Extreme Weather, Risk and ’Social Crisis’: An Analysis of Un-Answerability

IRSHAD, S. Mohammeda

a Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Jamsetji Tata Centre for Disaster Management, Deonar, Mumbai, India, e-mail: mohammed.irshad@tiss.edu

Abstract — Extreme weather, especially cold waves, kills hundreds of homeless and destitute people in India every year. There has not been any effective risk aversion mechanism available to them. Existing development and disaster management frameworks are unable to address such risks. This exposes the institutional weakness of risk assessment and mitigation models. The economic limitations of victims devalue the importance of risk assessment and theorisation.
Keywords — Risk, Disaster Risk Reduction, cold wave, extreme weather, capability

1  Introduction

Beck (1992: 35) defined risk position as social inequality which would be severe in a situation wherein reflexive modernity is unequally distributed. He went to argue that the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risk. He further argues that risk distribution is unequal, i.e. some are more affected than others by the distribution and growth of risks. Beck’s argument of unequal distribution of risk is indeed an explanation of development inequality. Douglas (1994) argues that generally risk turns to a political issue and someone who is unpopular would be blamed for it. She further explains: “An alternative way of explaining misfortune is to attribute it to the work of individual adversaries. The moral will be that a survivor needs to be smarter than her rivals: they will say that the reason she died can be traced back to her not having been quick enough or clever enough in looking after her own interests; rival magic was more powerful than hers.” In short, the stronger the solidarity of a community, the more readily will natural disasters be coded as signs of reprehensible behaviour. Giddens (1991:171) has given an explanation of such behaviour with regard to risk: “Most people shut them (risk) out of their lives and concentrate their activities on privatised "survival strategies", blotting out the larger risk scenarios. Giving up hope that the wider social environment can be controlled, people retreat to purely personal occupations: to psychic and bodily self-improvement.”

The risk of being exposed to multiple vulnerabilities and disasters has social, economic and political reasons. The social and economic position of individuals plays a critical role in extending vulnerabilities. Individuals are forced to accept certain risks. The knowledge of such risk never desist people from being exposed to risks. For instance, the impacts of extreme weather conditions are different from socio-economic conditions. This paper is discussing, the impact of cold wave among urban homeless and destitute people in India. The paper argues that risk and uncertainty of these people are deep rooted in unequal development practice and the existing institutional understanding of risk management, including disaster risk reduction. Development agencies, disaster management institutions and political movements are incapable to deal with such deep-rooted social risks. The institutional understanding of the impact of cold waves is limited to offering temporary support to limited victims. This paper considers the impact of cold waves as a reflection of the persistent development inequality in India. It further argues that the victims of extreme weather impact are incapable to attract institutional interventions of state and other agencies. The incapability is structural in nature. The risk and uncertainty of these victims are remaining outside the purview of contemporary debate on risk. This paper is based on secondary data sources, existing risk assessment models and development crisis of India which have been critically assessed to study the impact of cold wave on poorest of poor in the country.

2  Cold wave impacts

Cold waves kill many more people in India than summer heat (see table 1). There were 131 people reported died in 2011 December1, another reports said that 133 died2, again in January 2012 150 people had due to cold wave3. The reasons for such deaths are seldom attract public attention. Since it is seasonal events and the people who are dying are also unable to challenge the government-socially and economically backward to put any kind of pressure on state. The risk involved in this scenario is beyond the theoretical perceptions of risk and uncertainty studies. Basically the risk of being exposed to cold wave is due to living under the open sky. This very common knowledge has many social and political implications in India. Risk mapping of the cause of death would question the development policies of the country, hence, the death due to cold wave should be studied in a larger risk perception.

Table 1: Cold Wave disasters in India from 1980 – 2008a
No of events156
No of people killed 11′565
Average people killed per year 400
No of people affected 6′875′103
Average people affected per year237′073
Economic Damage (US$ X 1,000)5′901′560
Economic Damage per year (US$ X 1,000)203′502

Source: http://www.preventionweb.net/english/hazards/statistics/?hid=56.

