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Seminar on "Social and Environmental Insecurities in Mumbai: Developing a Sociological Perspective on Vulnerability"

Dr. D. Parthasarathy, Visiting Senior Research Fellow
Sustainable Cities Cluster, Asia Research Institute
National University of Singapore

Date: 17 October 2008, 2pm- 3.30pm
Venue: Conference Room 1, RSIS, NTU

About the Seminar

In this seminar Prof. Parthasarathy offered a sociological perspective in looking at the issue of vulnerability with regard to climate-related disasters. The speaker sought to address the issue of vulnerability caused by environmental insecurity and the way society dealt to mitigate and manage these risks. The speaker based his case study on Mumbai as India’s largest city in terms of population size, its commercial and financial capital.

Broader Understanding of the Concept of Vulnerability

The sheer scale of impact of disasters over the last few decades and the increasing variety of sources of insecurity had compelled social scientists to study their possible causes and impacts in greater detail. The speaker argued that despite terms such as risk and vulnerability emerging as the two most widely used concepts in disaster and disaster mitigation literature, their conceptual and theoretical development had been limited largely to economic and financial aspects. The speaker offered a sociological understanding of vulnerability to capture the greater complexity of the social structures of developing countries. A better understanding of the concept of vulnerability would enhance the understanding of classic sociological categories, such as caste, class, race and gender, the interconnections between these, and the larger relationship between forms of inequality and discrimination on the one hand, and exposure and vulnerability to disaster on the other. The speaker argued that there had not been any comprehensive study that link poverty, inequality, and discrimination, to environmental risks in Mumbai.

The speaker was looking at the inter-connections between different categories of inequality and social stratification, the ways in which these played out in urban space, and the relational dynamics between society and the environment were brought to light. In the presentation, the speaker countered popular views which tend to blame state agencies and encroachments for enhanced environmental hazards in the city, and instead brought out a more complicated picture of the links between poverty, power distribution in society, discrimination, and environmental changes and shifts all leading to enhanced risk, insecurity, and vulnerability for specific sections of the population. The speaker argued that blaming of authorities could be a cover-up for society’s own failures especially in addressing inequality, exclusion, and discrimination issues. Authority blaming could co-exist with scapegoating of the marginalised for society’s vulnerability to natural or human induced hazards.

The speaker defined vulnerability as “defencelessness, arising from a lack of means to prevent or cope with damaging loss to life and property, the lack of means triggered or influenced by multiple and intersecting incapabilities induced by marginalisation, subordination, discrimination or exclusion”. Vulnerability was derived from exposure to risks and shocks, and          an inability to manage these risks and shocks (adaptive capacity).

The Concept of Prismatic Vulnerability

By taking the case of Mumbai, the speaker presented the increased exposure and vulnerability of the area to climate change events. He took into account the issue of blaming, marginalisation and vulnerability. He introduced the concept of ‘prismatic vulnerability’ which argued for the need to explain culturally driven processes of social construction of risk, risk perception and allocation of blame, analyse the refraction of inequality and discrimination in quite different ways by different forms of vulnerability to disasters, and draw out the implications of the emergence of a risk society in a deeply hierarchical social structure which further strengthens social cleavages in terms of risk management and mitigation strategies as well as post-disaster relief and rehabilitation strategies. The presentation was focused on relationship between forms of marginalisation and dis-privilege, and human insecurity that created conditions of risk and vulnerability. Prismatic Vulnerability was defined as “outcome of refraction of various inequities and adverse factors in society through a particular hazard such as flooding, war, or epidemic”.

Exposure to risk was not considered the same with vulnerability. The speaker argued that vulnerability depended on type of risk that one was unable to cope with or adapt to, types of discrimination one was subject to, one’s social and political status in a context of social and spatial marginalisation and exclusion. Vulnerability outcomes observed in actual impacts of disaster and effective relief, rehabilitation, and mitigation were affected by intersections of different forms of inequality, and particular axis of discrimination that was refracted by the disaster and by relief and rehabilitation measures. Same axis of discrimination or inequality (gender, ethnicity, class, or caste) may get refracted by different hazards into very different forms or levels of vulnerability.

Based on the idea of prismatic vulnerability that different segment of society due to refract through a disaster and result in unique forms of vulnerability, the speaker argued that there should be a unique approach or strategy in addressing this issue. The speaker suggested a participatory planning in mitigating the risk of climate-disasters.

Question and Answer Session

The discussion in the Q&A session evolved around the effort to overcome inequality in relation to disasters, and the role of central and state governments in India, civil society organisations and the private sector in addressing the vulnerability of a society in mitigating disasters.

Disaster and Inequality

The concept of ‘disaster as a catalyst’ was different from the concept of ‘prismatic vulnerability’. ‘Disaster as a catalyst’ explained about a phenomena where society reorganised itself in respond to a disaster, while prismatic vulnerability drew the discussion to the effort to overcome inequality as means to mitigate the vulnerability of a society risked by disasters. From this perspective, risk became an opportunity to address inequality in the society. Thus, it was imperative to factor in alleviation of inequality in disaster prevention and also recovery planning. However, in the case of Mumbai-India, it was a very challenging task to do because the system and the culture had been deeply rooted.  

The Role of Various Stakeholders In The Issue of Vulnerability

In terms of urban city planning and disaster management, the central government of India was only responsible in providing funds. The implementation was the authority of the state governments. According to India’s Constitution, the central government should not override the state governments’ authorities except for some particular matters such as civil war, etc. The government was expected to assist the resettlement of vulnerable populations living in slum areas of urban cities by providing housing, creating job opportunities and maintaining populations’ livelihood. However, there were problems such as corruption, politics of land, economic reform that did not favour the poor and marginalised and the lack of participation of the affected populations in the urban city planning and disaster mitigation planning.

Civil society organisations and private sectors were also expected to play a role in empowering and transforming the society in order to address inequalities which in turn would contribute to mitigating vulnerabilities. However, the speaker argued that the corporate sectors and the media had not been very helpful.

About the Speaker

Prof. D. Parthasarathy is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Sustainable Cities Cluster at Asia Research Institute, NUS, till July 2009. Prof. Parthasarathy has taught and researched in inter and multi-disciplinary areas pertaining to urban studies, development studies, technology impact assessment, and vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. His other areas of interest include caste/ethnic conflicts, women and development, and law and governance. He is the author of Collective Violence in a Provincial City (OUP, 1997), and is currently co-editing a book on microfinance and women’s empowerment in India. He has authored or co-authored several articles in journals, edited books, and conference proceedings in the above areas. He has held consultancy positions with several Indian and international agencies, and has carried out research projects for several Indian government agencies. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the International Beliefs and Values Institute (James Madison University, USA), member of the Task Force on Micro-finance (Government of Maharashtra), Convenor of the Research Committee on Economy, Polity, and Society (Indian Sociological Society), and member of the research team developing India’s National Communication to the UNFCCC.


Posted on: 17/10/2008 2:00:00 PM  |  Topic: Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters


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