Resilience: Getting the Discourse Right!

Dr. Ali Adil, Founding Assistant Professor – Kautilya School of Public Policy

Amidst uncertainties surrounding the Indian economic growth and the ongoing pandemic wreaking havoc across the country, the climate question hangs in the balance. On the one hand, the Indian government’s support for the coal sector cast doubt on its commitments to mitigate the global climate crisis. On the other hand, the potential for climate adaptation through national programs like AMRUT, PMAY, Smart Cities Scheme, and SBM-U is inadequate due to these programs’ limited attention to resilience building or risk reduction. On 23 September 2019, the need for climate adaptation was brought (back) into focus by the announcement of a global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The CDRI is a multi-stakeholder international partnership to build resilience into infrastructure systems to ensure sustainable development.

The use of the term ‘resilience’ in India’s adaptation efforts, as across the globe, raises important questions about the discourses underlying its use and their eventual manifestation in practice—to avert, prepare, and recover from climate-linked crises. Compared to sustainability that urges continual preparation for an ever-distant future, resilience offers a more hopeful and optimistic outlook for coping in the face of adversity. Notwithstanding this optimism, the translation of resilience in practice encounters accusations of glossing over critical social aspects of equity, justice, and participatory democracy. In the first instance, the contention lies in the concept’s propensity for multiple interpretations. From an engineering perspective, resilience describes a physical materials’ (iron or plastic) property to revert to its original form or structure after being deformed by external forces. A more dynamic interpretation, departing from the former equilibrist view, appears in the context of natural and environmental sciences. Rather than seeking equilibrium, resilience preserves system functionality by reconstituting its structure in response to internal or external disturbances. For example, a water body that responds to high nutrient content by undergoing eutrophication can, within specific limits, revert to its original healthy state once the pollutant content decreases. Notably, in both these interpretations—both equilibrist and dynamic, resilience is mainly construed as a property of physical or natural systems, not social.

The third interpretation of resilience arises from its deployment to describe social systems’ capacity for self-organization in the face of crises. In contrast to the former two, this reading of resilience was a deliberate attempt to expand its disciplinary reach and, rather normatively, explain how societies react to disturbances. Insofar as this expansion sought to conceive social systems as inherently resilient and capable of bouncing back from internal and external crises with or without reconstituting their structure, it precluded attention to the source of these crises and whether the pre-crisis state was desirable at all, and if so, for whom? As such, the mobilization of a concept emerging from hard sciences to explain social concepts and constructs carries obvious blind spots.

Subjecting social systems’ capacity to normative conceptions of adaptation to withstand various crises reveals intractable incompatibilities between the concept of resilience and the contemporary social sciences. Yet, the concept has and continues to garner traction, as mentioned above. Insofar as resilience is mobilized as a foundational concept to construct visions of a future beset by climate-linked disasters, it has manifested in three primary forms. First, emergency management and disaster preparedness plans emphasize risk reduction and institutional preparedness like the National Disaster Management Act 2005 and the National Disaster Management Policy 2009 and 2016. Second, roadmaps for post-disaster recovery and revitalization. Given the lackadaisical approach to post-disaster recovery and revitalization in India, examples of comprehensive disaster-specific recovery plans are few and far between. An essential aspect of recovery is addressed by the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF), constituted under the NDMA, 2005, ‘to meet the expenses for emergency response, relief, and rehabilitation.’ Third, climate adaptation plans to emphasize ‘developing systems and structures in the present to forestall the challenges of a potentially catastrophic future.’

Each type of plan mentioned above draws on a different understanding of resilience, resulting in the differential conceptualization of the disaster, the communities or regions vulnerable to it, and the subsequent post-disaster recovery and resource allocations that must follow. Take, for instance, the emergency management and disaster preparedness plans. Inasmuch as these plans underscore a proactive approach to averting or minimizing the impact of climate-linked emergencies, their primary focus remains on reducing recovery times and instituting standardized response protocols, often at the expense of improving mitigation and preparedness. An inherent issue with a top-down recognition of a disaster is the persistent exclusion of the vulnerable community’s perspectives. In the Indian context, this raises questions like: does persistent malnutrition and hunger among the country’s poor count as a disaster, or does it only get registered when a severe drought hits? A nonparticipatory view of what counts as a crisis and when and where an emergency occurs consistently shuts out communities with the feeblest voice. Also, the inability to differentiate between different types of disasters—slow-acting like food impoverishment of large swathes of the population versus sudden shocks like floods and wildfires—results in emergency management and preparedness plans that emphasize the latter at the expense of the former.

Whether and how a disaster is characterized has deeper repercussions for post-disaster recovery and revitalization interventions. The policies and plans set into motion by post-disaster roadmaps, whether addressing sudden shocks or slow burns, carry normative implications for recovery and reconstruction. For physical systems, like energy infrastructures, these strategies emphasize increasing investments to harden transmission lines and expand distribution network redundancies. For social structures, these same strategies, quite rightly, entail reducing poverty and eliminating social vulnerabilities. But one need look no further than the aftermath of the migrant crisis and the official reactions (or lack thereof) to the unfolding humanitarian disaster. Incisive questions asked by Lawrence Vale, Director of MIT’s Resilient Cities Housing Initiative, in the context of Hurricane Katrina also apply to India’s migrant crisis:

“Is ‘the city’ resilient even if many of its poorest former citizens have not been able to return? Or, as is the view of some, is the city’s resilience actually dependent on the departure of many of its most vulnerable residents?”

Increasing resilience of societies against slow-acting crises like malnutrition, droughts, or growing economic inequality, for that matter, carries greater normative overtures. The slow-acting nature of such crises subjects the determination of their severity and remediating assistance to political vicissitudes rather than case- and location-specific evidence-based policy measures.

Finally, the deployment of resilience in climate adaptation plans, unlike emergency management and post-disaster roadmaps, is rendered expedient in anticipating an impending catastrophe as opposed to ongoing or begone crises. Determination of vulnerability, social and locational, to anticipated climate catastrophes, then, increasingly, becomes the province of high-level political committees and expert-driven viewpoints, which often cede no meaningful ground to the vulnerable themselves. When given as likely to occur, a crisis sanctions non-local and non-state actors to marshal citizens to embrace standard adaptation practices without reference to local ‘threat perceptions’ in relation to the crisis. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian constitution, which unfortunately remain ineffectually implemented, include provisions for poverty alleviation, welfare for weaker sections of the society, and devolution of State powers and responsibilities for economic development and social justice. Bolstering the implementation of these and other provisions to facilitate devolution to local levels is likely to improve urban and rural capacities to build context-specific adaptive capabilities, particularly for the vulnerable.

With its predominant focus on infrastructure resilience rather than explicitly on social dimensions, adaptation efforts resulting from the CDRI are likely to bypass the challenge of enacting feasible and effective social interventions to increase social resilience. Regardless, as India takes the critical step to building its resilience, it behoves policy professionals and civic leaders to question the optimism surrounding the concept of resilience, its potential for disregarding the vulnerable, and its propensity for being co-opted the dominant order.

Dr. Ali Adil is an Assistant Professor at Kautilya School of Public Policy, which aims to rebalance the role of Society, Government, and Business towards an Equitable and Regenerative India and the World.