Mihir Bhatt is redefining disaster mitigation by viewing it as a continuous process of social development and community participation rather than as a short-term rescue and relief effort. His organization, the Disaster Mitigation Institute, is addressing disaster risk management from the victim’s point of view and introducing a long-term social security component in the process.
The New Idea
Disaster Mitigation Institute is an action-learning center that incorporates best practices evolved by different government and nongovernment agencies, donors, and affected communities, and disseminates them. Mihir’s key insight is that affected communities have their own coping mechanisms and learn from repeated disasters and know how to mitigate losses but can’t always use this knowledge effectively. DMI facilitates spreading these insights from one community to another and from one disaster to the next. The communities themselves are treated as partners in disaster mitigation and social security.
In Gujarat, a western state that has been repeatedly subjected to earthquakes, floods, droughts, and communal riots, Mihir’s strategy has been to promote bottom-up, community-based, people-centric disaster risk mitigation. His focus is on helping the poor in disaster-prone areas create secure mechanisms and institutions as part of a comprehensive approach to disaster preparedness and quick recovery. Mihir then works towards aligning the government, citizen sector organizations, and other national and international stakeholders and agencies around these community institutions.
Mihir integrates disaster mitigation with social development and thereby reduces dependence on short-term relief measures that have absolutely no link to social security and development. DMI operates in the large gap that exists between individual charity-driven relief work and big government-sponsored relief schemes. Mihir realized that disasters must be analyzed by the long-term impact they have on affected communities and mitigation must be a continuous process throughout the disaster cycle and not just a separate post-relief stage.
India is among the most disaster-prone countries in the world with 22 of its 31 states subject to repeated natural devastation every year in the form of floods, cyclones, and droughts, further compounded by unexpected calamities like earthquakes and communal riots. Continuous exposure to disaster risks affects at least one-fifth of the poor in India each year. About one-fourth of agricultural land is destroyed annually, and an estimated 10 percent of the poor cannot break out of the cycle of poverty due to such repeated upheavals. Yet India lacks a comprehensive disaster management strategy at the policy level, as there is no single central ministry that addresses disaster mitigation. For instance, while the Ministry of Home Affairs responds to sudden disasters like earthquakes, a repeated phenomenon such as drought is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture. The government’s National Calamity Relief Fund allocations of Rs 1,200 crores for five years is often used up in a year due to heavy demands from the states. Misappropriation of funds, delayed relief, poor reconstruction, and unfinished rehabilitation continue to plague the disaster mitigation process.
Every disaster is addressed in a top-down, event-specific, high-cost manner, and communities have little say in drought and flood situations which are annual features in many regions. The need for building the capacity of disaster victims has not been recognized by most policymakers, donors, disaster relief, or development related agencies. Poor populations have their own coping mechanisms and experience in mitigating disasters but few have been involved in larger strategizing. As a result, the security needs of the victims are not reflected in disaster response or in social security policies.
Policies for aid and assistance often have no sound reasoning—even if six districts face drought for three consecutive years, the government will not declare it as a drought-affected area if there are no deaths. Rehabilitation measures are also far removed from reality—an oft-implemented government scheme to help disaster-affected people is to employ them as daily laborers to dig earth without any eventual purpose. Disasters do not affect everyone equally. Yet the government and citizen sector organizations response is to offer the same relief and rehabilitation package every year. Citizen sector organization-government coordination is rare and the cost of delivery, monitoring, and management is high. There have been no studies about why certain areas face repeated disasters and how to reduce the impact of natural disasters.
Mihir has set up DMI as a framework organization of sector programs and activity centers with a multilevel, multidisciplinary team of professionals and community workers. DMI uses a participatory approach documenting traditional knowledge and then creating mitigation strategies that take into account the cultural, social, and economic sensitivities of the affected population and the region. Therefore, while they are quick to move in with relief work during a disaster, the major part of their operations fall in the post-disaster area with a focus on learning from communities.
DMI runs four pioneering sector programs—food security, water security, habitat security, and livelihood security, as well as eleven Activity Centers. The Activity Centers form the foundation of the sector programs, coordinating projects such as the Livelihood Relief Fund (LRF), the Emergency Food Security Network, Emergency Health Unit, Water Security Program, resource management, reconstruction work, monitoring and peace-building, as well as coordinating research, collaborations, networking and cross-agency learning. In most of the above, local communities are equal stakeholders comprising 50 to 60 percent of the organization’s membership and are engaged in doing their own vulnerability mapping and planning.
Programs like the Water Security Program focus on ideas for maintaining and increasing water supply resources. Pani Panchayats (local water committees) monitor water security in their villages while Pani Yatras (water rallies) are experience-sharing activities for Indian and international participants in rainwater harvesting techniques, drought-proofing, and desertification.
