Small dome-like structures greet you in the village of Gubal, 52 kilometres from Latur. Sheikh Naseem, a resident says, “We liked the round houses with domes, they told us it was safe.” Safety was an important consideration for victims of the Latur earthquake, which devastated large parts of the Marathwada region in Maharashtra on 30 September 1993. Ten years later, people live with painful memories of that day and not all are happy with the state rehabilitation. Water supply from the tankers and electricity are erratic.

Firozbi lost her son and pregnant daughter-in-law in the earthquake. “I am scared of being crushed alive,” she says. In many villages, families still sleep in the open. The domed houses are small and the women cook outside. Munir, another resident, says, “We are stuck with these round houses now. How can a family of six live inside? There is no space and no rooms.” Of the total 260 houses in Gubal, 115 are the domed structures. Rahimoon’s three sons and husband were among the 170 people killed. “I run a shop now. I had to be brave,” she says. While a few non-government organisations intervened in this village, they did not last due to some controversy.

A decade after the earthquake in Latur in Maharashtra, which killed nearly 8,000, people squabble over rehabilitation, and fear and anxiety dominate in the worst-affected villages of Sastur and Killari, near the epicentre of the earthquake. However, in the 1,200 villages which were classified as C category, where only houses were damaged, the government of Maharashtra appointed a non-government organisation, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) (formerly part of Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres and independently registered in 1998), as community participation and monitoring consultant to the Rs.1,284 crore World Bank aided Maharashtra Earthquake Emergency Rehabilitation Project (MEERP).

In the last ten years, SSP has managed to mobilise women to change their lives and come forward in various decision-making positions. Women now dominate village-level committees and are expert at constructing strong houses. From victims of a disaster, they have managed to create a pre-eminent position for themselves. On 30 September 2003, at a massive gathering at Latur, the women demonstrated for the first time what a force they had become.

But the road has not been easy. Caste issues still dominate, and dealing with the establishment and bureaucrats has not exactly been smooth. “Currently, women’s empowerment is focused on the public sphere and the defining rhetoric is to highlight women’s contribution to development as opposed to development’s contribution to women. The expansion of the public sphere is no doubt increasing women’s power within the home. However, it has not been able to translate women’s personal concerns such as domestic violence into a community issue. The public and private remain divided,” records Aarti Saihjee (in Transforming Communities, A Decadal Journey, New Delhi, May 2003).

However, the stark contrast between villages where SSP has intervened and the rest of the earthquake affected areas is evident. Mangala Patil, president of the Sakhi Sarvangeen Vikas Sanstha, Nilanga, said in her village, Katijawalga, the local mahila mandal (women’s association) was established in August 1993, before the earthquake. After the disaster, the government surveyed the houses and Rs 17,000 was approved for each house. “But there was so much corruption. After meetings with SSP, samvad sahayaks (community liaison workers) were appointed who would work with the government,” says Patil. About 1,000 women were trained as samvad sahayaks. The women first began by reactivating the defunct mahila mandals in villages and then working on house-building. Gradually, they realised the need for credit and finance. In Usturi village, 70 kilometres from Latur, women acquired land near the village temple and built an information centre for themselves, which is used as a meeting place as well.

Suman Danai, a former panchayat member, recalls, “After the earthquake, the engineers used to charge us Rs 100 to sign our requisition forms for materials for house construction. When SPARC (later SSP) came in, we called a gram sabha first and discussed how things could be improved. Corruption was a major issue and we used to catch engineers red-handed. Three hundred houses were affected of the total 500. In 1995, five women went to Pune to train in masonry and they came back to interact closely with masons here, making sure houses were built to resist future earthquakes.”

The women also formed self-help groups – there are ten now – and the women’s group is called the Akka Mahadevi Mahila Mandal after a famous saint and poet who lived 800 years ago. The Mandal, explains Shanta Patil, looks into health, education, cleanliness, roads. “We get no help from political parties – they only pocket our demands. Women have many problems here and we are called in to tackle all kinds of cases including torture and dowry.” The women have closed four liquor shops in the village but one remains. “It is so difficult to convince men and politicians to close such shops,” comments Shantabai.

Annapurna Mandade says, “The first time I went to Pune, I had to take my mother-in-law’s permission. But things are changing now. About 240 women are involved with credit groups. Earlier, we used to pawn jewellery to raise money, now we can take loans. We have given loans for health, agriculture, and education. Many women have started chilli powdering units, bangle shops, groceries, ready-made garments’ shops, etc. Earlier, the banks did not let us open accounts, now the manager invites us to take loans!”

Since the time the women went for training in masonry – they supervised each house that was built. They explained building norms to every household. “We did not look back since then,” recalls Danai- “we are all closer as a community now.”

Sumantai was part of the delegation which visited Gujarat after the earthquake there on 26 January 2001. “I was shocked to see the women pulling veils over their faces. The health and water situation was also grim in Jamnagar. What struck us most was the acute water shortage there.” Travelling through the areas affected by the earthquake in Kutch in 2001, Danai and others advised government officials and victims on how best to go ahead with rehabilitation plans. “We felt tin sheds were a good temporary shelter, but the women must intervene and ensure their houses were built properly,” Sumantai adds.

The Sakhi Federations, the apex body of all the savings and credit groups at the taluka level, collected Rs 40,000 for Gujarat earthquake victims. Victims from Gujarat were among the women who attended the meeting to mark the tenth anniversary of the Latur earthquake. Jayashreeben from Bela village (Jodiya taluka) Jamnagar says, “We had not heard of savings before. The earthquake destroyed our lives and we were helpless – when we saw these women, we realised that they were just like us. But they had gone ahead and so, on their advice, we too formed groups and tackled the government. We even repaired our own roads.”

