By Dan Haines, on 16 August 2023
Two devastating earthquakes hit India, Pakistan and Nepal in the 1930s. Can we learn anything from history which will help reduce disaster risk today?
The takeaway: colonial officials kept improvising their response to major earthquakes instead of preparing for future events or building resilience. After independence India, like many other countries, remained focused on response and rehabilitation. Despite legislative and policy changes since the 2000s, more can be done to mainstream disaster risk reduction. Several South Asian organisations are leading the way on this including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. We should support their work.
The earthquakes struck in 1934 and 1935, when India and today’s Pakistan were still colonised by the UK. The colonial state reacted by organising search and rescue and calling for public donations to relief funds for survivors. It rebuilt roads, railways and telegraph lines.
South Asians mounted their own responses, which both supported and challenged the state’s. By the 1930s the Indian National Congress and a host of other organisations had generated a well-organised mass movement that opposed British rule.
Nationalists started their own relief fund after the 1934 earthquake in Bihar, North India. Colonial officials cooperated with them despite political differences and the worry that nationalists would gain greater public support by doing highly visible relief work. Many other civil society organisations which had less antagonistic relationships with the state also helped survivors.
After the 1935 earthquake at Quetta, Balochistan (now in Pakistan) the colonial government banned nationalists and other volunteers from even travelling to the ruined city. Instead they evacuated 30,000 people – almost the entire civilian population – by rail. Survivors were sent to refugee camps or their ‘home districts’ in Punjab and Sindh.
Nationalists protested against the travel ban and criticised the colonial army’s search and rescue operations. In response the state used repressive legislation to fine newspapers for ‘sowing dissent’.
Nervous of the challenge that nationalists posed to their legitimacy as rulers, British officials kept politics at the forefront of their response to earthquakes. The army worried that ‘the desire to make political capital’ motivated Indians who applied for permission to go to Quetta after the earthquake there. Even in Bihar officials focused on maintaining law and order, making a show of protecting state assets and private property against suspected ‘looters’.
Let’s look beyond politics. The colonial state lacked coherent policies on earthquake management. Search and rescue, relief, and reconstruction efforts were all ad hoc.
The government improvised every time it faced a big earthquake, even though it had had policy frameworks for managing frequent famines and recurrent floods since the nineteenth century: not just in the 1930s, but also after earlier quakes in the 1890s-1900s.
Sound familiar? After independence, India inherited colonial bureaucratic structures. For decades it continued focusing on emergency response and rehabilitation for survivors. That came at the cost of preparing and funding people, institutions and physical infrastructure for future crises.
The Government of India’s own Task Force reported in 2013 that response capacity was good. But major legislative and policy changes of the early 2000s needed better on-the-ground enactment to make holistic risk reduction really effective. State and district level disaster management authorities needed professionalisation and more resources.
The National Disaster Management Plan (2016, revised 2019) still speaks of the need to mainstream disaster risk reduction across sectors and departments.
So – the colonial state’s strengths in response have carried forwards through time, but so has its tendency to improvise during emergencies rather than prepare effectively for the future.
A recent assessment by Indian and UK researchers found that district-level disaster management is still stuck in responsive mode, though with improvements in efficiency.
Many NGOs in South Asia are proactively building resilience and rightly advocating for preparedness. Including AIDMI and SEEDS in India; NSET in Nepal; Duryog Nivaran in Sri Lanka. These organisations are helping regional governments to improve existing approaches and correct colonial missteps.
My lesson from history? We should continue to support their work.
Read my article, just published in Disasters, to learn more about the history and politics of earthquake response in colonial South Asia. No paywall!
Daniel Haines is lecturer in disaster and crisis response at UCL IRDR. He researches historical hazards, dam-building and international river water disputes in South Asia. He tweets at @DanielHaines1.
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