The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 affected several countries in Southeast Asia and caused an unprecedented loss of life and property along the southern coast of India. The islands of Andaman and Nicobar; the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu; and the union territory of Pondicherry (now Puducherry) suffered the worst. The government of India estimated the total damages to be around $2.56 billion (United Nations Development Program 2005). Of the 10,750 deaths in India, Tamil Nadu alone accounted for more than 7,000 (Arya, Mandal, and Muley 2006, 53).
Marginalized from major communication and economic flows, the poor coastal communities of Tamil Nadu were devastated and in most need of assistance for both immediate relief and long-term recovery. Fishermen lost their boats and equipment. The ingress of seawater into low-lying cultivated fields made the soil unfit for cultivation in large tracts of land, adversely affecting agricultural communities. Housing and habitat were devastated, and more than one million individuals, including those providing ancillary support to the fishing communities, were without livelihoods. Angela Keys, Helen Masterman-Smith, and Drew Cottle describe the victims as "undocumented, abandoned and ignored by their governments, forced to subsist in districts with little or no infrastructure" (2006, 197). Philippe Regnier and his colleagues (2008) confirm that the political leaders of southern India had largely ignored these coastal communities even before the tsunami.
Even though the Indian government was quick to announce liberal ex gratia payments from public funds and to hand out relief materials, most government efforts were at best inefficient and ineffective (Perry 2007). Keys, Masterman-Smith, and Cottle (2006) characterize the Indian state's response as one dominated by indifference. The Asian Human Rights Commission (2005) described the relief efforts in India as pathetic. Celine Thevenaz and Sandra Resodihardjo (2010) argue that the socioeconomic structure of the affected population might have been a significant factor in the government's inappropriate response to the emergency. The Asian Human Rights Commission (2005) noted that most government-sponsored relief and recovery efforts were concentrated in the prosperous Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, while other areas were ignored for a lack of political allegiance.
In addition to immediate relief, government efforts failed at restoring housing and sustainable livelihoods, both of which are instrumental for a successful recovery (Human Rights Watch [HRW] 2005; H. Rodriguez et al. 2006; Raju 2013). Policies instituted for redevelopment planning, in particular the government's attempt to relocate fishing communities inland, contributed to creating regime uncertainty and delayed the resumption of everyday activities (Rice 2005; Raju 2013). Fishing communities were frustrated by the regulatory policies that were claimed to have been instituted for their protection (Krishnakumar 2005; S. Rodriguez et al. 2008). Karen Kayser, Leslie Wind, and R. Ashok Shankar (2008) argue that for most men living in the affected areas, returning to normalcy meant engaging in their predisaster livelihood, but Willy Thoyce, the secretary-general of the World Confederation of Labor, criticized the federal and state governments on this point: "[E]ven after two months, fishermen are unable to lead a normal life, as catches have dwindled and prices have fallen" (quoted in "Government Blamed for Neglecting Tsunami Victims" 2005). The government's response seems to have failed in two crucial areas--immediate relief and long-term redevelopment, including restoring and fostering sustainable livelihoods for the affected population.
Friedrich Hayek's (1945) critical insight described as "the knowledge problem" highlights the obstacle of gathering and utilizing fragmented information held separately and locally by individual members of a society to facilitate social coordination in economic contexts. Russell Sobel and Peter Leeson (2007a) argue that a similar "knowledge problem" exists in generating information for natural-disaster management. They show that the ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina was a direct consequence of the U.S. government's failure to solve the knowledge problem.
Specifically, effective disaster management requires efficient information generation at three critical stages. The first is the recognition stage: Has a disaster occurred, how severe is it, and is relief needed? The second is the needs-assessment and allocation stage: What relief supplies are needed, who has them readily available, and what areas and individuals need them the most? The third stage is the feedback and evaluation stage: Are our disaster-relief activities working, and what--if anything--needs modification? (Sobel and Leeson 2007b, 520).
In this essay, I argue that the Indian government's lackluster response to the tsunami was likewise a consequence of its inability to address the knowledge problem. In particular, the government failed at collecting critical information in stages two and three. Coastal communities in Tamil Nadu came to believe that the government was orchestrating a "takeover" of the coastal land from the fishing communities to accommodate politically connected interests. Such concerns created a dominant pattern of pessimism about government intentions. Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr (2010) point out that people's expectations regarding their government's behavior in a postdisaster context influence the recovery strategies they adopt. In the case of Tamil Nadu, people's low expectations regarding the government's behavior created incentives for the adoption of self-help strategies for recovery. Widespread pessimism about government intentions contributed to the affected population's adoption of a mixed-strategy approach to recover)'.
In developing this argument, I rely on qualitative data collected by social science researchers engaged in field research expeditions that yielded information on disaster preparedness for, response to, and recovery from the tsunami. Such data are useful in gaining access to people's mental models, which shape their actions and reactions in the face of difficult and uncertain circumstances (Chamlee-Wright 2010). First, I address the knowledge problem in disaster-relief management in India. I then detail the widespread pessimism among coastal communities about government intentions, describe the rebuilding strategies adopted by the affected citizens, and, finally, consider the broader conclusions that can be derived from this case study.
The Centralized Response
India is vulnerable, in varying degrees, to different natural disasters. According to the Government of India's National Policy on Disaster Management, about 60 percent of the Indian landmass is prone to earthquake; more than 12 percent to floods and river erosion; 8 percent to cyclones; and 68 percent to periodic droughts (Government of India 2009). Different environmental risks interacting with specific local conditions and population vulnerability requires the use of decentralized, local information for effective risk mitigation and disaster management.
At the time of the Indian Ocean tsunami, India had in place a relief-driven disaster-management system, with no provisions for preparedness, prevention, or risk mitigation, and the primary responsibility for disaster management was with state governments. The central government bureaucratized the process by assuming the role of facilitator even though it had little or no local knowledge of risks and vulnerabilities. Anand Arya, G. S. Mandal, and E. V. Muley (2006) describe the Indian government's bureaucratic approach to disaster-relief management as burdened by multiple layers of decision makers and agents trying to coordinate efforts and communicate information.
The control room in the Ministry of Home Affairs provided information about relatives and friends through its helpline to the public in and outside the country. A cabinet committee of ministers was set up under the chairmanship of the prime minister to review the relief and rehabilitation efforts on a continual basis. The National Crisis Management Committee under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary drew up an emergency plan to carry out relief and rescue operations in the affected regions. This committee kept reviewing the relief and rehabilitation measures with the secretaries of the concerned ministries and departments as well as with the chiefs of the armed forces (Arya, Mandal, and Muley 2006, 56).
What's Needed and Who Needs It
In stage two of disaster management, "the most important information pertains to what's needed, who needs it, and who has the means to meet these needs" (Sobel and Leeson 2007b, 524). The information problem that plagued the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency following Katrina became obvious in the agency's allocation of disaster-relief supplies. In the first week of relief activities following the hurricane, the agency misallocated relief labor and supplies or diverted resources to superfluous areas or let them sit idle.
Similar information problems affected the Indian government. A year after the tsunami, HRW noted that the government's lack of understanding of local needs and an unwillingness to share information or decision-making authority with local leaders created problems for the delivery of assistance (2005, 10). It also took the government several months to complete its preliminary assessment of the damages and to determine where the relief was most needed. Havidan Rodriguez and his colleagues (2006), based on a research expedition through the tsunami-affected regions, note that local initiative, bolstered by external support and expertise, provided the most successful opportunities for sustainable recovery.
Instead of utilizing the expertise of local leaders...