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Landslides in Pettimudi: social inequalities in disasters

  • Category
    Society
  • Published
    29th Sep, 2022

Context

The study of a landslide that hit Pettimudi highlights the discrimination shown to victims of the Pettimudi landslide when compared to victims of the Kozhikode Air India Express crash.

  • It depicts how the State’s approach towards the incident was influenced by the ‘social-economic position’ of the community.

Background

  • On August 6, 2020, a total of 65 workers got killed in a landslide caused by relentless rainfall in Pettimudi, a tea plantation estate in the Idukki district. In another unfortunate incident, the Air India Express plane crashed in Kozhikode on August 7, 2020.
  • The workers lived in a ‘layam’, a line of 10 residential spaces in a building provided by the company as accommodation.
  • Most of the workers are part ofthe second and third generations of Tamil migrant workers who were provided with accommodation by the estate owners.
  • The workers have continued to live in the accommodation (layam) provided by the estate owners in an ecologically vulnerable landscape.
  • About 22 of such layams were washed out, killing 66 people, all of whom were buried together due to scarcity of land.

About

Discrimination:

  • For the incidents that occurred, the government had announced a solatium of Rs.5 lakhs for victims of the Pettimudi landslide whereas the solatium for the airplane crash was Rs.10 lakhs. Both announcements were made on the same day.
  • The spatial inequality that impacted the disaster vulnerability of the community due to their social position was ignored.

Manipulating the narrative

  • Role of Media: The media portrayed the Pettimudi landslide as a single incident without interrogating the socio-economic complexity behind the situation.
  • Role of State: The actions of the state were reflected in the relief and rehabilitation provided. The States’ accountability towards the victims of Pettimudi was minimal, with the government sharing the responsibility of rehabilitation with the private company which has been using the land to control the lives of its workers.
  • Labour union version: The placement of the layam is in a landslide-prone region with poor maintenance. The lack of socio-political and economic power of the workers also factors into the situation.
  • Role of the company: The Company tried to control the news spread by only informing the government about the incident with delay. The delay in the arrival of the government’s rescue team is proof of the negligence in the incident.

Space and vulnerability:

  • Social theorists have theorized how “space” becomes a social product and a place for practicing discrimination.
  • The land is symbolic of the economic vulnerability of the labourer which has its roots in the history of slave labour. This vulnerability forces them to continue living and working in such deplorable conditions. This is how space becomes a social product and a place for practicing discrimination.
  • It was the ‘space’ of Pettimudi and the air crash which determined the different treatments it received.
  • These victims had no say in their rehabilitation process and were forced to accept government funds. It is a kind of social exclusion of a community that got translated into discriminatory solatium.

What does Vulnerability mean?

  • Vulnerability is the inability to resist a hazard or to respond when a disaster has occurred. For instance, peoplewho live on plains are more vulnerable to floods than people who live higher up.
  • Families with low incomes often live in high-risk areas around cities, because they can't afford to live in safer (and more expensive) places. This is what we call economic vulnerability.
  • Similarly, a wooden house is sometimes less likely to collapse in an earthquake, but it may be more vulnerable in the event of a fire or a hurricane. This is what we call physical vulnerability.

Standard procedures to be adopted in a disaster-prone area:

  • Alert the residents of the area in case there is a weather forecast.
  • Provide a temporary space for shelter, and if a disaster occurs.
  • Plan to rehabilitate the community with rarely any consideration of the socio-economic impact of such a shift of space.

Conclusion

For the sake of convenience at the administrative level, the ‘Vulnerability to a disaster is often dissociated from the ‘people’s socio-economic status.

It must be noted that, while doing so the root cause of the issue gets ignored. Such a dissociated approach has led to more disaster vulnerabilities among poor communities as disaster-prone areas in India are a result of unequal development or overexploitation of resources.

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