The Livelihood Relief Fund is a demand-driven package that caters to the needs of the most vulnerable members of a community: women, dalits, tribals, home-based workers, and daily wage earners. Beneficiaries receive assistance tailored to help them restart their lives they were before the disaster. There is ongoing monitoring and evaluation of projects to ensure transparency in fund allocation and use. So far LRF has benefited more than 11,000 people.
The Emergency Food Security Network is a network of national and international stakeholders researching new methods to evolve food security systems and to share food relief data. These new methods also allow for monitoring the relief process and providing continuous feedback from the affected communities, without which the quality of food relief could not be improved.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industries for Small Businesses (CCISB) has been founded on the principle of micro-mitigation. Owned and run wholly by the community, CCISB provides capacity-building training in commercial and business skills, market development tools, formal business networks, and creates an enabling environment for small disaster-strickenbusinesses—street vegetable vendors, handcart retailers, cobblers, roadside garage mechanics, and others of a similar nature. With entrepreneurship, empowerment, and ownership being its key strategies, CCISB allows small traders to collectively bargain and form partnerships with local authorities, wholesalers and big businesses in order to re-establish their foothold in the market.
CCISB thus focuses on micro-credit and affordable financial instruments designed to promote savings and cater to specific needs. The program also actively disseminates best practices across regions and states. Trade missions are sent out to other disaster-torn areas. Its Business Development Service provides information on dealing with disasters for the second time. The Best Businessmen of the Year awards started by CCIB among slum dwellers facilitate sharing of lessons learnt. CCISB has also been focusing on micro-insurance of property and health, an issue currently being taken up through the Regional Risk Transfer Initiative. Another recent DMI program, the Emergency Health Unit, has pioneered the triage method in India and trains communities in prioritization of medical treatment during disasters, medical unit preparedness, first response and emergency medicine, and resolving issues of disaster-struck HIV patients alongside others.
These sector programs are not always stand-alone—they are usually linked and meshed to provide the best solutions for affected communities. For instance, the LRF is linked to CCISB to make it more financially viable. LRF provides grants to applicants on the basis of their business plans, and then if the venture goes well, CCISB provides access to a revolving fund, which is replenished by community contributions and returns on loans. DMI is actively working to build bridges between vulnerable communities and government agencies, citizen sector organizations and policy makers. DMI’s Sphere Resource Center works towards setting minimum standards in relief and rehabilitation.
For long-term recovery of for riot victims, DMI has launched Community Learning Centers in riot-affected slum areas that bring in both Hindus and Muslims. Each center functions on a participatory basis with 50 percent of the money contributed by DMI and the rest by the communities. Along with peace and community-building studies, mainstream education, such as computer training, is also offered.
Finally, as part of his long-term strategy, Mihir works closely with state and central governments to incorporate disaster risk mitigation into the national development agenda. He has recently been invited by the government to start a central Disaster Mitigation office in New Delhi. Talks are also on with the Indian army to start work in Ladakh. Although he started in Gujarat, Mihir is making rapid inroads in other disaster-prone states like Orissa, Jammu & Kashmir and Assam, all the while consolidating his experiences and refining his strategies to scale-up DMI’s activities to a national level. Mihir has also begun collaborating with agencies abroad to fine-tune his development of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) on urban risks.
Born into an extraordinary family of among the best-known social entrepreneurs in India today, Mihir was named after the first Indian to swim the English Channel. Brought up with Gandhian values, Mihir went to a vernacular medium school, co-founded by Madame Montessori herself. Instead of examinations, the school followed a self-evaluating system which taught Mihir to introspect and self-motivate. The curriculum incorporated tours to the other states of India and initiated year-long projects in the host communities.
As an undergraduate and post-graduate student of architecture, Mihir chose to work on projects such as redesigning street markets for vendors and hawkers, day-care centers for children of rural laborers, innovative watershed management designs or building a new township for a tension-torn town in Punjab. A gold medalist in urban design, Mihir received a scholarship to MIT (USA) in urban studies, after which he worked for a prestigious US firm. However, student loans forced him to look for other avenues of income and in late 1987, he teamed up with two others and started a business enterprise, Global View Inc., to promote international television programming. The enterprise grew, was soon bought over, and Mihir paid up his loans and returned to India. Working with the ailing but promising Institute for Habitat and Environment in Pune, he brought in projects in urban governance funded by the World Bank.
Mihir’s insight into the problems facing disaster mitigation in India came during his stint with a national “Youth against Famine” campaign. While volunteering in Gujarat’s drought-affected areas, he observed that, year after year, one of the government’s pet schemes to provide work to affected people was to employ them to dig earth as daily wagers. And to what end, was Mihir’s question. He returned to his hometown Ahmedabad in 1990, where he started the Disaster Mitigation Institute with just three staff members.
A recipient of the Russel E. Twain Fellowship as well as the Eisenhower Fellowship 2000, Mihir is the founding member and on the board of a number of development and disaster mitigation initiatives. He lives in Ahmedabad with his wife, a former IAS officer who gave up her job to work full time in the development sector, and their two sons.