A prime issue facing the nation in the wake of the Australian bushfires is the way in which we should reconfigure reconstruction. We must guarantee that any and all rebuilding and recovery efforts enhance our safety, shield our environment and improve our collective ability to deal with disasters in the future. Australia should seek inspiration from the novel approach that India executed in 2001, in the wake of the country’s second worst earthquake in the nation’s history.
The earthquake in Gujarat state claimed 20,000 lives, injured 300,000 people, and ruined or damaged one million homes. How did they recover?
First, India established a recovery taskforce operating at national, state, local and community levels. Secondly, community recovery coordination hubs proved a strong solution.
Scholars and international agencies like the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) have promoted post-disaster reconstruction as a multifaceted effort to rebuild safer homes, schools, and roads, revive area businesses, heal cities and restore ecosystems to be more able to face bushfires and disasters.
The problem is that reconstruction is a long and complicated process. Two primary challenges involve a lack of invested commitment past the point of initial reconstruction and a lack of collaboration between sectors.
Reconstruction programs are based around a balance of competing needs. The drive toward swift reconstruction must be weighed against the long-term issues like climate change adaptation and environmental sustainability.
Planners might advise people not to rebuild in bushfire-prone areas—going against the attachment that residents have with their land or community.
Yet there can be compromises.
The 2001 Gujarat earthquake was called a national disaster. Also to be considered are the 2008 Kosi River floods in the Indian state of Bihar.
India’s government established a special recovery taskforce within 7 days of the earthquake. The taskforce was set up at federal, state, local and community levels, either through the nomination of an existing institution (like the magistrate’s court) or by naming a new authority.
The Australian government has established a National Bushfire Recovery Agency, committing A$2 billion to aid residents who lost houses and businesses to rebuild their cities. While Australia has formed a special taskforce at the federal and state level (like the Bushfire Recovery Victoria agency), we require these agencies at local and community levels as well. As it stands, no agency of that sort stands at the state level in New South Wales.
Sans a decentralised setup, it will be tough to keep focus and establish lucid priorities that local communities require for peerless recovery.
Secondly, India’s recovery coordination hub at the community level was a fresh solution that was informed, collaborative and effective.
A district consortium of Gujarat civil society organisations established Setu Kendra – which literally translates to mean bridging centres or hubs.
These hubs were established on an informal basis in 2001. Each hub consisted of an area community member, social worker, building professional, financial expert and attorney. They met on a regular basis in the wake of the earthquake to share information and discuss solutions.
Bushfire Recovery Victoria has pledged A$15 million for establishing community recovery hubs, but only time will tell how these are modelled and managed.
The community hubs in India have been highly beneficial. Community engagement and cooperation helped to hurry along the region’s recovery.
These hubs also affected prime changes in recovery policy. The reconstruction process was no longer government-driven, but driven instead by cities and residents.
This was made possible through the role of the Setu Kendras as a dual-way conduit for info and viewpoints. Community residents were able to voice their issues with their government in a manner that conveyed their points.
Because of the success of Gujarat’s coordination hubs in the year 2001, the state government of Bihar enacted the same model in 2008. It established a single hub per 4,000 homes. In Gujarat, these hubs went on for more than a dozen years.
The UN agency devoted to human settlements, UN-Habitat, says that this is a model that should catch on.
Australia must devise these hubs to unite researchers, scientists, practitioners, government and community members. They must communicate about their challenges, values and priorities, to map out a good and solid path forward.