RPN 21 published April 1996

4. Participatory planning with disaster victims

Experience from earthquakehit areas of Maharashtra, India by Meera Kaul Shah


On September 30, 1993, an earthquake shook the south eastern region of the State of Maharashtra, India, affecting 67 villages in Latur and Osmanabad districts. According to some estimates, about 10,000 people lost their lives and another 16,000 were injured. 53,000 houses were either totally destroyed or seriously damaged, while another 180,000 houses required urgent repair. In addition, there was extensive damage to public buildings.

In the government's immediate relief operations, temporary shelters were built to house the homeless; cooked food was provided as well as safe drinking water and prophylactic public health measures were taken.

Shortly afterwards, the government prepared a comprehensive plan for rehabilitation of the disaster area. The components of the plan included: economic rehabilitation, restoration of health and community services, and the reconstruction and repair of people's houses. The World Bank agreed to provide a soft loan for the programme, on the understanding that it should be implemented with the full participation of the affected people.

Since some of the villages were reduced to heaps of rubble and had become burial grounds, it was decided that 49 villages would need to be relocated to a safer site.

The government promised to provide a plot of land and a basic house for every household at the new village sites. The layouts of these new villages had to be designed and new houses constructed. NGOs and industrial organisations adopted some of these villages and took responsibility for their reconstruction. Others remained under the government's direct responsibility. This paper focuses on the process of involving the affected people in planning the reconstruction of their relocated villages.

The externally prepared designs

Given the urgency, preparations for constructing the relocated villages began almost immediately. Once the new sites were selected, the Department of Town Planning started working on the village layouts and several agencies, governmental and private, were asked to prepare house designs.

Since villages usually evolve over many years they rarely need to be designed. Because of its specific area of expertise, the Department of Town Planning tried to replicate layout designs which would be used in towns. When these were discussed with the affected people, some of them commented that 'We are villagers and need to live like village people. What's the use of a goodlooking design if it is not functional for a farmer?'There was an obvious lack of communication; the affected people were considered as victims and were not expected to express views on any of the technical aspects. As a result, the suggested plans and designs were completely different from the houses the people had been used to. Houses in this region are built to open onto a courtyard inside the house, and are enclosed by high walls with no windows opening outwards. The proposed houses, like town houses had veranda and windows on outside walls, and no courtyard. Older men and women in the villages criticised this design as it lacked privacy and did not provide storage space for agricultural implements nor for tying the cattle. Women added that they would not find an appropriate space to live in during their menstrual periods, when they are not allowed to mix with other members of the household and are strictly forbidden to enter the kitchen. Traditional house design also allows women to overhear men's conversation without being seen.

Additional problems appeared when the first construction work started following some of the designs provided by the Department of Town Planning. Far more concrete than necessary had been used and houses looked like bunkers. In one village a foreign donor was constructing domeshaped houses. Even amidst the despair the village people pointed to them in amusement and commented that they would not use them even as cattlesheds!

Following these failures it was finally agreed to involve people more actively in the planning process. A pilot exercise was decided in two villages.

Pilot process in Sankral: village-level appraisal

A team of six, including three town planners and one architect, facilitated the process in Sankral village. The village comprises 110 households from different caste and ethnic groups. The site had been chosen before the participatory planning exercise started.

While walking around the ruins of their village, men and children were able to point out how the space used to be allocated and they discussed the positive and negative features of the village. Several meetings followed with different groups of village people. The men, for example, had prepared a detailed map, showing the different streets, public facilities, different clusters of houses and also indicated the individual plots on which their houses had been constructed. The women specially highlighted the spaces they used and the water points. Aspects of the old village site and specific features the villagers would like to retain or modify in the new layout were discussed at length. The groups also undertook a household classification exercise and identified the different groups in the village according to their own criteria, including caste, occupation and economic wellbeing. The results were rather similar and contributed to incorporate everybody's views.

A visit to the allocated site allowed discussion of its main features.The different groups were then asked to prepare sketches of what the new village should look like. Initially the women had been hesitant to contribute to this process as they feared to express views their husbands would not approve of. However, they did prepare a sketch which focused largely on the location of public facilities.

Deciding options for village layouts

There were heated arguments when these drafts were shared in a common village meeting, attended by all the groups. The younger literate men strongly supported the grid layout, prepared by the Department of Town Planning.They pointed out that the village would look good and reflect a better standard of life, comparable to the towns where they had studied. The older men, young nonliterate men and most of the women were of the opinion that this design was not suited to their way of life and daily activities. One young nonliterate man had made a layout with 'y'shaped streets and he explained how very difficult it is to turn a bullock cart on straight roads which cut at right angles.

