. Roy, A., “The Cost of Living”, Frontline, 15 (3), February 5-8, 2000.

3. Notice for National Seminar on “Rehabilitation and Resettlement Issues in India”, August 7-8, 2008, Centre for Rural Studies, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand.

4. Sainath, P., “The age of the aam crorepati”, The Hindu, June 20, 2009, p. 8.

Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as Additional Director General, Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi, in 1996 after 35 years in the Indian Army. He holds a Guinness Book and Limca Book record for design and construction of the motorable bridge at the highest altitude in the world (18,300 ft) in Ladakh in 1982. He holds a Ph.D degree in structural dynamics from IIT, Madras, and the President of India awarded him Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. Since retirement, he is engaged in voluntary work with the Mysore Grahakara Parishat, and is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for students from University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their programme of Studies Abroad in South India. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa.

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