New Research: The Justice of Disaster Risk Creation in Indian Cities

Source: Environment and Planning E

Source: Environment and Planning E

My recent work in India has sought to understand disaster risk in small cities, towns, and urbanizing villages, communities that are “off the map” for most scholars but that will actually account for much of the country’s urban growth over the next several decades. Many of these fast-growing communities are located in environmentally hazardous areas, and rapid urbanization has caused a precipitous rise in disaster risk. While most human development activities increase risk to natural hazards, how should we consider whether disaster risk in India’s small urban places is being justly created or shared?

One of my newest article attempts to answer this question. It is a collaboration with Jeremy Nemeth, an Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at CU Denver who studies the environmental justice of urban development decisions.

Conceptual diagram of a disaster justice framework

Conceptual diagram of a disaster justice framework

The paper makes two contributions to the literatures on urbanization, urban disasters, and environmental justice. First, it proposes a framework for evaluating disaster justice that we derive from the literature on procedural equity and participatory and communicative planning. The framework is broad, foundational and a-contextual, meaning it can be adapted by urban development professionals in their unique environmental and political context. It uses John Dryzek’s criteria for democratic processes: franchise, scope and authenticity. The framework allows urban development professionals to evaluate their decisions regarding disaster risk and “move the dial” towards more just processes and outcomes.

The second contribution of the article is the application of the framework to the Darjeeling Himalayas, a mountain region in northern West Bengal that is at-risk from earthquakes, landslides, and heavy monsoon downpours. To test the framework, we draw on data collected during six field visits to the region from 2013-2018. We were especially interested in the development of multi-story concrete buildings (MCBs), a relatively new building form that is at high-risk from earthquake and landslide hazards. In such an inhospitable climate and topography , how have urban development professionals allowed MCBs to proliferate? Drawing on 51 interviews with key informants knowledgeable about the urban development process, as well as participant observation and plan analysis, we find that the franchise, scope, and authenticity of development decisions about MCBs are low, making the disaster risk they create manifestly unjust. We then describe opportunities for professionals to seek justice through improved decision-making.

The full article is available here, and I’ve included the abstract below. If you do not have access to EPE, please contact me and I can provide you with a copy. The paper is part of a great theme issue on Disaster Justice in Asia’s Urban Transition, edited by Mike Douglass and Michelle Miller at the National University of Singapore.

Abstract
 The Darjeeling Himalayas is a rapidly urbanizing region in north-eastern India, increasingly exposed to natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, and changing patterns of precipitation due to climate change. This paper explores the complex roots of disaster risk creation in the region through the lens of disaster justice, asking: by what standards should we consider whether disaster risk is justly created or shared? And how might urban development professionals account for increasing vulnerabilities to natural hazards and climate change in their everyday work? To answer these questions, we develop a framework for disaster justice derived from the literature on procedural equity that considers the franchise, scope, and authenticity of development processes. We apply this framework in the Darjeeling Himalayas using the construction of multistoried concrete buildings as our object of analysis and based on data collected from interviews, plans and policy documents, and participant observation. This case study shows that a standard framework of justice is a useful starting point for examining development processes and their contribution to disaster risk, but also illuminates how considerations of disaster justice are unique to particular places. By using such a framework, modified to fit particular contexts and circumstances, we believe that urban development professionals can establish a more transparent and informed way to evaluate the justice of their work.