Acts of Aid: The Politics of Relief and Reconstruction after the 1934 Bihar-Nepal Earthquake


Eleonor Marcussen

PhD defended at: 

Universität Heidelberg


The aim of this dissertation is to expand our understanding of responses to ‘natural’ disasters as part of socio-political history rather than as arbitrary ‘natural’ events outside the realms of South Asian history. By studying how responses in the aftermath of the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake took shape in relation to capacities by the government and non-government actors and those directly affected, this dissertation argues, we can come closer to an understanding of what role political, social and cultural factors held in shaping resilience to natural disasters.
This study seeks to make two major contributions, one of empirical nature and one of theoretical nature. The empirical contribution, inferred from the earthquake as a case study, involves furthering our understanding of environmental history by expanding the field of research to include ‘purely’ natural disasters. Responses to natural disasters, although triggered by natural hazards rather than human interference, affect resilience in future disasters and, as discussed in this dissertation, depend on previous experiences with disasters.
The empirical contribution is closely related to the theoretical contribution whereby the research suggests that a social constructivist approach can be a definite asset in ‘learning’ from historical natural disasters. Central to this claim is that societal and individual resilience building, and thereby the negotiation of risk on a broader level, depends on contextualised interpretations of the disasters. Whether we speak of astrological interpretations of the earthquake cause, the collection and allocation of aid by relief funds or the reconstruction of urban areas, responses depended on cultural and social perceptions of disaster and what it meant for the future.
The analysis shows that the sudden and unexpected earthquake became normalised into a continuum of prior experiences with nature and disasters, yet interpretations and responses strived for change. In the rehabilitation phase, government responses relied upon notions of progress and sanitation and hygiene in the relief response as well as in the town planning in the reconstruction process. Even as the pursuit of town planning was framed and rationalised in terms of earthquake safety, the town-planners continued the set course of urban planning by undertaking ‘improvements’ of sanitation and trade infrastructure.