The immediacy of loss & amnesia after

Narratives of disasters are virtually summoned by the urgency and intensity of the event. They convey the immediacy of the loss, the helplessness and the range of destruction. It is as if the narrative turns from noun to verb, from an act of reflection to an act of doing. Such narratives are dramatic, hurried but often avoid major issues centering on the disaster. The recent description of the Chennai rains shares this predictability. I want to begin by creating a distance to assemble a perspective.

One is reminded of a Franz Kafka story, probably the only one he wrote on India. It is about a village near a forest which decided to hold a sacrifice. On a full moon day, the village square was decked in wreaths and food. The brahmin priest came out to perform the sacred rituals, when a tiger came and ate the priest. The villagers were undaunted and decided to go ahead with the rituals on the next full moon, but again the tiger ate the priest. This happened on one more occasion and the villagers met to discuss the crisis. At the meeting, the village idiot came up with a brilliant solution. He suggested that the tiger’s act has to have a theory of man-made causation locating responsibility at different levels.
Legend has it that the village idiot later became a World Bank consultant. The narratives of the Chennai rains have shades of the Kafka story. They make the rains sound inevitable, an act of God, a message from nature, but few speculate on the man-made nature of many of these disasters. As a result the newspapers tell two different stories: one about the Paris talks on sustainability and climate change, and the second on the Chennai rains. There is no sense of connection. Otherwise the drama would have escalated. Imagine if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone to Paris and submitted a bill for climate change asking the rich countries to pay for Chennai and Uttarakhand.

This one act would have changed the Paris conference from its stereotyped scripts and made the world sit up. Thinking that such disasters are man-made, let the affluent West get away with its depredations of nature. The new political economy of disasters has to have a theory of man-made causation locating responsibility at different levels.

It is not just Western society, our state and our systems of governance have to be analysed in terms of a disaster perspective — the old “3R model” of relief, rescue, rehabilitation with a wider model of responsibility which starts long before a disaster and continues long after. As the political sociologist Chandrika Parmar put it in her essay on the multi-
hazard state, disasters from flood to cyclone, drought, famine are part of the everyday facts of governance. The old 3R model merely talked of rescue but little of state presence or responsibility in the first parts of a disaster. Disasters completely transform the notions of governance and the evaluation of state competence. The lack of preparedness of the state in handling this calamity was obvious. One, in fact, wishes the critique were more systematic, but the media often handles the Jayalalithaa administration with kid gloves.

What is heartening is not the performance of the state, but the role of civil society, of individuals at every level. The word often used is resilience, but resilience is a polysemic. The courage of the ordinary survivor — in the Orissa cyclone of 1999 or the victims of Chennai 2015 — is remarkable. What differentiates them are the different networks that come into play. In fact, when one looked at studies of Gujarat earthquake, Parmar has pointed out that ordinary people suffered but were hard at work, at rescue and relief, without complaint. One must be careful here in creating an ideal of resilience which might be exaggerated. What is impressive is stories of courage, resilience and stoicism.

Yet what worries one is not resilience, which is welcome, but the nature of memory after disasters. Memories tend to be shortsighted and states drift away in indifference. Public policy often becomes an act of amnesia.

Disaster narratives often point out to what they call the domain of amnesia. After a bit of acrimony and a touch of nitpicking, society and state settle down to a period of normalcy, as if nothing had happened, as if pain and suffering belonged to a parallel life. There is little follow up, no real attempt to use repair to create reform. It is almost as if amnesia is the preferred state and the only memory one has is a few anecdotes. It is time disasters are linked to development and climate change, otherwise we are guaranteeing the reproduction of such tragedies. The sadness is what we need in policy and planning: a society that cares. Heroism is a desperate answer of a society that cannot plan or think about its future. A caring society might be more humane than a purely heroic one.

One is not denying the creativity and power of improvisation. One is enthralled by stories of amphibious seeps first used in World War II returning to perform rescue functions during the devastation. The radio, especially FM, was used in a creatively desperate way to send messages about being marooned. Suddenly the radio, which had been suffering from benign neglect as a secondary toy, acquired a new life. The FM radio virtually played the role of a substitute telephone with FM companies organising volunteers to affected areas. Yet the innovation of civil society and the heroism of individuals and the community hid the fact that the state had failed to respond. One saw little of the functionaries of the state or political parties. It was as if they had decided that there was little that was political. Party protest and concerns of the vulnerable behave like two different worlds and even disasters fail to make them meet.

What one needs now is a civil society audit of the disaster and the evaluation of responses to it. One has to have narratives of lives and livelihoods lost, homes destroyed and the nature of state response. Democracy has to come alive to make disasters a part of the institutional rules of the game. Otherwise, all one adds is a cynical selfishness which does little to minimise suffering.

 

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