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Reframing disaster and recovery stories in India

There is a need to shift portrayals of disaster and recovery to ensure the needs of the most affected are met and that their voices are listened to, according to new research led by Roger Few at the University of East Anglia School of International Development and the Tyndall Centre.

Roger’s team included several colleagues from UEA, including Tyndall Centre’s Mark Tebboth, and working with researchers and media specialists at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. They looked at recent disasters in Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala and reviewed disaster and recovery policies, analysed stories in the media, and interviewed communities in the disaster-affected communities. They found that contrasting representations of disaster-affected communities has led to a mismatch between disaster response and the actual needs of the communities.

Disaster-affected communities are portrayed either as victims or heroes. Depicted as victims, the media tends to focus on their hopelessness and suffering, taking away their agency. Depicted as heroes who can tolerate adversity, their recovery needs are undermined. For example, fishermen in Kerala were portrayed by the media as heroes for the role they played in rescue operations during flooding. However, there was a lack of media attention to the severe livelihood disruptions they faced and the mental health stresses they experienced after the floods.

There have also been portrayals of communities as “bad victims”, or groups who were portrayed as overly dependent on relief or manipulating the aid system. For example, a government agency in Odisha said that communities have been focussed and reliant on getting aid, instead of helping themselves recover. In Kerala, government officials also started assuming that communities were exaggerating their losses to claim assistance and were misusing the funds they received. While there may be some truth within these claims, the research demonstrated that this is by no means universal, and a very selective view of the situation on the ground.

Previous studies have shown that the way disaster stories are presented by organisations, donors, and the media can affect priorities of disaster recovery and reinforce top-down approaches. For example, biased portrayals of affected communities and the way they are portrayed as deserving or undeserving of aid can impact their access to recovery support. A more concrete example is the negative portrayal of poorer New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina who were painted as a community that were too disordered to be helped.

Representations and perceptions of hazards also play a role in disaster management and response. Across the three case studies in India, the researchers found that politicians, government agencies, and the media have portrayed disasters as “shock events” that couldn’t have been foreseen or prevented. In Odisha, Cyclone Fani was associated with unpredictability; in Tamil Nadu, the 2015 floods were portrayed as natural and impossible to foresee; in Kerala, the heavy rains and floods in 2018 were described as a “monster” and that they were wholly unpredictable. These portrayals fail to consider how and why certain populations are vulnerable and absolve those who are responsible for their inaction in preparing for the disaster, which makes it difficult for disaster-affected people to seek responsibility and accountability from those who are in charge of disaster management and response.

Additionally, the research team found that disaster stories in India have focussed largely on tangible, material impacts. For example, the media and government focussed on loss of life and built infrastructure and less coverage on less quantifiable impacts like the disruption of cultural and religious practices, loss of landscape features, disruption of community cohesion, and psychological impacts post-disaster. While media coverage was focussed on housing reconstruction, communities said housing was not their main concern. They would rather like to see other priorities being covered by the media like access to water, access to health facilities, and disruption of electricity.

Misaligned norms and values in disaster recovery also lead to conflicting priorities and sow mistrust among stakeholders. As an example, the approaches taken by NGO’s and the private sector on house construction post-disaster in the three disaster situations in India were found to be insensitive to local culture and values. The communities found that the new houses built did not respect traditional housing design.

Media, government officials, and other powerful individuals are mostly responsible for the portrayals of disasters and disaster-affected communities. “Ideas that are expressed by more powerful individuals, who have access to the media and who have networks and resources to influence stakeholders, dominate the public discourse. This downplays or diverts from the disaster recovery needs expressed by some groups,” said Roger. “We need to shift our stories in the way we portray disaster and recovery to better match the needs and voices of those most affected, especially for those whose poverty and marginalisation make the process of recovery an especially prolonged struggle,” he concluded.


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