Reflections on Resilience: What We Have Learnt

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April 27, 2020

India has been locked down for a month as I write this. All day, every day, those of us who are lucky enough to have homes and access to the news monitor the virus’ toll on our lives and communities. If we have water, we wash our hands and everything else, obsessively. If we can afford food, we wonder about where to source this or that essential item. If we have leisure, we prepare elaborate and fancy recipes based on Internet videos, take courses on new topics and pursue long-forgotten hobbies. Still, life feels more precarious than ever before for even the middle class and elite, everywhere.

This precarity is familiar to most humans. Most people, on an average, just get by. If nothing terrible happens, the middle class can comfortably manage essentials and the occasional treat. Most of us know this comfort is an illusion and we carry with us the anxiety that something will happen, at any time, if we should blink. We live vigilantly. And if we have been fortunate enough to relax that vigil, this pandemic has been a time to remind us that nothing is permanent—in good ways and in bad.

In the face of impermanence, what we can seek is resilience. Traditionally, we anchor our resilience in faith or acceptance. But having done so, we rely on government to build structures and processes that enable our everyday resilience. Those who work in disaster-affected areas and those of us who write about their work have long recognized that this is a delusion: disasters in fact reflect a failure of governance. That is, disasters happen because governments have not built the capacity to withstand natural catastrophes. The accelerating rate at which climate catastrophes happen underscore the relationship between bad government policy, failed governance and the experience of disasters.

Civil society organisations have worked, independently or in partnership with government, to fill this governance gap. Working with communities during and beyond disasters, they have come to understand people’s needs and to innovate ways to help them make the changes that will make them resilient. What they have learned in the aftermath of disasters—floods, earthquakes, tsunamis—is useful for coping with and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, where preventive measures have also triggered a secondary humanitarian crisis with long-term consequences.

In 2016, Prajnya’s first Saakshi Fellow Linda Racioppi and Swarna Rajagopalan published a volume of essays by experienced practitioners and academics, “Women and Disasters in South Asia: Survival, Security and Development” (Routledge). Prajnya invited Indian contributors to the volume to share their insights with us in the context of this pandemic.

  • Mihir Bhatt is director of the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), a community-based action planning, action research and policy support organization, working towards bridging the gap between policy, practice and research related to disaster mitigation and climate change adaptation as laid out in National Disaster Management Plan of Government of India of 2016. Mihir Bhatt has published widely on issues of vulnerability and disasters, and has been part of key evaluations of disaster response in Asia. He is a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative since 2007 and was a member of the panel that selects the Humanitarian Coordinators for the United Nations. He advises Climate Development Knowledge Network’s work on climate compatible development in nine states of India. He chairs Duryog Nivaran, a South Asian network on alternative thinking on disaster risk reduction.
  • Dr Nibedita S. Ray-Bennett is an Associate Professor in Risk Management at the University of Leicester’s School of Business. She is the founding president of the Avoidable Deaths Network (ADN). The ADN is a global network dedicated to reducing disaster deaths. The ADN has launched a Repository of COVID-19 Information on ADN’s resource page. The Repository Page is available to the public, and provides web links and reports only from reliable sources (e. UNDRR, WHO, UNFPA, John Hopkins University). Dr Ray-Bennett is the author of the book: Avoidable Deaths: A Systems Approach to Disaster Risk Management (2018, Springer Nature).
  • Eklavya Prasad is a leader in water management. Through his organisation, Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA), he has successfully solved the problem of water scarcity that prevailed in North Bihar, despite the abundance of water resources. His contribution to this collection is a collaboration with Pradeep Poddar and Kumod Kumar Das. Megh Pyne Abhiyan (MPA) began as a campaign and an informal functional network in 2005, in a part of rural North Bihar, to identify existing practices for accessing drinking water during floods and to juxtapose it with innovative, appropriate, self-engineered and self-administrated techniques. MPA has evolved over the years. It has broadened its approach from temporary rainwater harvesting during floods to working on people-centric groundwater management system. In addition, it has been promoting flood resilient habitat, with components such as drinking water, ecologically sustainable sanitation technology, housing and local adaptations by people. Presently, MPA’s focus has expanded across the water-distress regions in the East Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, covering both rural and urban (in Dhanbad, Jharkhand) spaces.
  • Prema Gopalan is the Founder and Executive Director of Swayam Shikshan Prayog, a learning and development organization that has empowered over 100,000 women in the last 20 years. SSP stimulates enabling business environments for both rural women and global companies in “Base of the Pyramid” markets. Its bouquet of incubation and business development services aligns networks of women entrepreneurs, village institutions, and corporations to launch profitable enterprises that are governed by a triple bottom line: financial, environmental, social.

In mid-April, I sent each of them a set of questions about the experiences of the people they work with during the pandemic and lockdown, relevant lessons from their previous work and gender concerns they anticipate. This was intended as a quick Q&A mainly to draw attention to the treasure-house of Disaster Risk Reduction experience we are not drawing on enough now. But each of them turned their attention seriously to the task and what we have is a rich collection of reflections on resilience—where it is absent, how it is being sustained and what it will take—that they have thoughtfully written.

What exacerbates this crisis is that we are not able to predict how long it will continue and while some of our remedies must begin immediately—such as providing food, shelter and primary health care—our ability to plan for the medium-to-long term is limited by the indefinite time-frame. In such circumstances, we postpone gender questions indefinitely as well, and never address them.

The attention drawn to increased domestic violence has kept the spotlight on women’s safety. But “gender” is not just women and girls, and women and girls are not just bodies. We are humans with needs and aspirations. In the plans we now draw up, for both relief and reconstruction, we must remember to draw on the resilience-building lessons we have already learnt. Through listening to all sections, opening up training and decision-making to be inclusive and extending credit and skilling opportunities to whoever might seek them, we might emerge from this disaster, with some hope of transforming gender relations and historically unequal social structures.

We at Prajnya are proud to have played a small curatorial role in bringing the experience and wisdom of our friends and colleagues to you.

Thanks to Nandhini Shanmugham for editing this collection and as always, to Eklavya Prasad for allowing me to use one of his beautiful photographs to adorn the project.

Swarna Rajagopalan

Read the contributions here:

How Do You Lock Down a Farm Full of Cumin Seeds?” Reflections On Rebuilding Life, Livelihoods and Community, by Mihir Bhatt

COVID-19: An Opportunity to Learn Effective Disaster Governance, by Nibedita S. Ray-Bennett

Fear, Panic, Hope: Lockdown Insights from The Hinterland, By Pradeep Poddar, Kumod Kumar Das and Eklavya Prasad

Rising Up to “Flatten The Curve”: Resilient Women, Resilient Communities, by Prema Gopalan

Access the collection as a .pdf file here.

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