Cold waves induced deaths are being reported mostly from urban centres. People who are dying due to cold waves are in general homeless migrant workers and other destitute people. Distress migration is one of the reasons for large scale migration of workers from rural to urban areas. There are many reasons which push people from rural to urban centres. For example (1) the surplus capital of Indian industrial sectors are being concentrated in urban centres; (2) huge inflow of capital, including foreign capital, have created new development projects in urban areas. This leads to a huge flow of (cheap) labour force from rural to urban areas. There cannot be identified any particular locality where this labour force is concentrated. It again depends on the flow of capital to urban areas. There are many critical issues associated with such capital flows. The development which this capital puts in place is not offered equal space or support for an equitable distribution of benefits. The urbanisation in India also creates urban peripheries. Those people who are exposed to extreme weather like cold waves mostly belong to these peripheries. In this case the term periphery cannot always be physically limited to certain areas or structures, the term rather means social, physical and economic isolation. The rationale of this argument is that those who are exposed to cold waves in India are excluded from the physical structure of the urban periphery. As said before people who are exposed to cold waves in India are mostly homeless citizens. Homeless shelter manual (2010) defines homelessness as a condition of people without a regular house and whose night-times residences are public or private places not designed for using as habitual sleeping accommodation for human beings. The number of homeless people is increasing in India. (see table 2). The death of homeless citizens is accepted as a "seasonal issue" of homeless migrant workers, destitute and other marginal sections in the metros. For instance, the government of Bihar has announced an ex gratia payment for cold wave deaths. If any death reported due to cold wave, he/her family would get the compensation amount of 3846 US$. This money comes from the State Disaster Response Fund and the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund .

People who die due to cold waves are usually sleeping under the open sky and are therefore exposed to extreme weather. A study conducted by Mandir (2010) well illustrates that urban poverty and homelessness differ in many significant ways from rural poverty. The study found out that the urban homeless people’s work tends to remain casual, exploited and without dignity and security in the urban areas.

Table 2: Number of homeless households and people by sex in rural and urban areas in India (1981, 1991, 2001) (Ministry of Statitics and Programme Implementaiton, Government of India; accessed through Indiastat.com 2013)a
 Homeless people
ParticularsNumber of homeless householdsTotalMaleFemale
Urban209520 618843 406154212689
Rural420409 1724111 970358 753753
Total629929 2342954 1376512 966442
Urban216917725592 471077 254515
Rural305528 1281897 709291 572606
Total522445 2007489 1180368 827121
Urban187810 778599 502344 276255
Rural259775 1165167 634152 531015
Total447585 1943766 1136496 807270

aTable 2 is based on the 2001 census. No government level study has been conducted after that.

Since there is no official data to assess the homeless in India, one has to depend on non-official data? and media reports to assess the severity of the issue. For instance, 85,000 homeless people have been identified in the capital of India, New Delhi and their number is double in Mumbaithe economic capital India in 2010.

The life itself is under risk to these sections of the population. The social perception of risk and uncertainty does not apply to these conditions. The social reality rather than a social construction determines the risk to these sections. The institutional understanding of disaster risk reduction has nothing to do with the victims of cold wave impact. For instance, the India Disaster Management Act (2005: 2) defines disaster as a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes, or by accident or negligence, which results in substantial loss of life or human sufferings or damage to, and destruction of property or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area. According to the act, improving the standard of living of the people who are exposed to grave occurrence is part of disaster management. However, even then cold wave victims are not yet included in the Disaster management framework. The major hurdles are the institutional structure of the Disaster Management Act (DM Act) and the pervasive nature of cold wave impacts. The victims are scattered across the nation, hence, the response of the state cannot go beyond offering temporary shelters. The financial allocation under the act also does not permit the institutions of disaster management to get into the problems of these people. Section 46 (1) and Section 48 (1) of DM act insists on the National Disaster Response Fund at the national level and the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) at the state level and the District Disaster Mitigation Fund at the district level. The National Disaster Mitigation Fund spends by government and there are some guidelines for spending state disaster response funds. According to the DM Act, the SDRF shall be used only for providing immediate relief to the victims of cyclones, drought, earthquakes, fires, floods, tsunamis, hailstorms, landslides, avalanches, cloud bursts and pest attacks . The guidelines for utilising the Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) also refer to the same incidents as a calamity and are eligible for financial support from CRF. There is no institutional support in India to tackle the problems of shelter less and homeless people. For instance, the schemes such as the Slum Rehabilitation Act-1995, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewable Mission and Valmeki Ambedakar Awas Jojana arts are available for urban slum dwellers. These programmes and approaches are limited to those who live in the slums and not for floating homeless citizens. Those who are living under the open sky during extreme winter

