Does Voice Matter? Using Information to Make Relief Accountable in Gujarat
by Mihir Bhatt, Director, Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad, India March 2004

Information is power. Information in the hands of the powerless – in this case the victims of natural disasters – enables them to regain some power over their lives in the wake of a disaster. Questions such as who produces this information, how it is stored and managed, how it flows, and who uses it for what purpose are crucial.

The concept of ‘information is power’ is not new. For example, Mahatma Gandhi promoted Navajivan and Young India publications to play an empowering role during the freedom movement in India; similarly, Crosslines, an independent newsletter published by Crosslines Communications Ltd in association with the International Centre for Humanitarian Reporting (ICHR), exists to promote standards in disaster-related news reporting worldwide; finally ALERTNET of Reuters aims to empower the victims of natural disasters and emergencies by providing timely and useful information to humanitarian aid agencies and individuals working with vulnerable communities worldwide. All three examples turned information into a powerful voice.

Following is a brief account of the use of information to make relief to the victims of the June 1998 cyclone in the coastal Gujarat, India, more accountable.

The question of ‘truth’

The cyclone which hit Gujarat in 1998 killed between 3,000 (government estimates) and 10,000 (NGO estimates) people and caused an estimated loss of Rs.3000 crores (a ‘crore’ is 10,000,000 rupees). This does not include costs associated with loss of livelihoods. In the aftermath of the disaster, NGOs in Gujarat became impatient with the type and accuracy of available news as this was mainly partisan, covered only partial facts, and focussed on the dramatic side of the cyclone: who died, how many died, and who should be blamed. It was not interested in the loss of livelihoods, effective local mitigation efforts, or undramatic recovery and rescue efforts. PCCRR members (the People’s Coalition for Cyclone Relief and Rehabilitation; see below) on the other hand, believed that the media should assist in providing early warning of upcoming emergencies, information on accurate locations, estimated losses, as well as giving a voice to the suffering. Members also believed that the media should influence public policy in favour of adequate and effective relief, guide rehabilitation efforts, and ensure that specific events are not lost in public memory.

In addition, the Disaster Mitigation Institute (DMI; a community-based action planning and public policy influencing agency) was dissatisfied with the quality and top-down, charity-oriented approach of relief. Some international NGOs did not share information. As a result they ended up competing for relief resources, and there was little cooperation and coordination.

It was in response to this difficult situation that the Oxfam (India) Trust was asked to share its experience of running a media centre after the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra state, western India on 30 September 1993. It explained how the victims had a right to speak out about relief provided by the government and by voluntary agencies. Additionally, CHARKHA, a development news service which features positive development stories and provides training in writing and editing field stories for field workers, provided an example of how an indigenous organisation could provide the poor and marginalised with a voice in the decision-making process.

Combating Bias

In this context DMI decided to launch a newsletter for PCRR (at the time the Institute was part of PCCRR) an informal coordinating and advocacy group set up in the aftermath of the cyclone that consisted of 40 individuals and organisations who were responding to the disaster. PCCRR set up working groups to tackle various issues related to the disaster, one of which focused on the media.  The newsletter was published by DMI under the auspices of this group.

The newsletter was called ‘Vavazodu’, meaning ‘cyclone’ in Gujarati language. DMI’s past activities of publishing local experience and narratives of disaster victims in the form of books, booklets and information sheets meant it was well-placed to coordinate this initiative. An additional impetus was created by media analysis which considered published photos in the two leading English newspapers over a 10 day period in June 1998. The analysis showed that media focus was on the loss of government property and corporate installations rather than on the loss of property of the poor. Only five out of 76 photos showed ‘victims’. In addition, all the photos were of urban locations despite the fact that authorities reported that 2,938 villages were affected by the cyclone.

‘Vavazodu’ was published fortnightly. Funded by the Oxfam (India) Trust, it was a broadsheet of four pages. PCCRR members, local disaster-victims, the DMI team, and editorial staff provided the news and feature stories. The readership included disaster-victims, NGOs, CBO active in relief, and government organisations. Circulation was around 1000 and subscription was free. A total of 12 issues were published over six months after the cyclone.

Objectives of the newsletter

 

The main objective of the newsletter was to share local news and information that was either not covered or bypassed by mainstream government and corporate media publications in an effort to make relief more accountable. It gave victims a voice by publishing firsthand accounts of conditions, aspirations, and struggles of the survivors of the cyclone, and fed information from, by, and about those directly affected into the public domain. It therefore became a powerful tool in promoting accountability in the light of bias in the mainstream media, accountability of the government to the people and NGOs, the NGOs to each other, and of the NGOs to the people. Though the effort was small its implications were everlasting.

The newsletter also reported the activities and outcomes of the various PCCRR working groups, announced meeting dates and agendas, and reported minutes. In this way it was able to enhance coordination between PCCRR members. It became a powerful and useful tool for the PCCRR, enabling it to link its other activities of providing relief to the victims of cyclone through its 40 members in the whole of Gujarat. By organising it turned information into voice.

Lessons learned

An activist journalist and a local CBO leader were asked to review the performance of the newsletter. This review was planning oriented and covered the 12 issues as products, as well as the process of their publication. The team interviewed PCCRR-member NGOs and victims who received or contributed to the newsletter.

Based on the review, the newsletter was broadened to cover any disaster and relaunched with the title ‘Afat Nivaran’, meaning disaster risk reduction. Since its relaunch it has covered a local drought, the cyclone in Orissa, quality standards in relief, issues concerning the psychosocial impact of relief, and the use of the Sphere standards. The readership has expanded to 1200 and a Hindi language version for other states of India will be produced for the first time in March 2000.

Through the process of publishing these newsletters DMI has found that, while the field of development journalism is slowly becoming recognised, there is a need to build capacity in local media to develop disaster journalism; currently disaster and emergency journalism is restricted to the international media. In addition, when time and effort is invested in articulating ‘voice’ it has been found that victims do speak up. Without articulating this voice and presenting it honestly, impact is limited. It is time that the voice of survivors is recognised as an effective way of making relief accountable.

It was also apparent that NGOs have competing claims in terms of representation of the voice of survivors. In addition they often keep silent, or communicate only part of a full story. Thus the voice gets managed and mediated. While such mediation is mostly unavoidable, it can be counterbalanced with another version of voice. This means that, for instance, the publisher and editorial team of a ‘grassroots’ newsletter must access many versions of survivor voice.

Finally, it became clear that information can bring about accountability when survivors have access, as well as the opportunity, to use it. Also, the source that brings out or legitimises survivor information or voice matters. Credibility of the source is important for authenticity of information.

Conclusion

Does voice matter? Yes, but to provide access to and space for voice is not enough. Voice and participation do not change the lives of victims. Voice needs to be translated into the access of opportunities; such access is mediated by institutions. Voice must therefore be incorporated into local, regional and national decision-making bodies and interpreted by sympathetic institutions. Voice that is not heard for a long time gets lost or comes out as a shout.

For more information contact the Disaster Mitigation Institute on: Tel/Fax: +91 (79) 658 2962 Email: <dmi@southasiadisasters>

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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