Broken Ground: Earthquakes, Colonialism and Nationalism in South Asia, c. 1900-1960

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Humanities


This project will examine the relationship between earthquakes, colonialism and nationalism in South Asia over a 60-year period. It will answer a key question in disaster risk reduction (DRR) studies: how far do natural disasters cause or catalyse political and social change? While some scholars recognise that vulnerability to disasters results from historical processes such as economic marginalisation, attempts to understand their political impacts are hampered by the relatively short timeframes that DRR studies employs (up to ~10 years). This presents an opportunity for historical research on natural disasters such as earthquakes, which have occurred in the more distant past. I will develop long-term perspectives on the local and national political developments that earthquakes interrupted (or did not interrupt); and on earthquakes' continuing repercussions. I will therefore transform the DRR debate over disasters' political impacts while shedding new light on human interaction with extreme natural processes, a growing concern in environmental history.

I will investigate three earthquakes that occurred during the early 1930s in the British Empire in South Asia: in Pyu, Burma (Myanmar), 1930; in Bihar (India) and Nepal, 1934; and Quetta (India, later Pakistan), 1935. Each earthquake was large and deadly, and all took place during a time of increasing nationalist resistance to British rule. They are apt for analysis because they shared a broad regional political context, while affecting different physical and social landscapes. A study of the three together will yield insights into the nuanced temporal and spatial development of earthquake politics, with broader intellectual ramifications than existing earthquake histories, which address single earthquakes in isolation.

I will ask three linked research questions:
1. Whom (and where) did the earthquakes affect, to what extent, and why?
2. What impacts did the earthquakes, and reconstruction activities, have on political developments at local, regional and 'national' scales?
3. To what extent did the physical effects of the earthquakes (such as destruction of communications infrastructure or causing rivers to change course) alter the geographical basis of colonial rule?

The project provides a new window onto important issues for imperial historians (the colonial state and nationalism), environmental historians (landscapes' agency), and decolonisation historians (transitions from colonial to postcolonial rule). I will be the first to address political change in historical disaster contexts while examining ongoing interactions between humans and the environment in South Asia.

I, with the PDRA, will conduct longitudinal studies of the affected regions. The timeframe will extend from c. 1900 to c. 1960 (when archival material for postcolonial South Asia becomes scarce), analysing a ~30-year period each side of the earthquakes. I will therefore place the earthquakes among the major transitions that accompanied the growth of anticolonial nationalism and decolonisation in South Asia. We will conduct archival research in the UK, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan; and produce maps of earthquake damage and reconstruction activities, highlighting the disasters' spatial politics.

We will disseminate our findings to scholars through several major publications. I will publish a monograph with a leading university press and an article in a leading DRR journal. The PDRA will publish an article in a major peer-reviewed journal. I will disseminate the research to non-academic stakeholders through a Policy Brief (a short summary of the research findings, aimed at policy makers) and a Policy Workshop in London.

Planned Impact

The project will benefit the following non-academic stakeholders:

1. Disaster managers. Organisations involved in planning for and responding to disasters range from international bodies (such as the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction), through national and regional planning authorities (such as India's National Disaster Management Authority), to local NGOs (such as Youth in Action Balochistan, Pakistan, who have already expressed an interest in this research). My research will help disaster managers by providing an empirically-rich understanding of the political changes that can occur in the wake of earthquakes. This will help them to anticipate potential instability. The Stakeholder Workshop in Kathmandu will help me to identify the elements of the research most relevant to disaster managers, while sharing the results to date with key beneficiaries. At the end of the project, disaster managers will receive copies of the Policy Brief, which will draw clear lessons from the research that have relevance to their practice.

2. UK policymakers. UK diplomatic and commercial policy depends on political stability in regions like South Asia. Natural disasters, and the social and political upheavals they presage, are therefore a concern of UK Government organisations such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID). UK policymakers will therefore benefit from the research, both through its specific illumination of the modern history of a sensitive region, and through the more general conclusions that I will draw about the role of natural disasters in producing political change. The Policy Workshop in London in Year 2 and the Policy Brief will disseminate relevant parts of the research to policymakers.

To help frame and deliver the project's impact agenda, the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET), Kathmandu, will be a Project Partner. NSET is one of South Asia's leading civil society organisations. Its work bridges research and advocacy, incorporating knowledge and understanding from engineering, natural sciences and social sciences into policy planning. NSET is currently developing its capacity to engage with the cultural ramifications of earthquakes, making it an ideal Partner and meaning that we will both benefit from working with each other. From inception, I have discussed my research plans with NSET's director, Dr Amod Mani Dixit, in order to design a project guided by stakeholder needs as well as scholarly excellence.

NSET's role on the project will be to host the Stakeholder Workshop in Kathmandu, with invitees from South Asia's community of disaster risk reduction practitioners. Invitees will include Oxfam; the Forum for Human Rights and Public Health-Nepal; the Centre for Disaster Studies, Tribhuvan University, Nepal; the Network of Disaster Management Practitioners, Islamabad; Pakistan's National Rural Development Programme; and Rapid Response, Puducherry, India. These organisations have already expressed interest in participating. The Stakeholder Workshop will give me an unrivalled opportunity to engage with the non-academic beneficiaries of his research, to disseminate his findings, and to identify the most relevant parts of the research for the production of a Policy Briefing.

My research will benefit NSET and other civil society organisations in South Asia by providing the first detailed exposition of both short- and medium-term political impacts of earthquakes in the region. This will help organisations to frame disaster response policies with a clearer understanding of potential post-disaster political instability, and feed into advocacy work calling for more comprehensive and better-coordinated national and regional disaster response planning.

Further information on impact activities is provided in the Pathways to Impact statement.


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