3  Current initiatives

Many NGOs and academic institutions are engaged in running night shelters and the distribution of woollen clothes to those who sleep under the open sky. However, these ongoing support systems are not adequate enough to help the victims of cold waves. There is a miss match between demand and supply of temporary shelter and warm cloths. This is evident from the rising death toll due to extreme weather across the country. For this reason, this demand supply gap should be reduced. The only institutional option available to offer basic minimum support to homeless people in India is to declare cold waves as a disaster. The positive impact of this option would be that money will be spend under the Disaster Response Fund and the scope of current urban development programmes in line with the needs of the homeless in the cities will be extended.

4  Discussion

There is no proper assessment of the number of people who died due to cold waves. The government of India has provided statistics on the homeless population in India in its population census 2001, and it is indeed a capability issue. The capability of individual and the state are equally important in mitigating the cold wave impact. These two are interrelated. The state is unable to break the vicious risk cycle of the individuals through its institutions. This proposition is applicable to all development projects; however, compared to other development exclusion, here the state institutions are becoming incapable to get into the issue of risk mitigation. The whole development becomes a risk for the homeless citizens.

The attempts to declare cold waves as a disaster might eventually help locate the intervention areas of the state. However, this project has not been completed. The major challenges ahead are; a) the disaster management framework does not work among scattered populations, b) inadequate programmes and projects to address the root cause of risk creation-homelessness and social exclusion.

The urban governance is also creating risk to the community. For instance, about 500 families have been forcefully displaced and their houses have been pulled down in the extreme winter of December in the capital of India, New Delhi. Human Right in India (Status Report 2012) has referred that urban renewal schemes, city beautification projects, real estate and Common wealth games had displaced 200,000 people in India. The risk models, development support systems and even the disaster management frameworks are inadequate to address homeless and seasonal migrant workers living in the metros. These people are exposed to risks and they have no singe agency to blame. The root cause of risk, the social crisis, becomes unnoticed. The theoretical propositions of risk studies are unable to conceptualise the "risk" of migrant workers. People who are already excluded are exposed to extreme weather risk. The question of structural exclusion is a political crisis. It is becoming unfit for state to intervene in relief and rehabilitation of the victims of cold wave. The institutional and policy level interventions are limited to the seasonality of risk. Lack of permanent solution to homelessness and rural impoverishment indeed increases the intensity of the problem.

Institutional support is the only solution for this kind of issues. The current Indian scenario putting extreme weather calamity under the disaster management framework offers some support. However, it is not just enough for a long term mitigation process, since, even the disaster management institutions are unable to tackle certain structural issues.


Ahrens, J. and Patrick, M. R. (2006): The Importance of Governance in Risk Reduction and Disaster Management, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 14 (4): 207-220.

Douglas, M. (1994): Risk and Blame: Essays in cultural theory, Routledge. London.

Giddens, A. (1991): Modernity and Self-identity: self and society in the late modern age, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Human Rights in India Status Report (2012): Prepared for India’s second Universal Periodic Review at the UN.

Mander, H. (2009): Surviving City Streets: A Study of Homeless Populations in Delhi, Chennai, Patna and Madurai.

Report on urban homeless by the national advisor on homeless to the commissioners of the supreme court (2010).

De, U.S. et al.(2005): Extreme Weather Events over India in the last 100 years, J. Ind. Geophys. Union, 9 (3):173-187.


Irshad, M. (2013): Extreme Weather, Risk and ’Social Crisis’: An Analysis of Un-Answerability. In: Planet@Risk, 1(1): 3–6, Davos: Global Risk Forum GRF Davos.


Comments on this article

View all comments