The main reason for not liking the grid layout was that it did not provide for clustering of houses. The government had announced that plots of three different sizes would be allocated according to the size of the household and the previous house. Plots of the same size would be placed in a row. The plots were also to be allocated by lottery, with the intention to break the caste and social divides. Even if well intentioned, these measures imposed by the government were highly unpopular. The women felt that the grid layout would lead to the disintegration of their social and cultural ties and destroy their support network which works on kinship and castebased groups. Older men mentioned that though they have no objections to live next to people from other social groups, it was more practical to live next to people from the same religion and social background so that they can share their social events without disturbing others. The situation prevailing in the temporary shelters was used as an example; the social segregation, existing in the village, had been repeated in the camp. The lower caste people, of their own choice, had settled away from the rest of the village. People had not forgotten their social differences even amidst the tragedy.

Public facilities in the new village

There were few differences of opinion when it came to discussing the location of public facilities. The Maruti temple was placed at the main entrance to the village, just where it had stood in the earlier village. The school was placed at the far end of the plot, away from the road, so that the children could be kept away from the traffic. The institutional area was divided into two locations. Other temples (housing nonvegetarian Gods, usually kept outside the village), along with the mosque and the cremation and burial grounds were placed at one far end of the village which sloped towards a canal. This part of the plot was not suitable for constructing houses as it could get waterlogged. Shops and the council buildings were placed near the village centre. The men earmarked one end of the plot as green belt, explaining that it could first be used for grazing their cattle and later for expanding the village.

The women's sketch focused on water points, which had been completely overlooked by the men. These were categorised into drinking water, water for washing, and water for the cattle. Water points for the cattle were placed at the periphery of the village. The women also wanted separate water points for drinking and washing purposes, so as not to worry about the men watching them when collecting drinking water. They also suggested that a separate water point should be placed near the bus stand and an additional tap on the school compound.

Finalising village layouts

An attempt was then made to put together all the ideas provided by the people so that various layout options could be prepared by the town planners. Unfortunately the town planners were not able to incorporate all the views into a single layout. Instead they prepared two options. The first one was very similar to the grid layout prepared earlier and the second was a badly designed cluster layout. The cluster layout was immediately rejected and the revised grid option remained the more acceptable option in the absence of other alternatives. As it became obvious that people were having difficulties in visualising the layouts on paper, we suggested that scale models should be used. This proposal was rejected by the town planners who argued lack of time and appropriate materials.

The Assistant Collector1, himself an engineer, took the initiative and used locally available material to prepare a scale model of an alternative option which was a mix of the grid and cluster designs. This option was immediately approved by everybody without reservations. A similar process was adopted for designing houses which would suit the rural lifestyle of their inhabitants.

The complete participatory planning process in Sankral village took only three days.


This experience indicates that it is possible to use participatory methods in planning rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes with victims of natural disasters. Even when there is little time for response, it is possible to devise rapid appraisal methods to seek people's views and opinions. There is need, however, for flexible and innovative approaches to tackle situations which have no precedent.

The use of visual methods makes it easy for most people, literate or not, to take effective part in the process. In this case, the use of threedimensional scale models proved to be decisive. These methods can easily be replicated in other rehabilitation projects.

It is often argued that it is impossible to involve all the affected people while planning such rehabilitation projects in emergency situations because of the large scale of operations involved. In those situations it is important to undertake rapid appraisals with a crosssection of groups and communities to generate multiple options and perceptions. Based on the results of these appraisals, other people can be offered options and choices to enable widespread consultation and participation in decision making.

Meera Kaul Shah is a development consultant and trainer, based in the UK, specialising in participatory methods and local institution capacity building.


The author wishes to acknowledge contributions by other members of the team who facilitated the process in Sankral: Nitin Gadre, B K Kolatkar, A M Pathak, R N Hawle and Vivek Rawal. She also wishes to thank Pravin Pardesi and Richard Scurfield for their support. Special thanks go to the people of Sankral who, despite the tragedy, were willing to take the initiative of rebuilding what they had just lost.

1 The Assistant Collector was in charge of the rehabilitation project at district level (local government). He was a member of the Sankral team.

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October 1996