Exploring the gap between policy and action in disaster risk reduction

The study has been conducted by A Ogra, A N Donova, G Adamson, KR Viswanathan, M Budimir.
A view of the landslide at Taliye village near Mahad in Maharashtra.(HT File Photo)
A view of the landslide at Taliye village near Mahad in Maharashtra.(HT File Photo)
Updated on Aug 06, 2021 03:28 PM IST
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ByKing's College London

The transition from a response-based paradigm to an anticipative, prevention-based approach remains a stubborn challenge in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). Whilst the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) has advocated the latter since the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in the 1990s, many countries have been slow to move from a response-focused approach to a preventative one. International policy guidelines have successfully informed the national DRR policies in various countries; however, their further translation down to the regional and local level is full of complex political challenges, exacerbated in many areas by an increased frequency of disasters. In this paper we explore the case of India, using the example of landslide risk management. Through an analysis of the evolution of landslide risk governance during the last two decades in two hilly regions - Darjeeling in the Himalayas and the Nilgiris in the Western Ghats - we demonstrate that while the national government appears to have made considerable efforts to move in line with the UNDRR approaches, the eventual outcome of these efforts at the regional and local level is largely an incremental improvement on the existing DRR approach and not a paradigm shift in understanding and addressing disaster risk.

This paper is based on the institutional mapping work carried out under the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) funded project LANDSLIP (Landslide multi-hazard risk assessment, preparedness and early warning in South Asia integrating meteorology, landscape, and society). Fieldwork for this study was carried out mostly at the district level, and to a limited extent at the state and national level. Approximately three months were spent in the field between January 2018 and February 2020 and 35 interviews conducted. Interviewees were selected from a desk-based review of disaster management plan documents, which identified key actors in the area. The interviews were semi-structured by design; however, to ensure that all the interviews have common purpose they were given a broad structural outline with commonality in question themes.

This paper explores why India continues to struggle with disasters despite the shift in institutional focus at the national level. At heart, the issue is the struggle in translating the intent of international policy discourse into action on the ground - a widely-recognised problem in DRR. The knowledges that feed into the production of international policy and United Nations frameworks can be integrated into national-level policy but actioning these ideas in local contexts remains a key challenge; these knowledges are generic and not specific - and they often do not speak to the local realities, cultures and communities.

In this study we use situated knowledges to understand how the political, institutional, and bureaucratic context of a particular region - as well as the worldviews, values and knowledges of the populations who live there - guide the way that disasters are managed in the region, and hence shape the interpretation of national and international policy guidelines. As such, the paper makes a larger argument about the problematic inherent in introducing internationally recommended policy guidelines into locally situated specific contexts. We argue that translating the paradigm shifts recommended by these guidelines into action on the ground requires unpacking the positional perspectives of the existing paradigms.

Attempts at implementing globally informed policy goals without the acknowledgement of the situated positional perspective, and the corresponding epistemic values, lead to gaps in policy and actions.

The paper thus argues that examining the gap between policy and action for DRR in India in terms of a few functional challenges (hierarchal mismatch and funding challenges) is an incomplete and ineffective conceptualisation of the challenges being faced in improving India’s approach towards DRR. Our findings have instead shown that India’s DRR policy framework struggles in implementing its intentions because the policy discourse is decontextualised and shifts in understanding disasters as being driven by social factors have not occurred. Meeting these intentions would instead require a focus on:

a) understanding the way disasters are understood and experienced at the local level and

b) being attentive to institutional inertia faced in introducing a conceptual shift in DRR. Our findings suggest that effective implementation of international ideas and protocols in DRR on the ground is not simply a functional challenge which can be fixed with minor tweaks in the system rather, the failure to bring about a paradigm shift in DRR in India is an issue of differently assembled realities at each level of decision making. Not acknowledging these differences and instead enforcing a rigidly top-down approach creates a significant institutional inertia, which is both already present and enabled by a decontextualised approach. Interventions instead require engagement with the way that disasters are understood, experienced, and addressed in the local context.

Therefore, we argue that overcoming the existing gap between DRR policy and action requires attentiveness to a situated understanding of disasters and institutions at the local level, and not treating apparent gaps between policy and action as functional challenges to be overcome merely with new science from national level.

Click here to access the entire study

(The study has been conducted by A Ogra, A Donova, G Adamson, KR Viswanathan, M Budimir)

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Sunday, December 05, 2021