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Managing risks, avoiding disasters

 The Hindu, New Delhi, 5th December, 2014

 Expertise is often the missing piece in the disaster management puzzle


Shaken by the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984, social scientists worldwide have worked intensively on understanding the complex dynamics underlying such disasters and mobilising theoretical tools that are pragmatic, adaptive and iterative. This article summarises five key ideas that have emerged from this research.


 The first idea is the vulnerability thesis, according to which environmental disasters cannot be explained just by natural trigger events, however large. They are, on the contrary, caused by the complex interactions between factors generating vulnerability, which have roots in historic social, cultural, ecological, economic and political processes, and the existence of physical hazards. Further, disasters are not departures from the normal functioning of societies. Rather, they often exemplify the norm, and exacerbate the potential of a hazardous event. Understanding the patterns in human social dynamics in any given region is therefore an important key to building effective institutions.


Some disasters are unique events — rare, unpredictable acts — for which rational responses are difficult. Others are discrete; they are results of correctable factors such as a failure of a component, limited design error, or a mistake by an operator. Yet others happen despite calculated risks being assumed, and are often understood only after analysing the cataclysmic event following its occurrence. Significantly, there is also a class of disasters which stems from the design of the system itself. Such systems are typically interactively complex, and predicting specific outcomes ahead of time is impossible due to adverse signal to noise ratios, and because the sheer range of permutations defining outcomes increases with complexity. However, even such systems can be improved by effective processes, such as continuous training, multiple redundancies, accountability, better data, hierarchical differentiation and autonomy, and crucially, nurturing cultures of reliability. Understanding the complexity characteristics of any given disaster management catchment, and devising institutional cultures to counter them, is therefore a second key to building effective institutions.


 Politics of infrastructure


 Infrastructure and technological systems have politics. Research on infrastructure conducted over the past decade has shown that infrastructure is fundamentally relational in character, and is defined by the cultural context in which it is produced and used. Infrastructure is embedded in social arrangements and is transparent to use. It is for the most part invisible because its use is routine. It is learned as part memberships of communities and linked with conventions of practice and use. It is also an embodiment of standards, and is built on an installed base that inherits its strengths and weaknesses. Infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks down, and when it does, it often reflects how what is routine for some users is a problem for others. For example, when a hydroelectric dam breaches, the disaster reflects the tensions between the goals of the designers (power generation, flood control), and those of communities immediately downstream, who might have protested its construction in the first place on grounds that it is unsafe for them. When infrastructure breaks down, it is often fixed incrementally and in a modular fashion, reflecting the need to negotiate multiple interests and viewpoints. Understanding the politics of infrastructure and the possibilities for engagement and reform is a third crucial key to building effective institutions.


“Not one major agency in India exists that integrates the many insights from global research on risk and disaster after Bhopal”


Democratic processes and shareholder participation are critical for effective governance. A great deal of research across social science disciplines has established that technocratic top-down systems of management are largely ineffective, especially in cases of controversies and disasters. This is particularly so when there is a cultural gap between experts who make policy and lay peoples who have to live the consequences of their policies. Where such gaps involve a lack of understanding by experts of local ecologies and adaptive processes that are developed historically by communities, significant problems of credibility arise. Conversely, where experts make conscious attempts to understand local communities, useful synergies might result, including informal data streams that complement, improve, or problematise official data, and, in some cases, better designed systems. A related body on research on inter-agency, inter-region, and international interactions has demonstrated that more often than not, there is little coordination and sharing of data, synchronisation of events, and even comprehension of processes, even in advanced industrial nations. Understanding how expert systems interact with each other and with lay communities holds a fourth key to the design of effective disaster management institutions.


 Expertise is often the missing piece in the disaster management puzzle. In the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy, three kinds of expertise crucial for managing the aftermath were missing. Contingent expertise or the administration’s preparedness to respond immediately and effectively to a potential hazard was the first kind. It is concerned with conscious adaptive mechanisms and institutions built by governments prior to cataclysmic events.


The second was conceptual expertise. In Bhopal, this referred to the kind of expertise needed to devise long-term rehabilitation strategies and troubleshoot them in practice. In other places, it involves piecing together the complexity of the entire system. A case in point is the work on flooding, where policymakers often misdiagnose the causes of floods, and end up exacerbating the problem in the long term.


The third is ethnographic expertise, which refers to an ability to gain a contextual and grounded understanding, and to act on the basis of such experience.


The upshot is that institution building based on anticipation is the key to effective and good governance. A promising new field of research characterises anticipatory governance as “a broad-based capacity extended through society that can act on a variety of inputs to manage… technologies while such management is still possible.” This emerging discipline emphasises studies of processes that can engender precaution, foresight, engagement and integration. It also studies how to create frameworks and dialogic spaces wherein reflexivity can occur. Understanding how best to anticipate, negotiate, build consensus, and ensure participation is a fifth key component that defines a successful institution for disaster management.


 Critical gap in approach


India has done well by investing in the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and associated entities. The expenditure on technological infrastructure, from satellite systems to flood sensors in rivers, has been well spent, as the accuracy in predicting the onset and intensity of catastrophic natural disasters such as cyclones testifies. However, the NDMA and other agencies have a critical gap in their approach and framework, as evidenced in their programmatic statements. Simply put, they lack good social science perspectives, barring a modicum of economics. They do not demonstrate the understanding that vulnerability cannot be addressed only by technical fixes, but requires more systemic and historical approaches and analytic capability. The NDMA cannot, however, be faulted for this lapse. Not one major agency in India exists that integrates the many insights from global research on risk and disaster after Bhopal. There is also no training programme that produces the cadres with the breadth of vision encompassing alternatives to the risk paradigm, clean chemistry and sun setting of chemicals, a sophisticated understanding of complex systems and high reliability organisations, reflexive governance, and precautionary regulatory science. It is an unfortunate reality in the age of highly hazardous industry that accidents are bound to happen. It is however the responsibility of all sectors of society to ensure that we are prepared to cope with the aftermath. A critical step forward is the investment in research and training. The time is now.


 (S. Ravi Rajan is associate professor, University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-founder in 1986, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an advocacy group.)