The Political Biography of an Earthquake, by Edward Simpson

The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, by Edward Simpson, Hurst £22/$28

When an earthquake hit India’s Gujarat state early this century, it swiftly killed 20,000 people and destroyed 400,000 homes. But it was also the trigger for still more powerful political, economic and social aftershocks that resonated long afterwards.

In his Political Biography of an Earthquake, Edward Simpson summarises this impact through the eyes of a local banker: “Although the earthquake took thousands of lives, the aftermath had slowly killed many more.” So Simpson tries to pull back from the immediate, ephemeral spotlight so typical of journalists, politicians and international humanitarian agencies.

Without reverting to excessive theory, Simpson, an anthropologist at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, explores the history of the most affected district of Kutch (with comparisons, perhaps overstretched, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake), and investigates the consequences of the relief efforts of 2001.

In these efforts, he sees – for good or evil – an underlying neoliberal capitalist agenda, with industrialisation, immigration and environmental degradation accelerated if not caused by the reconstruction efforts. He also identifies as a consequence of the relief efforts a more virulent form of Hindu nationalism that helped bring to greater influence local politician Narendra Modi, now a prime ministerial contender.

Simpson provocatively suggests the need for an alternative view of “humanitarians” as trespassers, “their actions no longer ... so routinely sensible or so morally untouchable”.

While Simpson’s conclusions are sometimes ambivalent, his many years of research in the region provide important material for reflection beyond the usual focus on local government failure and the need to accelerate foreign help after disasters – seen again after November’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

He describes “carpetbaggers” exploiting the post-earthquake chaos. At the most extreme, there was Derek Slade, a charismatic British teacher who raised money in the UK for a school for orphaned boys in Mandvi, an area to which he had few links, and whose pupils were recruited elsewhere. Concerns grew about his unorthodox methods before he was ultimately convicted of child abuse.

Yet even assistance from those with higher moral intentions and greater cultural affinity was often insensitive. In one example, a Gujarati temple association in the US adopted a devastated village and built a new one of shoddy huts, “badly built to appear authentic, but without traditional construction methods”. The village resembled a “drive-in” for tourists in search of handicrafts, “much as many returning diasporic Gujaratis like to experience village life”, Simpson writes. “In essence, they built the kind of village that a motorised, wealthy, Gujarati-American would like to visit when on tour back home.”

As aid and external helpers arrive, Simpson comes across signs written in Hindi and libraries of donated books in English, despite a Gujarati-speaking population with high rates of illiteracy. Many Indian relief organisations imposed their own values, frequently ostracising Muslims.

International agencies brought an emphasis on “gender awareness” and “information sharing”, and communities were regularly brought together to discuss priorities on an equal footing. Simpson describes how, in reality, existing hierarchies of caste and religion were reproduced, and even reinforced, in the allocation of new land and buildings.

He initially criticises high-minded planners’ efforts to create characterless gridiron layouts, abandoning the sprawling, dense city centres that provided drainage for monsoon rains and storage for animals. But, travelling in the region a decade later, he concludes that these settlements proved better than expected at forging communities afresh. By contrast, the vogue for “participatory planning”, designed to respect local culture by involving community groups, “opened a Pandora’s box of choice, leading to social divisions which were otherwise latent and ill-conceived”.

Ultimately, his own examples are too anecdotal to be conclusive, and his refusal to judge can be frustrating. For instance, in describing how new open-fronted houses proved inadequate for the levels of privacy sought by, or expected of, local women, he asks: “Should intervening agencies be perpetuating the seclusion of women through their housing design? Should or could they interfere with gender relations within families? I will leave these questions open.”

But he is surely right to warn of future disasters: “Think of those who are suffering – but also be mindful of those who may have been waiting for such an event, and of what they might do next.”

The writer is an FT journalist

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