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Taking risk reduction agendas to the people

Sep 03, 2008

At a time when people in India’s impoverished state of Bihar are inundated with the waters of Kosi river, Mihir R. Bhatt, director of All India Disaster Management Institute refers to the ideas at a recent regional Commonwealth roundtable. His suggestions will hopefully make India a safer place by going beyond relief, rescue and rehabilitation.

The devastating floods in Bihar offer, sadly enough, a timely, opportunity to advance the national agenda of making India safer. The regional Commonwealth roundtable on “strengthening role of civil society and media in climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation in Asia”, held this past month in Pondicherry brought together some 30 representatives of civil society organisations from across South and Southeast Asia.


The ideas discussed in Pondicherry may be of use to those in the government or donor/ UN bodies planning beyond relief, to flood risk reduction in Bihar.

Risk reduction agendas in Asia are moving beyond relief, rescue and rehabilitation, to power and control of victims over recovery processes, just resource allocation for reducing risk, and promotion knowledge that emerges from a diversity of discourses on risk.

Civil society role

There is Asia-wide agreement on the central role of civil society in the process of risk reduction in order to bring it to the local development agenda. But in India, authorities have yet to meaningfully join hands with civil society.

The response in Bihar should make India’s national agenda far more local, community-centred, and consultative — focusing on social and environmental justice, poverty alleviation and green and clean recovery.

How could a framework simultaneously address issues of governance and risk management?

The elements of the framework that emerged in Pondicherry have been grouped by Christoph Woiwode, expert on disaster risk communication, into four sets of interrelated twin concepts: power and control; justice and fairness; trust and credibility; and rationality and knowledge.

The national agenda must give more power and control to India’s citizen over risk reduction. This is related to the social status and social capital of the respective actors, the quality of the relationship and their interaction, the external and internal identity of the groups, and their roles and functions.

The importance of this, especially for the vulnerable and victims in India, is twofold: it plays out in the distribution of risks and in interactive (communicative) relationships with markets or authorities.

Shifting focus

The poor without power make hopeless relief recipients. “Hardly any global risk reduction process talks about giving more power to the communities and control over the process,” argued Feryal Ali Gauhar from Pakistan at Pondicherry.

The national agenda should focus on finding ways to give more power to communities to demand flood risk reduction by asserting their right to safety.

The national agenda should be fairer — the twin concept of justice and fairness relates to the practices of democratic principles, to what extent inclusive argumentation and participation in risk reduction decision-making are practiced, and the access to information and the distributive fairness of risks.

Most risk reduction processes in India prefer men over women, urban over rural, formal over causal labour, industry over agriculture and rich over poor.

Equally important is citizen trust and all-round credibility. The reputation of participants, framing of messages, means of communication, duration of interaction, reciprocity of exchange, and transparency in communication needs to be reviewed.

“Today the community has to prove its credibility to the national or state authorities and seek their trust to receive resources to reduce risk”, lamented Ajith Tennakoon of Sewalanka Foundation, Sri Lanka during the round table.

Gaining trust

Many authorities in India are subject to a high degree of suspicion and mistrust from marginalised groups “that have been repeatedly betrayed in the name of reducing flood or drought or other risks,” pointed out Shankar of SNEHA, a leading women’s fishery organisation of South India.

By listening and responding in ways that show that they have heard, national and state-level stakeholders increase their chances of earning the trust of marginalised groups.
Risk must be captured in its full complexity and not reduced to mere guidelines.

Knowledge and rationality comprises recognising the diversity of discourses on risk and types of knowledge (for instance scientific, local, anecdotal, and mythical), socially constructed arguments, and normative judgments embedded in the background of various stakeholders.

Risk not mono-dimensional

“Risk is hardly ever mono-dimensional or static,” explained Wilson Ang of Singapore at the roundtable and added, “So how can risk reduction measures be so singular?”

India has ambitiously embarked on a national agenda to making its people safer. Acts and authorities are a good beginning, but the active and empowered involvement of the aam aadmi is the overdue next step.

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