The Political Economy of Indian Disaster Relief


A review of The Political Economy of Indian Disaster Relief, by Nakul Kumar.

Disaster management is a globally important topic. Different parts of the world encounter natural or human-made disasters with painful regularity, and South Asian countries are no exception. India’s population has high vulnerability to both natural and human made disasters. Nakul Kumar’s dissertation is a timely piece of research that addresses an important phase of disaster management—disaster relief. Similar to other “public events,” disasters also suffer the impact of social, economic, and political factors, and become opportunities for political leaders to further their agendas.

Rather unusual in structure and relatively short in nature, Kumar’s dissertation is organized in three sections, each addressing a goal. Using public choice theory, Kumar first investigates the question of whether self-interested politicians use intergovernmental grants to further their political agendas or not. Second, he uses the same framework to explain the failure of government efforts to carry out effective disaster relief in the state of Tamil Nadu after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Third, he examines the reasons for the adoption of a “self-help” strategy among poor fishing villages of Tamil Nadu, which are otherwise dependent on state action for their survival.

Chapter 1 focuses on the politics of disaster relief in general and establishes the specific geographical context by providing a background on disaster relief efforts in Tamil Nadu. Kumar first discusses how disasters are non-natural phenomena, and that mishandled natural hazards can turn into disasters. In explaining this, he also discusses the role of government in disaster management. Government is primarily responsible for addressing the needs of the population it serves. Policy-creating is a tool generally used by the government to reduce the vulnerability of a population, particularly during non-crisis time; during times of crisis, government is responsible for disaster relief efforts. The process of developing policies is political in nature, and thus it takes place through several political negotiations among the political parties.

Using evidence from the literature, Kumar argues that political-actors act mainly in self-interest with little regard for the needs of their constituents. In the case of India, this is reflected in the two stages of disaster preparedness and disaster relief. Kumar discusses the power abuse of political actors in the redistribution of resources, and through a literature review, is able to make the point that due to a tendency to politicize “popular” disasters, this practice impacts heavily on the priority of resource allocation. In this chapter, Kumar offers a good background on the government’s inadequate preparations for dealing with the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and how this event changed the development approach taken by the government(s).

Following up on this, Kumar discusses the concept of the political economy of public good provision and presents the literature on the quality of public good provision in India specifically. Here, the author argues that the “politicization of public good provision and resource transfer is explained by institutional constraints, specifically those created by a country’s political structure and other rigidities under which policies are formulated” (p. 9). After discussing various models, he concludes that public choice theory offers a “skeptical view of public good provision, and argues that the political actors use these resources to serve their own personal interests” (p. 30). The Indian political system and its nature of fiscal federalism thus promote the use of resources that favor the politicians in the Central government, as the distribution of resources is not necessarily based on the needs of the population. Disaster relief in India is politicized rather than need-based. At the end of this chapter, Kumar presents the hypothesis and checks whether or not “resources released by the coalition government at the center from the National Calamity Contingency Fund, to bolster the state’s efforts to provide disaster relief, are motivated by the desire of the coalition formateur to retain coalition stability” (p. 31).

In the second chapter, the author discusses the shortcomings of a centralized governmental response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, making a case for greater decentralization and community involvement in disaster management. The introductory section presents a discussion of India’s political system and its federal fiscal model in the context of disaster management. Taking the “public choice” perspective, here institutional details concerning intergovernmental transfers in the country are explained as a factor of a political system that plays an important role in the decision-making process of government actors.

Kumar outlines his research framework and develops a model for assessment in this section. Using data from the periods 1997-1998 to 2010-2011, he includes data from all twenty-one states, including “Major” and “Special Category” states. Data was collected on several variables: the data on the dependent variable, the per capita Natural Calamity Contingency Fund, was obtained from the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, as well as the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi. Political alignment is selected as an independent variable, and a positive relationship is assumed between the two. The model is controlled for the state’s income, population, and budgetary performance. To establish controls, Kumar uses data from the per capita Net State Domestic Product (NSDP) and the state’s primary deficit (PD), collecting this information from the Handbook of Statistics on the Indian Economy, published annually by the Reserve Bank of India.

To control for the severity of the disasters, the variables Deaths and Severe are included in the study. The Deaths variable represents the total number of deaths due to natural disasters, while Severe controls for the number of recorded severe disasters. Election year and calamity year are considered dummy variables. Results of the robust regression analysis indicate that politically unaligned states receive larger resources from the national calamity contingency fund, relative to states which are instead aligned with the center. Therefore, in the context of coalition governments, a distribution of resources would support favoring coalition members for coalition stability and member support.

In the third chapter, Kumar explores the reasons for extensive community involvement in recovery and rebuilding efforts for low income populations who are more vulnerable and tend to rely more on state action for disaster relief. The author argues that the government response to the tsunami was not effective, as the regional government had little political or economic interest in the poor coastal community, and lacked local knowledge to assess the vulnerability of the population before the disaster hit the region. Therefore, the non-profit sector stepped up and provided relief in the affected region. Kumar addresses the government’s incentive for centralizing disaster management and the relevant problems for disaster relief; next, he presents evidence from the state of Tamil Nadu, comparing the disaster response of the state of Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake with the tsunami relief efforts. Using original documents and published literature, the author concludes that, as the Gujarat government had decentralized its disaster response and relied extensively on community participation for the provision of relief and long-term recovery, its disaster response was efficient. On the other hand, in Tamil Nadu, the response of the government was centralized and excluded local communities. The comparative analysis highlights the shortcomings of government policy and shows that the Tamil Nadu government neglected the local population and efforts of the civil society, and instead employed a centralized, bureaucratic approach to disaster management.

This research addresses the important topic of disaster management with a focus on the relief phase. It is important to develop knowledge about how government response to various disasters in the developing countries can be more effective, and this dissertation highlights the importance of understanding the social, political, and economic dynamics of disaster management. Exploring the government’s approach in dealing with their vulnerable population during the time of crisis is a step forward in that direction.

Triparna Vasavada
Public Administration
Penn State Harrisburg

Primary Sources
Finance Commission of India
Ministry of Finance, Government of India
National Institute of Finance and Public Policy, India
Planning Commission of India

Dissertation Information
George Mason University. 2012. 137pp. Primary Advisor: John V.C. Nye.

Image: A photograph of the 2004 tsunami in Ao Nang, Krabi Province, ThailandWikimedia Commons.

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