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

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

Abstract

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.

Publications

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Haines, D (2019) Shelter Projects 2017-2018

 
Description This research investigated ways that governments managed earthquake relief and reconstruction in early twentieth-century India, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar. All of these countries were under authoritarian governments at the time: the British colonial Government of India ruled over modern India, Pakistan and Myanmar, and the Rana dynasty of prime ministers governed Nepal. The research shows that the colonial state in South Asia developed a pattern of responding to natural disasters such as earthquakes, which evolved over time to become more interventionist. Furthermore, this evolution was driven by a changing ideology of state action that developed in the early twentieth century and especially during the interwar period, as the colonial state faced significant challenges to its legitimacy from nationalist organisations such as the Indian National Congress.

The research set out to identify long-term political changes that resulted from major earthquakes, but instead it found that there was little political change after the earthquakes in colonial India and Nepal, despite their size and destructiveness. Colonial-era governments prevented significant political change by quickly restoring the economic and social status quo. They limited the impetus for change through collaboration with key social groups, and selective use of repression. There was a surprising amount of cooperation between the colonial state in India and its major political opponent, the Indian National Congress, which reveals a shared vision of Indian society based on limited capitalism, the protection of private property and strict social hierarchy. This helps to explain the lack of political change after major earthquakes in South Asia: the question is not so much 'Why did change not happen?' As 'How did the governments in colonial India and Nepal successfully prevent change after earthquakes?'

Through detailed analysis of six earthquakes over tine, the research uncovered the evolution of the colonial state in India's responsiveness to major natural disasters. The level of government intervention generally increased over time, with the state taking a great deal of responsibility for survivors' welfare by the 1930s. But some aspects of the state's response were already well in pace by the end of the nineteenth century: specially, the government's determination to restore its own ability to project power over subjects populations by imposing law and order immediately after each earthquake, and then quickly reconstructing the physical infrastructure that colonial governance depended on - roads, railways, public buildings and communications systems. This shows that the core political objective in earthquake response was always to preserve state authority.

Assumptions in (social science) disaster risk reduction (DRR) studies about the political impacts of disasters, particularly in relation to repressive regimes, are too simplistic to account for the complexity of earthquake politics in South Asia. The research reveals that major South Asian earthquakes between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played a very limited role in driving political change, despite the very high magnitude and destructiveness of the earthquakes. Previous DRR analysis of disaster politics in South America and Western Asia has neglected the importance of collaboration with sections of Indian society, which the colonial state prioritised during its earthquake responses. The state also used post-earthquake financial assistance to recover colonial society's social and economic status quo, appealing to a widely shared vision of limited capitalism coupled with a strong social hierarchy, which major sections of the anti-colonial nationalist movement agreed with despite political conflict with the state. The state was able to control much of the narrative about earthquakes, presenting itself as a humanitarian benefactor of earthquake survivors rather than a political actor. Finally, when the state's material interventions and discursive capture failed to forestall political opposition, colonial officials used repression to quash dissent. For these reasons, the earthquakes did not cause significant political change, but this was because of the state's active programme of maintaining stability rather than because natural disasters simply lack the potential to cause or catalyse major change.

Overall, earthquakes prompted the colonial state to move into a modality of governance that I term the 'disaster state', which was defined by a largely reactive stance on environmental disaster, rather than the colonial government's more typically proactive approach to the natural world of extracting economic value through resource management schemes (often with significant political benefits to the colonial regime too). Examples of the latter included major irrigation schemes. Earthquakes' unexpected and locally-cataclysmic qualities also distinguished them from the way that the colonial state managed everyday hazard such as seasonal flooding in the Ayerawardy Delta.

However, the research also shows that each disaster was contextually-specific. Geomorphological factors (such as topography, river courses and prevalent soil types) combined with colonial South Asia's often-localised social and political factors (such as types of economic activity, strategic importance of some regions, level of local state capacity) and temporal context (in relationship to the overall course of colonial and nationalist politics) to shape the impacts of each earthquake on lives and livelihoods and its political repercussions. The course of the state's response and officials' relationship with non-official actors (especially the Indian National Congress) was dramatically different after the 1934 Bihar and 1935 Quetta earthquakes, despite taking place only one year apart.

The research also highlights the importance of secondary hazards and long-term perspectives on earthquakes. In highland earthquakes, flash flooding and landslip dams caused significant damage and killed many people, while earthquakes also affected watercourses on alluvial floodplains. Furthermore, in several of the six earthquakes I've studied, significantly more deaths can be attributed to long-term health impacts such as vulnerability of earthquake-affected populations to disease (in turn frequently associated with increased incidence and severity of flooding after earthquakes). This enables a more comprehensive historical understanding of earthquakes as complex environmental and social phenomena, whereas previous histories of earthquakes have tended to focus on narrower stories of urban reconstruction.
Exploitation Route The project might serve as a model for future work on earthquake histories, and the empirical and interpretive findings will feed into the wider study of the politics of natural disasters (in historical and present-day contexts).
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

