Nuclear family

Japan’s earthquake and tsunami have now trigged a nuclear power plant meltdown that threatens the country with an epic crisis. A technological superpower that has developed excellence in earthquake-resistant construction — it is situated in one of the planet’s most seismically active zones — Japan is better off, strange as that expression may sound, than most other countries. If a triple disaster of this type had struck a standard Asian or developing country, the casualties would have been in the hundreds of thousands and not the tens of thousands.

While such a calamity in an important country like Japan would have been front-page news at any time, it is worth noting that globalisation and inter-connectedness — as represented by business relations, 24/7 media coverage and the resultant public pressure — are making it impossible for the rest of the world to insulate itself from one country’s ill-fortune.
Examples would help. As Madhusree Mukerjee’s recent book Churchill’s Secret War points out, the Bengal Famine of 1943 did cause some disquiet in Washington, DC, and had the United States leadership attempting to nudge the British government into action. It was to no impact, of course.
Today, such a situation would be impossible. In 1943, American society — as opposed to the foreign policy elite in the federal capital — had no idea about the famine in Bengal, about millions being allowed to starve to death, about the perfidy of the British Raj. There were no correspondents on the ground, no stark, terrifying pictures on CNN, no collection of relief material in small town neighbourhoods, no democratic expectation that the US government “do something”.
Contrast this with the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, which devastated countries in southeast and south Asia. By this time, the world economy was much more engaged with the rising powers of Asia, and a truly global effort was launched to get help to those who needed it most. The possibility of being labelled insensitive forced American Express to withdraw a new television advertisement that showed a person surfing, lest the waves on the screen be misconstrued at a time when a monster wave had killed thousands. The advertisement was made only for American audiences, but many of the countries affected by the tsunami were key markets for AmEx. It needed to be seen as a responsible and caring corporate citizen, globally and locally.
Since external governments are being forced to respond — or put another way, since the price of non-response is today way too high — natural disasters and humanitarian crises are also increasingly acquiring a diplomatic implication. In December 2004, four countries with the most robust regional relief and maritime capacities banded together and became the first responders: the US, Australia, Japan and India. An Indian naval ship travelled to Sri Lanka to help that country recover.
These four countries, straddling the eastern Indian Ocean, ended up exciting strategic analysts who wondered if they could someday form an Asia-Pacific “concert of democracies”. In the coming years, the idea of the Quad — for quadrilateral — as a politico-military alliance, and not just an ad hoc collective put together in the aftermath of the tsunami, took shape. Japan was an early proponent, till its government changed. The US and Australia were tickled by the thought but wary of snubbing China. India went along with the plan but never quite made up its mind. On their part, the Chinese went apoplectic and the Quad became an idea before its time.
Not all disasters take place in crucial economies. Disasters do the most damage in poor, unstable nation-states and societies, simply because the in-house preventive and first-response capacities are so abysmal. Three months ago, “Leading Through Civilian Power: 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review” (QDDR, as it is known), was released by the US state department and it spoke of “strengthen(ing) the international humanitarian architecture for more effective response to disaster and complex crises”.
The QDDR had a special section on the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, which killed at least 1,00,000 people. It listed the US endeavour towards relief and reconstruction, the use of “crisis response technology”. It saw climate change — leading to “significant changes to our global environment… migrant and refugee flows, drought and famine, and catastrophic natural disasters” — and epidemics as among seven “new global threats”. “While pandemics and infectious diseases have existed for millennia”, the QDDR said, “today they are more potent and potentially devastating. Since the 1970s, newly emerging diseases have been identified at the unprecedented rate of one or more per year… Globalisation, a transportation revolution, and international commerce allow diseases to spread more quickly. An outbreak of a particularly virulent disease in one country can become a regional epidemic overnight and a global health crisis in days”.
In such circumstances, natural disasters can cause economic and security risks for the global system. The Kashmir earthquake of 2005 and the Pakistan floods of 2010 exposed the limited abilities of Islamabad and of its provincial governments. They gave greater space to religious non-governmental organisations, some of them linked with jihadist groups. Haiti is in the Caribbean, America’s backyard. If the US had not acted, it would inevitably have faced a refugee surge.
What would be India’s equivalent of the Haiti earthquake? It is revealing that India and the US are among the global and multilateral actors putting together a disaster preparedness and risk reduction framework for a possible earthquake in Nepal. A conference to take this forward is scheduled for April in Washington, DC. While nobody can predict earthquakes, past trends and timelines suggest the Himalayan region, particularly its Nepalese section, is in danger of an imminent earthquake. Historically, Nepal has seen a major earthquake — at least 8.0 on the Richter scale — once every 70-80 years. The previous one was in 1934, which also ravaged Bihar, with tremors being felt as far away as the city then known as Bombay.
Should Nepal see an earthquake — and one sincerely hopes it doesn’t — then given its landlocked nature and the construction and population explosion in Kathmandu and other urban centres, South Asia will have a first-rate crisis on its hands. A concourse of refugees coming towards India; competition between India and China to come to the aid of a smaller neighbour they both see as in their zones of influence; the chances of non-state actors, such as Left-wing extremists, gaining control of the relief phase: the consequences can be many. Those are sombre thoughts, but in the week of Japan’s tragedy, they are perhaps appropriate.

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