Community-state partnership in a post earthquake project in Maharashtra

Prema Gopalan

The Latur earthquake, in September 1993, occurred in the state of Maharashtra, India. One of the largest rehabilitation efforts, ever, was initiated by the Government of Maharashtra with the support of the World Bank, donors and the U.N agencies. The largest component, the repair and strengthening of over 2,00,000 damaged houses was planned as a community self help effort.

SSP - Swayam Shikshan Prayog¨ an NGO was appointed as community participation consultant in 1994. The intervention was viewed as an opportunity to turn the crisis on it's head, leading to the empowerment of local communities.

The success of the project was largely due to the local community groups who were recognised as intermediaries between the beneficiaries and the government. Women's groups were at the centre of this effort. They energised all the actors - house owners, men and women, engineers and masons, Gram Panchayat members and officials to work together. This, was no mean achievement, considering the wide range of actors and agencies involved.

The disaster spiral starting with emergency / relief and going on to rehabilitation is characterised by maximum resources, a wide range of actors, usually short term players.

However, the post disaster scenario, we believe, has tremendous potential to build local capacities. How communities are "organised" to deal with the crisis and rehabilitation and to external aid sets the tone for transformation. From "beneficiaries" or victims of disaster to becoming advocates of change.

A `people centred' approach to disaster does not just -target people. It includes strategies to make the government accountable - obtaining resources, changing perspectives and policies, and negotiating effective support for community approach that is pro poor and addresses women's gender concerns.

How was the state led project designed?

The scale of disasters often determines the number of actors and the resources involved. The Latur earthquake was an example of one such large scale disaster. Further, the area and it's people had never faced a earthquake in the last several decades.

The repair and strengthening program was spread over two districts and 1300 villages. This made information dissemination and communication - a challenge.

The core of the state intervention was repair and strengthening of houses. For this to happen, subsidies were given to 200,000 families (each family was given a subsidy grant of Rs 17,000) to reconstruct damaged houses.

At the district, the PMU (Project Management Unit) led by the District Collector was set up. Around one thousand engineers were hired to supervise reconstruction and interact with beneficiaries. Taluka officials disbursed money and materials. As part of a "owner driven" strategy house owners were to contribute self help labour, hire masons and build houses.

This did not happen easily. In a centrally planned, top down program, people did not see themselves as key actors. The thrust was that people should repair their traditional houses made of mud and stone. But people did not choose that option. New housing i.e. cement and concrete houses were considered "safe " while the old structures were seen to unsafe.

Continuous tremors in the area fuelled the people's fears which were exploited by engineers and masons .They kept information, contacts and knowledge of new building practices away from people. Lack of masons, transport, materials and money added to rising costs and frustration.

House owners - men and women were not involved planning or decisions of their houses. Engineers presented standard estimates and discouraged people from repairing old structures. As a result "box like houses" were built.

Women were not involved in decisions regarding the house nor did they contribute as construction labour. It was after the house was built - (when it was too late!) that women realised that the house was not functionally useful for their everyday needs - to store water, to install the chula (stove) and it had no storage space for food, grains, etc.

The local self governments or Gram Panchayats, were not drawn into the reconstruction process. Village communities were set up but they lacked information to participate. As a result, in several villages , they aligned with the local politicians to stop reconstruction.

How did the various stakeholders view community participation?

In 1994 , when we began working as Community Participation Consultant with the Govt. it was clear that existing mechanisms at the district were geared to disburse subsidies. There was no plan to inform or educate people, no outlets for grievance redressal or to respond to feedback from communities. The perspective informing the rehabilitation policies :

Creating conditions for community participation

The goal of partnership among the NGO, community groups and govt. was -transformation of the R&S program on ground into an effort that mobilised and energised all actors. A fresh and new perspective was brought in

The first task was to find "spaces" for participation for community groups. An equally important task was to re-educate officials that an interface was needed to mobilise and inform beneficiaries across two districts. The SSP team decided that the community based experiment should be replicable. Women's groups /Mahila mandals working on social issues existed in every village. They were the natural choice to monitor earthquake safe construction. Women's concern for safe and secure homes formed the core of this strategy.

The Samvad Sahayak scheme was initiated to give powers to community based groups to reach out information, monitor reconstruction and liaison with officials. (The scheme was initiated in the latter half 1996 to 1998.Over three hundred Manila Mandals were "empowered" by the govt (through Govt orders and support from the Collectors).SSP facilitated the training and co-ordination.

An information and education strategy that involved people was seen as a kick start to community involvement. The next step was to ensure that house owners and community groups optimally access and utilise the entitlements, understand earthquake resistant construction and use appropriate technology and local resources.

This opportunity was used to mobilise communities on a large scale through information networking, capacity building, training and exchanges. A community based strategy to meet several ends was designed

  1. create spaces for women's participation in reconstruction
  2. build collectives and strengthen skills
  3. provide direct access to public resources
  4. create mechanisms for direct dialogue and consultation between people and govt

We took up the challenge to activate the women's community groups in not just the earthquake program but also in local development . The recognition afforded by the Samvad Sahayak scheme was seen as a step towards boosting the confidence of Women's groups as an organised force in the village.

