After the Flood

Graduate student Aaron Mulvany studies competing narratives of flood and recovery in South Indian coastal communities.
April 1, 2010

In 2005, six months after a massive tsunami devastated South and Southeast Asia, South Asia Studies doctoral student Aaron Mulvany visited India’s Coromandel Coast, along the Bay of Bengal. He was there on a grant to study Tamil, and a friend took him to a coastal village near the town of Pondicherry to hear the fishing community’s use of the language. What struck him, however, was the absence of any signs of rebuilding after the tsunami, which had hit this area of the country particularly hard.

“There were no houses anywhere,” Mulvany says. “Nothing had been rebuilt. The fishermen would not talk about the tsunami itself, but they talked extensively about how they felt the government was failing them.”

This trip, combined with a subsequent course Mulvany took at Penn called Public Interest Anthropology, inspired his dissertation research, which he hopes will “use anthropological research to do heavy lifting and practically impact the communities being studied.”

Mulvany decided to explore the competing narratives of flood and recovery told by the Indian government, by NGOs, and by flood-affected communities themselves to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of the recovery process—and where it might be failing. His research is focused on the Union Territory of Pondicherry, which was the only area of India under French rule and therefore has a distinct historical and political background. Comprising four scattered coastal enclaves, Pondicherry is marked by a long history of cyclones and floods.

“Over the last five years, smaller, local NGOs are recognizing that there need to be more grassroots efforts which take into account local needs and traditional coping mechanisms. The hope is that they will endure in a way that other programs have not.” – Aaron Mulvany

Mulvany spent the previous academic year in the field tracking down archival records from colonial and Indian governments on floods and speaking with government officials and NGO workers about rehabilitation projects that had been implemented. He also talked to fishermen and their families about their memories of floods and storms they have weathered and what their coping strategies have been. From their stories, Mulvany identified a marked difference between current attitudes and those from two or three decades ago toward dealing with natural disasters.

“It used to be that families wouldn’t and couldn’t really expect outside aid,” Mulvany says. “They would put away a cup of rice, some oil, a little money every week to prepare for an emergency. But they say they can’t afford it nowadays, and there seems to be a much greater expectation of help from the government and other organizations.”

Government and NGO workers agree that traditional mechanisms for coping with crisis are being lost, and they attribute this change to the need for more work outside the home. Although fishing hauls have increased over the past few decades, the increased profits have mainly been enjoyed by larger fishing operations with trawlers that can go further out to sea. The artisanal fishermen who live in Pondicherry’s villages still work at subsistence wages and struggle to meet the cost of living.

“There are more and more people looking to find additional work, which keeps them out of the home longer, or alternative work, which takes them out of the village altogether,” Mulvany explains. “And now women also often need to find work outside the home. So, there’s no one left to take care of home life and to pass on the traditional coping strategies that were defined as community standards just a few decades ago.”

He found discrepancies, however, in how fisher communities and government and NGO workers perceive the efficacy of aid that has been provided. Fishermen told Mulvany that they haven't been receiving aid at all. However, government and NGO workers claimed that aid has been ample, but that local communities have taken little initiative to capitalize on it to help themselves.

Neither perception, Mulvany discovered, is entirely accurate. The local and national government, as well as NGOs like the Pondicherry Multipurpose Social Service Society, have implemented many rehabilitation initiatives. Some, however, have critical flaws. For example, a newly built, NGO-funded housing colony that Mulvany toured in 2008 was uninhabited because the houses leaked during the monsoon and were too far from the seashore to facilitate the fishermen’s livelihood.

Other aid projects are aimed at basic development, such as nutrition and sanitation programs, health initiatives, and training women for alternative income sources. “These initiatives have been a way,” Mulvany explains, “to enforce regimes on communities which had heretofore been quite stubborn. This includes changes like reliable sanitation or moving communities further away from the ocean.”

Community members have been participating in these rebuilding and development activities, but they mainly tend to be women and older children. “The development is coming,” Mulvany says, “and it’s interacting quite successfully with certain populations in a given community, but the men aren’t feeling it because they’re not taking part in it.”

Mulvany will return to Pondicherry this summer, with the aid of a travel grant from Penn’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, to collect narratives from fisher communities about reactions to specific instances of post-flood development over the past 40 years. The ultimate goal of his research is to contribute to the development of response strategies that involve participation by community members from inception.

“What has happened all too often in the past,” he says, “is that after a disaster, agencies would come in and decree initiatives to improve the community without any input from the people who were being helped. Over time these schemes are forgotten, ignored or overlaid with new ideas, and you end up with a mishmash of plans, none of which work terrifically well. Over the last five years, smaller, local NGOs are recognizing that there need to be more grassroots efforts which take into account local needs and traditional coping mechanisms. The hope is that they will endure in a way that other programs have not.”