Ms. Kirsi Madi, Director of UNISDR, with Mr. Manu Gupta, founder and director of SEEDS, on his recent visit to UNISDR in Geneva
By Denis McClean
GENEVA, 27 September 2016 - It didn’t have a fancy name. It was Tropical Cyclone 03 A and it killed more than 10,000 people, many of them desperately poor salt pan workers in the Kutch district of Gujarat, India.
Hundreds died at their place of work, ignorant of the coming storm’s strength until it bore down on their encampment with a fury that turned their flimsy homes into death traps.
Mr. Manu Gupta, the head of the ground-breaking Indian NGO SEEDS, has a vivid memory of the aftermath of the disaster which struck India’s west coast on June 9, 1998. He was only a few years out of college when he volunteered as a relief worker in the area.
“The tin sheets in their shelters were just like missiles and slit their throats. The horror of that event made us question our role as relief workers and to ask ourselves was there not something we could do as architects to save these people’s lives. They were poor migrant workers and included men and women,” he recalled.
The original idea behind SEEDS was to look at how rapid urbanisation was affecting the environment but this fell by the wayside as its founders decided to focus on bringing their urban planning skills to bear on situations where lives were being lost unnecessarily in cyclones and earthquakes.
Much of their work since then has centred on building thousands of safe houses in India, and in Nepal where they are currently working. SEEDS work is a vivid example of action which supports the “Live To Tell” theme of this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction on October 13.
Reducing global disaster mortality is the first target of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the global plan for reducing disaster losses adopted last year by all UN member States. Mr. Gupta and SEEDS co-founder, Mr. Anshu Sharma, are graduates of the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture and they started SEEDS in the college canteen in 1994.
“A really formative experience for me was the cyclone which hit the Kutch of Gujarat in June 1998. It is an area famous for its salt pans and 400 salt pan workers and their families died there in that cyclone because they were totally ignorant of the hazard they faced. They were not the only ones blissfully unaware. There was a party taking place in the port of Kandla despite the fact that a Category 5 cyclone warning had been issued. There was a serious lack of communication about its significance.
“In 2001 the Gujarat earthquake happened and we decided enough is enough. We had no money but we decided that rather than do relief work we would work with people and teach them how to build safe houses. We had no money but what we had was our learning.
“Our first major project was to rebuild Patanka village in Patan District after the Gujarat earthquake. We built 256 houses and 4 schools to earthquake resistant standards.”
Mr. Gupta remembered with a smile: “When I got married in 2008. Instead of going on a honeymoon I wanted to bring my wife to Patanka. I stopped on the road to get directions and the man recognised me. If they can recognise me eight years later I think it means that I have done a good job.”
SEEDS has gone on from strength to strength, building over 4,500 homes for poor people, helping to lift them out of poverty and contributing to a safer environment in which they can raise their children in circumstances of reduced vulnerability.
SEEDS people-centred approach in more than 15 major emergencies epitomises the “build back better” philosophy of the Sendai Framework. The success of their housing projects depend on measured inputs while working alongside people building their own homes in their own ways with their own designs.
You can read more about the excellent work of SEEDS on its website http://www.seedsindia.org/