Institutionalising Community Participation: The Challenge in Disaster...
Institutionalising Community Participation:
The Challenge in Disaster Management
The paper briefly discusses the need and scope of participatory approaches in di-
saster management practices emphasising the contradictions, of institutionalised
participation. The role of Panchayati Raj Institutions and the significance of de-
volution of power are stressed. The paper argues for a need to reduce the gap be-
tween policy statements and actual practice.
Dr. Janki Andharia is Professor and Head, Department of Urban and Rural
Community Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
National and local governments, international donor agencies, aca-
demic institutions, political organisations, charity and welfare groups
— all refer to people's participation as an important component for
the success of specific programmes or projects for development in
general. The term community participation (CP) has diverse defini-
tions and represents a range of interpretations and approaches
(Gardner and Lewis, 1996; White, 1996). On the one hand, participa-
tion is endorsed and facilitated for specific development projects to
support the emergence of more effective, efficient and responsive in-
terventions. On the other hand, the radical implications of the op-
pressed or excluded masses organising themselves and having a voice
in the process of development are inherent in the notion of participa-
tory development. Therefore, social movements with emancipatory
expressions of people asserting their rights, requiring real 'transfer of
power' from dominant, decision-making structures and institutions to
people subordinated in the process, reflect a radical dimension of the
notion of people's participation. In this context there is a need to re-
cognise the inherent contradictions in institutionalised CP (Chambers,
1994). The government, as well as some sponsors of participatory

Institutionalising Community Participation 237
initiatives, often refrain from considering CP in terms of social class
and power and seem reluctant to seek a precise definition of the term
to clarify their own standpoint.
Historically, the terms community development (CD) and CP have
been inter-related in significant ways wherein the latter emerged from
focus on the former. In India, the term CD was used initially as part of
our nation-building efforts to develop basic education, social welfare
and rural development. The First Five-Year Plan regarded people's
participation as a principal force and sanction behind the plan. It ad-
dressed the need for people's participation as follows:
Planning in a democratic state is a social process in which every citizen
should have the opportunity to participate and set the patterns of future
development. It should embody the impact of public opinion and the
needs of the community.
Over the years, it has been argued that for development to be socially
just, economically viable and environmentally benign, people's partici-
pation is very important. The Approach Paper (India, 2001) to the Tenth
Five-Year Plan: 2002-2007, provides several suggestions that embody
the idea of people's participation in their own development. The serious
deficiencies observed in the implementation of development
programmes reflect poor governance. Therefore, reform of governance
is regarded as one of the centrepieces of the Tenth Plan. The Approach
Paper to the Plan also recognises that improvement in governance can
take place only when countervailing forces in society develop confidence
to oppose inefficiency and corruption in the government.
In the context of disasters, it has been observed that in most cases, it is
the community that provides the initial rescue and first aid. Actions to
protect their lives and that of their relatives and neighbours are first
taken by the victims of disaster, whether it is digging out people from
the rubble after an earthquake or removing bodies from inundated ar-
eas in case of floods. Local communities are thus, at the centre of im-
mediate response and recovery activities. In fact, when transport and
communication are disrupted, an external emergency response may
not arrive for days.
However, disaster management experience in India indicates that
relief and rescue operations are viewed as the responsibility of the

238 Janki Andharia
Revenue Department and space for public support is not envisaged at
all. Implementation is organised in a top-down manner with a large
number of government employees and advisors or consultants ex-
pected to supervise and advise the community (as was the case in
Maharashtra Emergency Earthquake Rehabilitation Plan, Latur). This
implementation structure is observed in most government-run devel-
opment programmes. In disasters, local people are regarded as 'spec-
tators' thwarting rescue measures and are, at best, expected to be
passive recipients of relief. The notion of people as partners in disas-
ter preparedness and management is relatively new and involvement
of the local population is not yet clearly delineated within the policy
framework. Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) do not have any role in
the present system of disaster management and it is the bureaucracy
that takes most decisions.
Experience of various civil society organisations suggests that pro-
viding space for participatory alternatives and outcomes improves
post-disaster recovery, the efficacy and overall quality of a recon-
struction or rehabilitation programme. Therefore, CP in emergency
relief, in needs assessment, in policy negotiations and in planning, in
execution and evaluation/impact assessment of disaster management
must receive considerable prominence to ensure that interventions for
relief and rehabilitation translate into long-term development of the
affected people.
Ideally, CP should aim at empowerment to increase people's ca-
pacity to initiate actions and influence decisions of more powerful ac-
tors, to increase competence of beneficiaries in designing,
implementing and evaluating project management. Community par-
ticipation could also take the form of cost sharing either in cash or
kind, such as labour. This has the advantage of increasing beneficia-
ries' stake in the project, and coupled with the other objectives of CP,
it increases overall project efficiency and effectiveness (World Bank,
1996). Thus, CP with the above objectives must be an integral part of
a relief and rehabilitation policy in the context of post-disaster inter-
vention. A participatory approach to planning and implementation en-
sures that rescue, relief and rehabilitation plans reflect sensitivity to
the culture, tradition, needs and aspirations of the local people.
It is interesting to note that there is, however, an inherent contradic-
tion in the proposal to institutionalise participatory approaches. On

