It was 9.19 am on a late November morning in Nagapattinam when sub-collector Kamal Kishore AK’s phone buzzed. It was a message from a tehsildar on a WhatsApp group for government officials dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Gaja. With a deference that did little to mask the urgency, the tehsildar requested for police protection during the distribution of relief hampers in some affected areas. There had been reports of protests in a few districts over the administration’s alleged failure to provide relief and compensation. Within 15 minutes, Kishore made the necessary arrangements, and directed the tehsildar to contact the local police station.

At ground zero after Cyclone Gaja, which hit Nagapattinam and five other districts in Tamil Nadu with wind speeds of over 120 kilometre per hour on November 16, the mood among residents was grim. Uprooted trees lay on the roads, blocking access to villages. Nearly 1.7 lakh houses were flattened or damaged. There was no power for hundreds of kilometres: 30 substations were damaged, 16,000 bent by the wind and 30,000 devastated. Electricians and trucks carrying poles and wires were a common sight for weeks. Even a fortnight after the cyclone hit, shelters and schools remained full with the displaced. Several thousand people had lost their livelihoods. Around 5,000 boats and over one crore coconut trees were smashed. Mobile networks were down for a week.

The gravity of the situation found a reflection in the WhatsApp conversations between government officials. Once the mobile networks were restored in the affection regions, officials took to the messaging app for quick information flow and inter-operations. It was clear to them that this was the fastest way to act. As recently as three to four years ago, if there was a disaster, Kishore and his colleagues would have to attend multiple meetings to facilitate two-way communications and relief operations. Requests from the panchayat would crawl through the bureaucratic chain to reach the top.

WhatsApp, then, was the antipode to the old way of functioning. It allowed officials to run decentralised, 24x7 virtual command centres for disaster relief and rehabilitation. It gave those even at the lowest level a direct line to the collector’s office. It also strengthened the organisations at the grassroots level, which remain the bedrock of efficient disaster management.

Photo credit: AFP.
Photo credit: AFP.

Officers in the field said daily agendas set by the authorities at the state and district level were shared on WhatsApp groups created for disaster management. Daily “things-to-do” lists featured details ranging from quantities of relief material required to the areas to be covered.

“For the worst-affected areas, the district administration in Nagapattinam created six teams, each comprising a minister from the state cabinet and an IAS officer,” said V Vishnu, Special Officer for Cyclone Rehabilitation and the executive director of the Tamil Nadu Skill Development Corporation. Apart from this, 15 micro teams with five to six people in each team, from all relevant departments – water to power – were deployed. “This really improved bottom-up communications, while allowing the officers at the collectorate and the state departments to take faster decisions,” said Vishnu. All the teams and their subordinates operated parallelly on different WhatsApp groups as well.

According to Vishnu, accountability increased. On completion of tasks, officers shared pictures on the group. This not only served as proof of work done, but also helped gather data for senior-level meetings at the end of each day.

“Beyond the affected regions, people really do not understand that this cyclone has ripped apart the lives of many thousands,” said Radhika Ganesh of Ek Potli Ret Ki, an activist collective that worked in Nagapattinam after the cyclone. WhatsApp videos made by the public and the officials – such as those from the rescue and relief operations in Vandal, an area that was cut off after the cyclone – reached Twitter and Facebook, prompting the general public to contribute with relief materials and funds.

Photo credit: PTI.
Photo credit: PTI.

Double-edged sword

Though WhatsApp has gained notoriety for enabling spread of fake news, sometimes even leading to mob violence and deaths, it has been integral to the day-to-day functioning of government departments, especially in the aftermath of disasters and crises. Even as Indian authorities scrutinise the Facebook-owned platform, the same corridors of power regularly use it for various purposes, and in this, they are no different from governments elsewhere.

Globally, chat apps have been used for disaster preparedness, pre-warning and mitigation strategies for a few years. When formal communication channels failed during the Brussels terror attack in 2016 and Hurricane Maria in 2017, police and emergency responders resorted to chat apps. In 2014, after Cyclone Hudhud, PWD engineers in Andhra Pradesh bypassed district-level meetings by using WhatsApp to share information.

A 2016 paper analysed chat logs of a medical volunteer group during the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the Chennai floods. The authors noted that in contrast to “unstructured and unreliable” information generated on Twitter and Facebook, WhatsApp and other messaging apps enabled intra-organisational communication by focused micro-communities, helping them bond over specific agendas.

Prasanth Nair, deputy secretary of the Renewable Energy Department, was one of the early adopters of social media for governance as the district collector of Kozhikode, and as in-charge of the District Disaster Management Authority between 2015 and 2017.

During the Kerala floods, Nair mobilised an army of volunteers by appealing to his 70,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. But the real action took place over WhatsApp groups, where social media activism was combined with government relief and rescue efforts. “WhatsApp helps us focus on result-oriented governance,” said Nair.