From its past work and experience, SSP team was clear that the women's groups and not individual women should be at the centre stage of the entire program. "By appointing one women's group in the village, the entire village was put to work". Mr. Bansod, Addl. Collector - Latur.

Capacity building increased learning and networking on between women community groups and with the institutional actors in the R and S program.

Capacities were built through "hands on " training for women's groups. The community organisers in all villages initiated a cycle of activity which usually started with a survey of house owners.

They were trained to understand functional design features in the house, do mapping of the settlements, assess village resources and form small groups for the supervision of construction. At the taluka, they would gain exposure through study tours, and workshops and dialogue with government.

For the first time, women had stepped out of their houses. Women had an opportunity to play a leadership role in the village. Women were encouraged to attend gram sabhas or village assemblies.

In every village, women met with opposition from the men, in their own family, village leaders, male engineers and officials who believed that women could not take on "public roles" in reconstruction, traditionally handled by men.

The ability of the women's groups to work as a team, to build consensus among different factions was visible to all. Gram Sabhas were used as problem solving fora. Everyday debates and meetings were held with house owners.

Intervention by women's groups, resulted in many benefits for house owners and communities.

Grievance redressal

Problems commonly faced were brought to the notice of the Gram Panchayat, and village officials. At the review meeting with officials, problems on delayed disbursements were brought up. Women's collectives gained respect as they were ahead in collecting updated information and highlighting progress achieved by beneficiaries. Unlike govt. engineers who chided house owners on not completing their houses, women leaders listened to problems, suggested measures and gave feedback.

Improving house design

Increasingly, women played a role in improving the functional space and incorporating traditional and useful design features such as a bathroom, vattal and semi open spaces between living room and bathroom, chimneys and temple corners, shelves and containers for grain storage.

Community Contribution

Facilitating contribution of house owners as labour to construct houses, and in transporting sand etc. Advance contribution in some cases speeded up the construction. Use of materials from the traditional houses like doors and window frames, stones upto foundation and sill level, ballis and CGI sheets.

Collective construction

Organising groups of house owners as community effort to find collective solutions. Collectively undertake planning of houses, costing of the construction process, sharing costs, house designs, supervision of construction, handling the junior engineers as a group of house owners and joint supervision of masons and labour.

Linking with Gram Panchayats

In several villages, Gram Panchayats had not conducted Gram Sabhas or informed people on the rehabilitation project. Women's groups showed the way. Village assemblies or Gram Sabhas were used to create transparency in selection for beneficiaries, collectively resolving to demand changes in procedures and demanding support from tahsildar, banks etc. through voicing problems in one voice.

Feedback and Monitoring

A transparent action plan for the R&S program, public display of progress charts, holding taluka review meetings helped to create space for community consultations. Dialogue workshops with village leaders on a fortnightly basis were held to address problems and get a quick response.

Working together allowed for more efficient use of resources. Unexpected benefits were accrued by the govt. Women's facilitation re-established the government credibility in the eyes of beneficiaries. To quote, officials- "without the Community Organiser program, the beneficiaries would have spent the money on household expenses. Once the money was spent, he or she may not be able to construct the house at all. The Community Organisers played a very important role in ensuring both speed and quality of construction in the earthquake program. They were able to motivate the beneficiaries."

Visible success

Women's groups catalysed community participation in all stages of program monitoring and implementation. Their visibility across the district and their contribution was immediately recognised by women themselves, communities and the government.

Women's leadership created a sense of support for women within and outside the family. They turned every opportunity into support for women's participation in village development activities.

The Mahila Mandals used this opportunity to strengthen their political identity as well. Active women leaders stood for local panchayat elections. "In the future, whenever there is work which requires responsibility, in periods of crisis , women's groups will stand up."

Greater recognition to Women's groups as "village development" agencies. Monitoring of ration shops, health centres, anganwadis, representation of women's priorities and active participation in Gram Sabhas.

Previously inactive Women's groups had been activated. Many more women attended meetings and the membership had increased. Savings and credit groups were formed. Demand for access to anti poverty schemes, implementation of village schemes

It was the weight of the people's network , finally that resulted in transforming a state led, "target oriented and subsidised effort" into an effort which was "owned" by communities.

The post earthquake effort became a `cause' to work together across caste gender and class lines. However, this mass scale mobilisation was possible through the creation of a "critical mass" of actors through an learning and convergence approach that involved all the actors. "Convergence was conceptualised that way, the involvement of everyone." The government would act as facilitator, the NGOs would ensure community involvement and participation, would motivate the people and monitor the work, technical inputs would be provided by institutions, donor agencies would provide financial input. All actors evolved a common understanding of how poor communities and esp. women could partners in disaster and later in the context of local development.


Many concerns remain even as the World Bank funded project came to an end in June 1998. These continue to affect communities in their progress from disaster to development:


Swayam Shikshan Prayog, 58 CVOD Jain High School, 84 Samuel Street, Dongri, Mumbai 400 009 Tel: 022-3700853 Fax: 022-3728833 Email: [email protected]

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