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Informality, Resilience, and the Political Implications of Disaster Governance

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Informal sector actors played a key role in Mumbai's resilience to disastrous floods in 2005. Members of small-scale retail and service-sector businesses, the city's underclass, its waste workers and scrap dealers, and sundry individual tradespersons such as electricians, plumbers, masons, and sanitary workers were at the heart of recovery and rehabilitation in the weeks following the floods of July 2005. These floods not only affected significant parts of the city's new Central Business District (CBD) and business sectors but also its poor and marginalized communities that lived in environmentally fragile and marginal locations. Ironically, these actors have also been at the receiving end of distorted urban planning initiatives, real estate growth, bourgeois environmentalism-inspired middle-class activism, and ethnic chauvinist political forces, which have pushed them to the city's social, economic, and spatial margins. Hence, the aforementioned reasons have made the lives and livelihoods of these actors quite precarious and insecure. Going with recent sociological attempts to bridge the expanding field of disaster studies and classical sociological theorization by linking development theories to the study of disasters and their social implications, this paper argues for more imaginative disaster mitigation and management strategies that recognize the role of informal sector workers in post-disaster resilience. It is argued that this recognition should be accompanied by formal state-sponsored institutional inclusion and integration of informal sector workers and actors in disaster governance. In Mumbai, informal economic actors were characterized by resourcefulness, access to key networks in enabling recovery, flexibility and innovativeness in design and planning, and the ability to offer low-cost options which could be rapidly deployed. These tend to contrast with the slowness and cumbersome procedures and responses that typify formal state and private responses to disasters. Given the feeble response mechanisms of state institutions in disaster management and mitigation in much of the developing world, and the established fact of citizen action being the first to respond to disaster situations, this paper suggests that paying attention to and involving informal sector actors in disaster governance can both augment the quality of disaster management and enhance the possibility of greater integration of the city's marginalized and excluded groups into its mainstream social fabric.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 September 2015

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