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Learning from Latur

Latur, which shot to fame a decade ago as the site of a major earthquake, has been in the news more recently for producing academic `toppers'. But there are more important lessons to be learnt from the experience, especially about post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation. AMMU JOSEPH reports from Latur on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the quake.

PAUL NORONHA

Urban concepts and designs that are out of place..

VIMAL RAMESH BHORE symbolises the enduring tragedy of Sastur. She was noticed by the national media in the wake of the devastating earthquake that rocked Maharashtra's Latur and Osmanabad districts a decade ago. A poignant photograph then published in a newsmagazine showed her grieving over the body of her child, who died in the disaster that flattened their village and killed more than 1,400 of its residents. Today she is one of the four elected women members of Sastur's 13-member gram panchayat, but obviously not an active or vocal participant in matters of local governance. The persistent trauma of the earthquake is clearly visible on her face and tears fill her eyes as a copy of the 10-year-old magazine with her photograph is shown to visitors.

Second only to Killari in death and destruction following the earthquake, Sastur is today a caricature of a modern, model village. Two kilometres away from the eerie ruins of the old village, it is about 10 times larger than the original, spread over nearly 300 acres. Like most of the more than 50 totally destroyed villages near the epicentre which were relocated and rebuilt by external agencies — public and private, Indian and international — it looks alien and out of place in its rural setting, with box-like concrete buildings lining streets laid out in a grid.

Neither the buildings nor the streets are properly maintained, with the agencies involved in reconstruction long gone, the gram panchayat claiming it has no budget for the purpose, and the people — who had not been consulted or engaged in the rebuilding process — waiting in vain for someone, anyone to set things right.

To make matters worse, a number of public buildings are still lying unused while several essential public services are housed in makeshift structures. For instance, a large, two-wing building completed in 1996 and meant to be a residential school for children with disabilities is vacant, while a private organisation caters to the needs of such children — many injured in the earthquake — in ramshackle tin sheds built on uneven ground that they find difficult to negotiate. Similarly, a primary health centre functions out of a small, barrack-like tin structure while a large building apparently meant for a district resource centre remains empty.

But perhaps the biggest white elephant in this "new, improved" village in Osmanabad district is the quadrangular shopping centre built to accommodate the over 200 shops that existed in the old one. The urban concept and design had reportedly been opposed by the gram panchayat which had, instead, recommended clusters of shops to serve different neighbourhoods in the vastly enlarged village with a population of nearly 9,000. Now the ghost-mall boasts only about a dozen functioning shops while the rest operate out of houses or improvised spaces in various parts of the village.

Sastur's citizens are plainly ill at ease in their new milieu, which they had no role in planning or building. The psychological scars from the trauma of the earthquake have obviously not healed. With tremors recurring every few months — most recently during the Ganapathi festival in the first week of September — many are still fearful and prefer to sleep outdoors or in rough and ready tin structures even though their specially built, concrete houses are supposed to be earthquake resistant.

They seem to accept tension and stress as an inescapable part of their lives. Alcohol appears to be the only available remedy, at least for the men, especially since they have no access to mental health services of any kind and do not seem to see much purpose in talking to each other about their troubles. The widely reported breakdown of traditional family bonds and social relationships has clearly not helped the situation: "Our village has become like an urban colony," many of them stated repeatedly. "Feelings are different now."

THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

... a wait in vain for someone to set things right.

Sastur has surely lost its soul. And it is not an exceptional case. Visitors to Killari, Chincholi and other badly affected villages in the area, where post-earthquake reconstruction was undertaken by external agencies, with little or no involvement of local people or institutions, report similar problems.

Apart from familiar, material issues such as inappropriate housing, malfunctioning public services, etc., a striking feature of villages that received the most attention and aid in the wake of the earthquake is the apathy and dependency of their residents 10 years on. Another disturbing trend is the apparently widespread disintegration of social and family ties.

The casual observations of itinerant visitors are corroborated by the findings of a recent study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) and Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), which found psychological distress persisting among one-third of the earthquake-affected population, with levels of distress expectedly highest amongst those living in the most severely affected areas. According to the report, titled A Decade After the Earthquake: Psychosocial distress among survivors, "It is important to recognise that psychosocial need is an essential aspect of overall rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. Rebuilding `broken' lives is a continuous need in a community."