URL https://brokengroundproject.wordpress.com
 
Description The project made several findings with implications for present-day disaster risk reduction (DRR) and humanitarian action. One is the overall story of how colonial-era governments managed the political fallout from earthquakes, and why political objectives shaped the nature of government response to disasters. This helps explain disaster management in South Asia today. Colonial-era governments were often effective in short-term emergency response, but did little to build long-term resilience to earthquakes. The project also shows that secondary hazards, especially flooding and intensified endemic disease, killed more people over 10-year timespans than earthquake shaking had done in some cases. This emphasises the importance of the recent trend towards earthquake risk reduction policies that focus on building resilience in multi-hazard environments, taking a holistic view. The project has engaged extensively with non-academic stakeholders, especially from the DRR, humanitarian and policy worlds. The National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, South Asia's leading earthquake risk reduction NGO, was a formal Project Partner. NSET gave feedback on the original objectives and design of the project, hosted a project workshop in Kathmandu in June 2018 for stakeholders from local and international NGOs and government agencies, and has remained in dialogue about the research findings and next steps for outreach dissemination. NSET will continue to feed into the production of policy briefing materials, and help circulate them in South Asia when they are ready. So far, the project has produced one major piece of policy-focused published work. This was a historical case study of the colonial government's management of the 1935 Quetta earthquake, published in the Global Shelter Cluster's _Shelter Projects 20178-18_ (2019, http://shelterprojects.org/shelterprojects2017-2018.html), a lessons-learned forum for the humanitarian shelter sector. The case study highlighted both the colonial state's effectiveness in short-term disaster management and the authoritarian nature of the political system that enabled officials to take draconian action. The project also produced extensive discussions with other stakeholders in South Asia and the UK. The most significant of these was a workshop in London in March 2020 for selected invitees from DRR and humanitarian organisations, think-tanks, and the UK Government. The workshop helped disseminate the project's research findings, generated discussion about the most useful aspects of the research for non-academic stakeholders along with advice on how best to target dissemination, and laid the groundwork for future relationships and potential collaborations. Further engagement with beneficiaries took the form of meetings with stakeholder organisations in the UK and Nepal, and presentations at conferences and symposia that stakeholders attended, across the lifetime of the project. As of March 2020, the major impacts of this research for non-academics are still works in progress.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Other
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Research & Enterprise Development (Uni. of Bristol) Partnership Engagement Fund
Amount £775 (GBP)
Organisation University of Bristol 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2018 
End 06/2018
 
Description Partnership with NSET 
Organisation National Society for Earthquake Technology
Country Nepal 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I and my postdoctoral researcher (Das) led a special workshop panel at NSET's Risk2Resilience conference in Kathmandu, June 2018, to deliver interim project results to disaster risk reduction sector stakeholders and give them an opportunity to have input to the project's ongoing design.
Collaborator Contribution NSET provided a platform for the workshop mentioned above, made logistical arrangements, organised an expert facilitator, and put together the majority of the guestlist.
Impact Nothing concrete yet.
Start Year 2018
 
Description ADR conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I convened a panel 'What can DRR learn from history (and vice versa)?', including my presentation 'History on shaky ground: twentieth-century earthquakes in India, Nepal and Pakistan'. For an audience including NGO and humanitarian practitioners as well as academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://ukadr.org/conference2018.html
 
Description CARE meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Held a meeting between my research team (myself and postdoctoral researcher) and several members of CARE International's shelter team, to discuss relevant project findings and possible future impact-focused collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description London Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Held a day-long workshop in London titled: 'Does "authoritarian" governance have value for disaster management? Lessons past and present'. Designed to meet four objectives:
1. Disseminate research findings from my project
2. Receive ideas for the further dissemination of research findings (whom, when, and in what format to try to reach)
3. Receive ideas for collaboration for follow up activities and/or (research) projects
4. Develop links, connection, network

Participants included humanitarian and disaster risk reduction organisations (Medicines sans Frontiers, Save the Children, Capability Oy), thinktanks (Overseas Development Institute, Evidence Aid), policymakers (Department for International Development) and academics. A participant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was unable to come on the day but we have arranged a one-on-one follow up meeting.

The workshop achieved all four of its objectives, with participant feedback indicating a stronger sense of the importance of contextually-rooted historical study for practitioners who often have little access to historical information or time to research it. I received important advice from potential users on how to get research into the policy process, and several suggestions for future collaboration on both dissemination of this research and possible related projects (focusing on the value of historical research to humanitarian organisations).

Planning, organising and running this workshop formed the bulk of my activity on the project between October 2019-March 2020.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Meetings in Kathmandu 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Several informal meetings in Kathmandu between my research team (myself and postdoctoral researcher) and stakeholders/beneficiaries including: UK Department for International Development's Nepal office; Loy Rego, independent disaster risk reduction consultant based in India; National Society for Earthquake Technology (my project partner). Helped me to understand what aspects of the research are most relevant to potential beneficiaries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description ODI meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Meeting between my research team (myself and postdoctoral researcher) and staff at the Overseas Development Institute, London, to discuss relevance of project findings to disaster risk reduction practice, and possible future collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Stakeholder meetings in Kathmandu, January 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Held meetings in Kathmandu to present findings of my research and discuss plans for impact/stakeholder-focused dissemination and plans for future collaboration with my project partner (National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal) and another NGO interested in joining a bid for Follow-On Funding (Social Science Baha).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Website and Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A public facing website and blog. Intended to provide more information to interested people, and make the project more visible. No known impacts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
URL https://brokengroundproject.wordpress.com/