Photo credit: R Senthil Kumar/PTI.
Photo credit: R Senthil Kumar/PTI.

Nair’s modus operandi, perfected over the years, was a relay race between Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Crowd-sourced information and data gathered by officials was collated, cleaned up and verified by volunteers sitting in Bengaluru, Chennai, Trivandrum and Kozhikode. The sanitised data was fed into the concerned WhatsApp groups (of key officials such as tehsildars, collectors and deputy collectors, relevant PWD officers and even National Disaster Response Force personnel) and government departments, and the officials would pick up the baton for the last leg.

“WhatsApp became a neutral place for discussion,” said Nair. “These are well-oiled, no-nonsense groups where we only discuss work, and we discourage forwards.”

Need for policy

Nair flags the need for a technological bridge that will make information sharing between Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp easier. He believes it is crucial to integrate WhatsApp conversations in the record-keeping system. “Citizens don’t want file numbers, they want results,” he said. “But record-keeping is important to ensure sanity in bureaucracy.” Currently, officials use the age-old copy-paste or export chat feature to integrate the discussions in the e-filing system, but a software upgrade or a plug-in would be beneficial, he says.

There is also a need for a policy or protocol that defines use of WhatsApp by the government. The way it was used during Kerala floods and Cyclone Gaja illustrates an innovative organisational response, but it is ad hoc and inconsistent.

Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Agriculture Secretary, Tamil Nadu, is a veteran in disaster management. He first rose to fame for his work in Cuddalore, where he was the collector during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Bedi emphasises the need for a policy on internal and external use of social media for disaster management. “We need a set of guidelines for internal [WhatsApp] and external use [Facebook and Twitter] of social media by disaster management agencies across states and at all levels,” he said. “Ideally, there should be social media cells at each level to deal with disasters.”

Photo credit: Reuters.
Photo credit: Reuters.

As someone who has been on both sides of the fence – bureaucracy with internet and social media, and without it – he is optimistic that the change is for the better. He believes that government use of chat apps and social media will refine and adapt in an optimum manner while ensuring transparency.

An example of this is the Anbudan Tamizhagam, a quasi-government coalition that was started by the Tamil Nadu government this year, for coordinating relief for the Kerala floods. “From a WhatsApp group to a website, government officers covered every technological aspect,” said Ganesh, who is a part of this group. “They also included several NGO workers, volunteers, representatives from affected areas and other government officers.”

Lack of inclusion

But one of the key concerns of using WhatsApp for post-disaster relief is inclusion. “In rural areas, there is only a certain section of people who have smartphones and internet connectivity,” said Ganesh. “Hence, you can lose out credible sources of information such as women and elderly people who may not have a phone. Other marginalised groups, such as Scheduled Tribes and Dalit communities, may not have access to technology.” Nearly 80% of Indians living in rural areas did not have access to the internet as of December 2017.

One of them was Kumar, 40, a basket weaver from the Kuravar community, who lost four goats and three coconut trees in Cyclone Gaja. After a few days at a shelter, his family returned to their damaged thatched hut in the village of Thirupoondi West with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one in his family had a working cell phone, and their next meal depended on how many baskets they could make and sell in this state of despair. The free chat app was a luxury his family couldn’t afford.

Ganesh says government policies on disaster rehabilitation do not account for such socio-cultural structures in rural India, with little focus on the landless and asset-less people, who are the most disadvantaged. While technological adaptation is welcome, it has to be accompanied with better preparedness, and long-term sustainable solutions that focus on the social structures embedded in rural life.

“Socio-cultural mapping of the impact of disasters and studying the immediate requirement after disasters can greatly help while responding to future disasters, avoiding wastage and not exacerbating social tensions,” she said.

Photo credit: Twitter/Tamil Nadu State Disaster Management Authority.
Photo credit: Twitter/Tamil Nadu State Disaster Management Authority.

The 2016 paper too noted that while chat group interactions are unorganised at the moment, they are a “powerhouse of information”. Data gathered from such conversations can be used for further need-based and “region-specific resource requirements and allocation for effective decision making”.

But a key drawback of over-reliance on technology is the failure of communication networks at the height of the disaster or emergency. With nearly all power and telephone lines wiped out, mobile services were down for nearly a week after Cyclone Gaja. Similarly, connectivity issues plagued several areas in Kerala and Chennai during the floods, as well as during recent hurricanes in the US.

Network issues also increase the scope of miscommunication when officers are in the field, said Johnny Tom Varghese, Special Officer for Cyclone Rehabilitation and the additional director of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department. “In many ways [the] traditional government structure can be better as so much thought and discussion goes into each decision,” he said. “Since WhatsApp is so instant and fast, the scope and time for reflection is often lost. But of course the positives just outweigh the few downsides.”