Annapurna adds, “Now even if there is no government help, we have enough money and knowledge of house building to function on our own. We can even raise loans from banks as we have enough capital.” Rukmini More from Mane Jawalga village says, “We did have mahila mandals earlier, but no work was done. After SSP came in, we got some impetus. The men opposed us at first, but now they help us. We have meetings on various issues now on credit, cleanliness, self-reliance.” Like Usturi, in other villages too, women have got loans to start small shops of businesses.

Women’s groups work with the community, the state and SSP, and take part in study tours, field visits, sakhi melava (group meetings) and training workshops. SSP now reaches out to 889 villages where there are 1,690 self-help groups with over 22,000 members. From ensuring proper housing, the women have been called on to tackle cases of harassment for dowry, and also launched a massive anti-liquor agitation in their villages.

Prema Gopalan, founder director of SSP, says, “The disaster was an opportunity for the women to organise themselves to access resources and monitor if they went to the right people. The women also monitored the work of the gram panchayat and the government. As intermediaries, the women energised the various stakeholders to focus on community issues. By addressing the practical needs of the community, they gained recognition. Men and women view development differently – men see it in terms of infrastructure and women want equity-oriented distribution and allocation of resources.”

These women were thrown into public roles and they took on roles of planners and managers. They stopped the trend of being passive observers and gave technical assistance and also managed money. In this way, they raised the community’s level of participation and played an active role in rehabilitation and they were not stepping back after that was over. SSP had no role except to strengthen the self-help groups. The rehabilitation project was completed in 1998, but we decided to upscale the initiative of the women by providing support to the groups and ensuring transparency in the financial accounting systems,” she explains.

Thanks to the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, women had provision for greater participation in the gram panchayat. “We saw the women playing the role of problem solvers and monitors. Since October 2000, it is mandatory for fifty per cent of the village committees on sanitation, water and health to appoint women. In over 800 villages in earthquake-affected Latur and Osmanabad districts, Maharashtra, and 114 villages in Gujarat, women are monitoring basic services and challenging the existing system of accountability. Their inputs are becoming crucial for government information systems, which often do not take into account grassroots needs,” Gopalan says.

“They monitor the quality of teaching and are the link between the community and the school. The women send in feedback on health care, which is a direct challenge to the MIS data, which has often no grassroots information. Officials started recognising the usefulness of the data women were providing when patients began increasing in local health centres,” she adds.

Women have also been trained as insurance agents and over 3,000 women will be provided insurance cover (in association with Tata AIG) which is critical in disaster prone areas.

According to a report commissioned by the UNDP office in India (Awareness, Access Agency: Experiences of SSP in micro-finance and women’s empowerment), “the community-driven rehabilitation strategy that was adopted (in Latur) focused on key elements of building local capacities and skills instead of adopting a brick-and-mortar approach to reconstruction, and the formation of village development committees with participation of existing community institutions and women’s groups as facilitators to manage the rehabilitation effort. This enhanced the women’s ability to influence the disaster relief and reconstruction programs in the area.”

“After completion of the earthquake rehabilitation project, in 1998, SSP steered the women’s groups and communities involved in reconstruction towards a broad-based community development strategy. From March 1998, SSP has focused its work to provide support to mahila mandals to form groups and initiate savings and credit to address their survival needs. Mahila mandals also provide a forum for women to continue to come together on a regular basis as a means for their continued engagement in efforts to address their problems, and also be involved in the development initiatives in the village,” the report adds.

Mahiti kendras (community information centres) have been set up in villages, which function as a nodal centre for a group of 15 villages. About 55 such information centres are in operation at present. Since 2002, SSP has also supported village initiatives by women’s groups through training in health issues, designing community monitoring tools and facilitating partnerships in community health. Women made week-long visits to health centres and sub-centres and questioned the pathetic state of affairs, apart from documenting them. Of the 17 primary health centres surveyed, the women found toilets not fit to be used, no provision for housing medical staff, lack of laboratory facilities and few women doctors.

A decade after the earthquake -- Psychosocial distress among the survivors, a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) and SSP, September 2003, reveals long term psychosocial effects on victims apart from symptoms of psychiatric disorders. One out of ten people contacted reported suicidal ideas and people felt intense fear. The single major change was the sharp increase in alcohol abuse by men. The report stressed the need to provide psycho-social care as part of the total care programme and said rebuilding broken lives was a continuous need in a community affected by disaster. Organised women can play a key role in such situations.

Women are also playing a major role in deciding issues related to water in Osmanabad, and two other districts, and are demanding to be trained in water quality testing too. In April 2000, SSP conducted a baseline survey in 300 villages on water-related problems. The survey brought to the fore the need for water resource management in villages, and highlighted the fact that it was not lack of infrastructure that was creating water scarcity but mismanagement and lack of maintenance. A pilot rural water supply project was conducted in ten representative villages in Osmanabad district. SSP’s successful experiment with water resource management subsequently resulted in collaboration with the government of Maharashtra as community participation consultant in the rural water supply project in Amravati and Nanded districts. Village water and sanitation committees were set up to manage water resources and maintain delivery systems in the village. SSP was later commissioned by the Maharashtra state government to produce a community operational manual for the state-wide rural drinking water project (Transforming Communities, A Decadal Journey).

The candles that were lit on 30 September 2003, in Latur, in memory of the earthquake victims, were not only a testimony to the disaster but also to the immense power the women have gained for themselves over the years. There is no looking back for them now.