Institutionalising Community Participation 239
the one hand, institutionalisation of participation is an attempt to
standardise or mainstream participation for replication and unifor-
mity. On the other hand, this conflicts with one of the original aims of
participation, which is to move away from rigid, blue print methods
for development planning and recognise the 'process' aspect of com-
munity participation, rather than view it as an end in itself. Addi-
tionally, participatory approaches are time-consuming, could cause
delays, sometimes increase costs, and can raise people's expectations
prematurely. Striking a balance between macro- and micro-level
planning may, therefore, prove difficult. Again, an absence of deci-
sion-making capacities in communities may lead to the capture of
power by elites. On the other hand, officers and executives in charge
of a project may feel threatened as people begin to participate in pro-
ject activities. They may experience a sense of losing control, as they
are not used to sharing power with people.
An appreciation of these contradictions and constraints of partici-
patory approaches is useful. Certain prerequisites of CP also need to
be borne in mind while initiating and institutionalising participatory
approaches. These include well-defined policies and procedures and
dissemination of information in this regard, transparent decision-
making structures to build people's trust and confidence in the gov-
ernment, supporting local groups, and incorporating gender concerns
into policies and programmes, providing scope for flexible planning
and implementation mechanisms, and devising appropriate appraisal,
monitoring and evaluation tools and procedures. Finally, strong gov-
ernment commitment manifested in the willingness, to modify inter-
nal operational procedures to ensure participation, especially of the
marginalised sections, and, to provide the space and time for resolv-
ing community conflicts that are inevitable in a heterogeneous com-
munity before the advantages of CP become visible, are a must to
ensure genuine CP. Participation should not be simply viewed as an
end in itself, nor should it be reduced merely to a means. Judgements
of what constitutes an optimum level of participation should involve
the participating people themselves.
There is a need to systematically and continuously document how
CP is actually implemented in practice. Trying to generalise about
communities or the nature or quality of participation is inadequate be-
cause a wide diversity of factors such as the context, the nature of
communities, the gender issues, the agencies — all impinge upon the
extent of CP in disaster management.

240 Janki Andharia
Again, there is substantial international experience of people's par-
ticipation in the initiatives of non-governmental organisations
(NGOs) in disaster management. However, recognising the differ-
ence between CP elicited by NGOs and donor agencies or multilateral
agencies (such as UNDP, UNICEF), and the challenge of institution-
alising participation through government agencies is critical. This is
more so given the fact that personnel of relief agencies come with
their own preconceived notions of the nature of help required and how
it is to be extended and sometimes with limited sensitivity to local cul-
tures and practices. Non-governmental organisations are of different
shades and hues. Governments often project people's participation as
being taken care of through the involvement of NGOs. Not all NGOs
are participatory in their approach. The onus of providing a
broad-based, comprehensive policy framework and the execution or
implementation of the programme is on the government. While ac-
knowledging that a series of economic exigencies compel the govern-
ment to access loans from multilateral aid agencies, social actors and
operational issues of public administration deserve equal attention.
With a disaster management plan, mechanisms must be built in, to
deal with the negative consequences of aid and assistance.
In disaster management, the institutional structures for relief and re-
habilitation should take into account not only the development thrust
of the village (or the region), but also build on the capabilities at the
local levels and provide scope for participation in decision-making.
The move to revitalise PRIs through the 73rd and 74th Amendments
to the Constitution is a step in the right direction. However, the pro-
cess of devolving power to the PRIs needs to be expedited so that the
stranglehold of the bureaucracy on these institutions is broken
(Meenakshisundaram, 1997). The changing role of the bureaucracy,
in this context, needs to be well understood/imbibed, especially in the
context of major disasters.
It is necessary to consider the orientation of the government toward
participation. To the extent participation contributes to greater re-
source mobilisation and efficiency in meeting technical objectives, it
is likely to be accepted by administrative as well as political leaders.
In principle, governments of practically all orientations aim to benefit
the rural majority. Yet they may fear that new capacities for participa-
tion will lead to broader claim-making and to voicing criticisms.

Institutionalising Community Participation 241
Similarly, some political leaders may fear that more participation by
rural people will lead to a loss of 'power'. However, this view, at least
in its general form, misconstrues the essence of power, which is the
ability to achieve what one desires. If a government wants for rural
people what they want for themselves, and if participation enhances
their capability to determine the course of development and to accel-
erate progress along that course, then 'power' devolved to rural com-
munities will add to the power of the government in a positive-sum
manner. Only when governments want to initiate activities that are
contrary to the interests and needs of its populations will power be-
come zero-sum, and a gain for the public will then be a loss for their
rulers (Esman and Upoff, 1984).
Planning experience indicates that the gulf between policy proclama-
tions and actual practice must be minimised. Having a well-conceived
disaster management plan alone is not adequate to proceed in the ap-
propriate direction with desired outcomes. The critical role and func-
tion of decision structures, the devolution of powers and
responsibilities, the integrity of key actors, robust communication
channels — must be continuously acknowledged as they have a direct
bearing on the nature of rehabilitation and recovery process. Finally
recognising existing vulnerabilities of certain populations, organisa-
tions working on rehabilitation must reflect sensitively to the funda-
mental inequities in social and economic structures in order to be
effective and inclusive in their interventions.
Relief and rehabilitation experiences in the Maharashtra and
Gujarat earthquakes have amply demonstrated the need to ensure
flexibility of responses to people's needs and problems as they unfold
on the ground. For the government, the significance of a development
orientation cannot be over-emphasised in disaster relief and rehabili-
tation. Evaluation of the recovery process cannot merely be restricted
to showing expenditure as budgeted within a time frame, to appease
multilateral aid agencies from whom governments may have bor-
rowed. Rehabilitation and recovery processes subsume development
processes, which is one of dynamic change. It invariably poses newer
problems and challenges and simultaneously demonstrates possibili-
ties of new solutions as well.

242 Janki Andharia
This is the abridged version of a full paper titled, 'Community Participation in Disaster
Management: An Approach Paper', January 2002, The Paper was commissioned by
Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, New Delhi, whose support is gratefully
acknowledged. The views are mine and the usual disclaimers apply.
Chambers, R.
The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Ap-
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Esman, M.J., and
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Uphoff, N.
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Gardner, K. and David, L.
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Meenakshisundaram, S.S.
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