Despite the fact that the importance of addressing psycho-social issues had been highlighted by mental health professionals and institutions early in the crisis, there was obviously no systematic and sustained effort to tackle these long-term needs of survivors. Similarly, among the `3 Rs' of Relief, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, the last was obviously given the least priority, especially in the most badly affected areas. According to government records, the Maharashtra Emergency Earthquake Rehabilitation Programme (MEERP), with a total budget of Rs. 1,300 crores, spent only one per cent of it on economic empowerment, four per cent on social rehabilitation and 0.7 per cent on community rehabilitation.

However, in the 1,300 "less affected" villages, where there had been no loss of human life but approximately 2,00,000 houses had been damaged, the MEERP's Repair and Strengthening component evolved quite differently. The conventional centralised and top-down approach was soon abandoned for a more community-based and owner-driven initiative, with the assistance of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (literally "self-education for empowerment"), a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation entrusted with the task of ensuring community participation and monitoring.

SSP, which had until then been working on issues of community development with a special focus on women and economic survival, mobilised and energised women and existing Mahila Mandals (women's collectives) in the area to become actively involved in the reconstruction and rehabilitation process. Women leaders from affected villages were provided with basic training in earthquake-resistant construction technology and motivated to become samvad sahayaks (communication assistants) charged with disseminating information to and encouraging fellow villagers, especially women, to participate in rebuilding their homes and institutions and, in the process, to take charge of their own lives.

Many of them obviously went on to do just that — and then some more. With the newfound confidence that came with their successful involvement in reconstruction, women seem to have found the strength to collectively take on other important aspects of life: livelihoods, health, education, water and sanitation and, eventually, local governance.

At a two-day event held in Latur town at the end of September to mark the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, several women spoke about their experience of rebuilding houses, lives and communities in the aftermath of the disaster. Organised by SSP and the Sakhi Federation, a network of rural women's savings and credit groups (SCGs), the event brought together approximately 4,500 women from nearly 800 villages in the earthquake-hit regions of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka, who have been interacting with and learning from each other over the past few years.

Rukhmini Koli of Rajuri village, Osmanabad district, is one among the many women whose lives have evidently been transformed by their involvement in a programme founded on the principle of listening to women, learning from them and enlisting them centrally in the process of turning disaster into an opportunity for development and empowerment.

Women in Rajuri began by sharing with local, traditional masons the earthquake resistant construction methods, including retrofitting techniques, that they had been taught. In addition to supervising repair and rebuilding work, they monitored the disbursement of official funds for it. Once the task of construction was over, they went on to set up savings and credit groups, promoted by the SSP as a vehicle for economic, social and political empowerment. Despite the modest monthly contributions made by each woman, the SCGs soon provided them with loans to start income-generating projects that, in turn, enabled them to make a living while repaying the loans.

Emboldened by these experiences, the Mahila Mandal got involved in a government-initiated rural sanitation programme, with members undergoing training in the construction of low-cost toilets, and eventually bagging a Rs. 25,000 contract to build toilets in the village. Women used their own know-how and labour, as well as loans from the SCGs, to build much-needed toilets for their houses.

Flush with the success of their various collective endeavours, the women of Rajuri then decided to take advantage of gram panchayat elections to gain more of a say in village affairs. Since the post of sarpanch was reserved for a woman, they decided to field Rukhmini as their candidate. "We did not know the procedures or formalities or where to go for what," said Rukhmini. "But slowly and surely we began to understand how things work." According to her, the women's approach was: "We may make mistakes but we will learn."

"We have achieved a lot for women as well as for the village through our Mahila Mandal," said Rukhmini. "We had never thought that women could govern our village since we had never seen or heard of such a thing. But now we have experienced it. And since I was elected with the support of women, and they continued to support me after the election, I didn't face many problems."

The contrast with the situation in Sastur could not be more stark. Of course, the two villages cannot be compared in terms of the earthquake's impact on their residents. However, their vastly different experiences with post-earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation do hold lessons for the management of and response to future disasters.

One such lesson is the importance of enabling non-governmental organisations with a track record in working to empower people at the grassroots to develop reconstruction and rehabilitation strategies that build on local knowledge, strengthen local skills and capacities, respond to local needs and contribute to local development. Another is the value of involving communities, particularly women, in the design and implementation of post-disaster plans and programmes, as well as in more long-term efforts towards appropriate, holistic development.

Indeed, according to Prema Gopalan, director of SSP, "The key lesson from Latur is to listen to grassroots women's groups and give them a central role in matters that affect their lives."

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