The 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake was a caesura for the people living in the affected region and etched itself in the memories of survivors, witnesses and their descendants. Given the lasting impact of the disaster on the landscape and social fabric of Bihar (which is the focus of the book), it seems remarkable that "Acts of Aid" is the first full monograph on the earthquake. Eleonor Marcussen’s first book breaks new ground by illuminating the historical significance of the 1934 earthquake through a study of the relief and rehabilitation activities that took place in its immediate aftermath. Marcussen effectively brings disaster studies and South Asian history into conversation with one another, defining the earthquake as a “sociopolitical event” both shaped by and shaping Bihar society. It is not least the author’s ability to combine these two dimensions that makes for the depth of the book’s analysis. "Acts of Aid" is thoroughly researched and meticulously conceptualized. Divided into five thematic chapters (excluding the introduction and conclusion), the book delves deeply into the politics of relief and reconstruction and its implications.
Chapter two examines the reasoning behind the government’s focus on security and order that caused a severe delay in relief. Marcussen argues persuasively that the breakdown of communications due to the destruction of telegraph lines, railways, and roads caused a “communication panic” in the colonial government that was amplified by distrust in Indian society. It was the breakdown of communication itself and the importance the colonial government attached to it that, according to Marcussen, led to its decision to send police reinforcements and assign them the task of securing banks and jails. The “security-oriented response” came at the expense of the timely removal of debris and hindered the rescue of those buried underneath. The delay in aid was one of Indian nationalists’ main criticisms of the government’s response and became the focus of a second “disaster narrative” that emerged alongside and conflicted with the government’s account of the events.
The mobilisation of aid in the context of Indian nationalism is the focus of chapter three of the book. The Bihar Central Relief Committee (BCRC), headed by the INC politician and first president of independent India, Rajendra Prasad (1884–1963), became the main provider of Indian relief in the affected areas. One of the questions the BCRC needed to confront from the outset was the degree of cooperation with the local government. Jawaharlal Nehru, alongside a group of other INC politicians, insisted on non-cooperation. However, the ability to provide effective aid depended on its aptitude to gain the confidence of the local government. Navigating between these opposing positions, the BCRC emphasised the non-political nature of its work, while serving the INC in at least two ways. By paralleling the government, i.e. providing services to the population that were in the state’s responsibility and doing so in a more efficient manner, it claimed power and demonstrated the ability to govern. In addition, the framing of the earthquake as an all-India event in nationalist fundraising and reporting produced a feeling of national cohesion that translated into donations being sent from different parts of India.
Chapter four looks at colonial fundraising, with incoming donations largely channelled through the Viceroy’s Earthquake Relief Fund (VERF). VERF tapped national and imperial networks to raise money for charitable relief, but refused the involvement of the League of Nations’ International Relief Union (IRU). Although the Indian government had ratified the IRU convention in 1931, it continued to oppose the internationalisation of disaster relief in India, as it clashed with its interest in controlling the collection and spending of funds. In the subsequent chapter (five), Marcussen examines how relief and reconstruction produced categories of victims, most notably, “the middle classes” and “labourers”. Middle-class victims were defined as owners of (destroyed) property, which made them “deserving” of in-kind relief. In light of the dominance of the concept of self-help and the unfounded claim that the destruction wrought by the disaster increased the demand of labour, labourers (in particular in rural areas) were to rely on their own labour-force to restore their livelihoods. As workers lacked political leverage to claim their rights to relief, property-owners and the government aligned to disadvantage labourers in the reconstruction process. In contrast to the analytical rigour the author displays throughout the book, an examination of the impact of caste, gender and age is largely absent from the discussion in this chapter. Marcussen mentions the classification of victims during famines, where caste, gender and age were used to determine the amount of aid and appropriate recipients. If this were not the case with earthquake relief, this would deserve more reflection.
How elites strove “to build back better” is the concern of chapter six of "Acts of Aid" in which Marcussen charts the reconstruction of urban bazaars. The prioritization of urban reconstruction, trade interests and sanitary reform dominated reconstruction and sidelined the reduction of risks in the event of future earthquakes. Reconstruction plans envisioned a reduction of population density through wider roads and by giving less space to residential and commercial plots. Sub-tenants lost their claims as improvement plans gave preferential treatment to plot holders, resulting in the displacement of poorer sections of the population and a change in tenancy relations.
As the book convincingly shows, the 1934 Bihar-Nepal earthquake is indisputably an important part of the history of disaster relief in colonial South Asia, which is dominated – given their more frequent occurrence – by famines. Famine relief emerges as an important foil against which the author discusses relief and rehabilitation after the earthquake. There are many ways in which famine and earthquake relief intersected: The destruction of crops, the disruption of cultivation and trade made the earthquake a harbinger of food scarcity, enabling the colonial government to resort to institutionalised famine relief to remedy some of the effects of the disaster in rural areas. As Marcussen further notes, Indian famine relief provided the historical precursors for Indian nationalist mobilisation in 1934 and the relief provided in the earthquake’s aftermath was indeed an escalation in the political exploitation of aid for anticolonial nationalist mobilisation. Although the book is primarily aimed at scholars who want to understand the impact of disasters on the social and political history of South Asia, and contributes a well-researched historical case study to the field of disaster studies, historians of famine will also like to read "Acts of Aid".