The Curious Case of India’s Forgotten Disasters

Now the late lovely valley, Naini Tal
Stands as a witness of the frailty
Of human strength ‘gainst the o’erwhelming might …

These words by Hannah S. Battersby on the 1880 landslide in Nanital – the picturesque Himalayan hill town with a mango-shaped lake – lay buried and forgotten amid the many, lesser-known words, written in its aftermath. Much like the ephemeral national memory on the numerous disasters that have befallen India.

By Kritika Karki

Relief Web Reportfrom 2017 reports Asia as being the continent most vulnerable to floods and storms. Nearly 44 per cent of all global disasters occur in Asia and 70 per cent of all people affected live here. India ranks 3rdamong all Asian countries in terms of disaster occurrence. 

Yet, a quick google search on disaster memorials in India draws up a complete blank.

Nanital, though, proves to be an interesting case study. The 1880 landslide here killed 151 people and left many more injured. The walls of almost all cafés or restaurant in Nainital display precious, weather-beaten pictures of the hill town from over 150 years ago, and amongst these are images of the town wrecked by havoc post the disaster.

The Nainital Landslip of 1880 occurred at the north end of the town, killing 151 people. While the first known landslide had occurred in 1866, there had been a larger one at the same spot, Alma Hill, in 1879 - just a year before. Caption and image source.
The Nainital Landslip of 1880 occurred at the north end of the town, killing 151 people. While the first known landslide had occurred in 1866, there had been a larger one at the same spot, Alma Hill, in 1879 – just a year before. Caption and image source.

Not only are these pictures remarkably well-curated documentations of the disaster displayed proudly  in public places; they stand as reminders of the ecological fragility of the town, especially given the recent spike in its population. Yet, these images (unsurprisingly) trigger nostalgia rather than concern. 

Romanticizing the past is easy, but not affordable, when it comes to disasters. One look at the over populated landscape of the town suggests that although many remember not many understand the likelihood – or the potential implications – of a disaster.

This example is important because it highlights the very problem that is being faced by our society today – failing to remember our disasters.  

Why should we remember our disasters? 

‘Resilience’ is the ability of individuals, communities and states to absorb and recover from shocks, whilst positively adapting and transforming their structures and means for living in the face of long-term changes and uncertainty’ (OECD, 2013b, 1).

Remembering and commemorating the disaster is essential to positively adapting and accepting the disaster. The memory of a disaster can bring people together, making them stronger and more resilient. Establishing memorials, publishing personal narratives and imbedding them in institutions, are essential elements in sustaining public memory. Building monuments or commemorating the disaster also has a psychological impact on those affected. It is a matter of bringing the reality of the disaster close to home and our consciousness, wherein each individual draws from the experience. 

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) disaster risk reduction guide holds that the foremost step to disaster recovery and rehabilitation is having an anniversary or Memorial Day. Yet, amid the flurry of activities towards recovery and rehabilitation post a disaster, the decision on how we must remember it remains lost.  

Forming a bond with the disaster

The first step in this path of recovery begins with the individual and society forming a bond with the disaster. Cultural recovery one of the key ingredients of disaster recovery.  As Marthe Hoeflor details, cultural recovery following a disaster implies more than just compensation for damages, material reconstruction, and the adaption to technical requirements. It strengthens the whole process of recovery.  Disasters can influence collective memory and make cultural processing and integration of what happened potentially necessary. Such cultural learning can be supported by public education and awareness, creating an environment enables individuals to discuss and handle crises. 

Cultural recovery is an essential component of the overall rebuilding of a society. World Bank states cultural recovery as the certain ‘X – Factor’ in disaster recovery. The CURE framework, developed by World Bank encourages to adopt an integrated approach with culture as the foundation building on a people and location focused approach.  

How is cultural recovery made possible? 

The next essential factor is cultural adaptation of such methods. Japan is arguably the world leader in disaster readiness, a lot has been attributed to the social and cultural ethos of the country.  Every year since 1960, the country marks Disaster Prevention Day on Sept. 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Tokyo quake. At many Japanese schools, first-day-of-class celebrations include an evacuation drill.  Children in primary schools are familiarized with disaster drills, safe practices etc.  The country has internalized their lives with disasters and learnt how to live with them. According to the Japanese,  there is larger obligation to pass on the lessons learned and hardships experienced to the next generation through stories, collective remembrances and events. 

Cultural Recovery is challenging as is requires a deep understanding of the impacted region. It is important to strike a chord with each and every member of the society. When we talk about cultural recovery, it takes into account the cultural practices, memorials which draw inspiration from the land and sharing of stories. 

We need to understand the cultural fabric of the country and what will work best. It is important to not blindly follow practices or ceremonies done in other countries. The diversity of India demands a more tailored approach towards this aspect of recovery; especially when there are a million important stories which still echo through the passages of memory.

Encouraging signs

The Smriti Van Memorial is dedicated to the victims of the 2001 Bhuj Earthquake. Instituted by then CM of Gujarat, the memorial stands tall atop the Bhujiya hill overlooking Bhuj. The ‘Smriti Van Memorial’ has an impressive vision laid out. It aims to provide an experiential tour of the lives of the Kutchi people and the tragedy that ensued. Smriti Van is envisaged as a memorial with 13805 trees, mixed with a self-sustaining habitat, optimizing the watersheds through check dam reservoirs which will nourish a mix of trees downstream without any external dependence for energy. These reservoirs, in essence, will become the actual memorials. It will be interesting to see the reaction generated from a culturally relevant and functional disaster memorial.

http://www.earthscapes.in/smriti-van.html
The ‘Smriti Van Memorial’ at Bhuj. Image by earthscapes.in

There have been discussions of an Uttarakhand Memorial in the recent media.  While an emotional response and closure to the trauma are necessary, a disaster also needs to be remembered with dignity and courage. If the only remnant we have of the Kedarnath tragedy is film in popular media, we need to tell more memorable stories. 

If we are a country of emotional fools, we should use this to our strength and tell stronger and better stories. What we need are memorials of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, India Ocean Tsunami, Leh floods, Uttarakhand flash floods and the numerous others which seem to have been lost in time.  

(Kritika Karki is an independent researcher working on disaster risk reduction and resilience; with a special focus on tourism and its relationship with disasters. | Cover image by dlisbona/Flickr)

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