DILIP BANERJEE

India,

Dilip Banerjee is integrating disaster relief into the long-term management of local needs and resources. His approach represents an important shift in thinking about disaster management, and results in effective strategies for local governance and planning.

This profile below was prepared when Dilip Banerjee was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.

Fellow Sketch

To improve development in conflict regions in East India, Dilip has been committed to strengthen the panchayati raj system by enhancing the capacity of the local governments and communities and creating a participatory approach towards development. 

Dilip Banerjee equipped panchayats in the Sunderban region to move from a reactionary approach to a pro-active management of disaster relief. Communities were able to identify needs, take stock of relief resources, and direct the distribution of the right resources like food, clothing, blankets, medical supplies to people who need them the most. They were taught to design programs looking at long term goals for sustainable development. This work has expanded to coastal villages of Orissa, prone to frequent disasters. 

Disaster management became a starting point from which efforts prioritizing real needs for development were launched. Dilip leveraged 10 years of his experience and networks as a state level expert on public health and decentralisation of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) to engage communities in pro-active participation and development of local self-governance. By involving leaders of local communities, CSOs and governments of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal in dialogues and training workshops, he is creating opportunities and interests for collaborative development. This process sheds light on existing central government schemes and initiates implementation. Using this model, Dilip successfully implemented the decentralisation of PRIs in Kanker district of Chhattisgarh. PRI committees were actively involved in designing key development programmes for village development, maternal benefits, child care programmes.  

Adding on to the decentralisation efforts, Dilip is now piloting a model to activate and strengthen the standing committees of Gram Panchayats (GPs) in Chhattisgarh which are currently defunct. Members of the standing committee are sensitized to their roles, trained to access and utilize schemes by being paired with relevant government functionaries. This model is set to be piloted in selected 10 GPs of 2 Blocks of Kanker district, post which it will be replicated across gram, district and block panchayats in Chhattisgarh and other eastern states of India. Owing to the success of Dilip’s models, Government of Chhattisgarh is supporting and scaling the decentralisation of PRIs model and the strengthening of standing committees. 

Note: This was updated in December, 2013. Read on for the ELECTION profile

INTRODUCTION

Dilip Banerjee is integrating disaster relief into the long-term management of local needs and resources. His approach represents an important shift in thinking about disaster management, and results in effective strategies for local governance and planning.




THE NEW IDEA

Natural disasters are not always isolated events. In many areas of the world, floods, cyclones, and earthquakes occur cyclically, regularly destroying buildings, homes, and schools and causing hundreds, even thousands, of deaths. Starting in the cyclone-prone region of the Sunderbans in West Bengal, Dilip is enabling communities to use disaster management as a starting point from which to launch efforts to prioritize real needs and design programs that both strengthen communities for the long-term and further the aims of sustainable development. Dilip sees that this shift from reactionary disaster management, which is often wasteful and inefficient, to proactive organizing will enable communities to respond to future disasters quickly and efficiently. They can identify needs, take stock of relief resources, and direct the distribution of the right resources–food, clothing, blankets, medical supplies–to the people who most need them.




THE PROBLEM

Dilip's new idea assumes great importance when disasters are viewed broadly and looked at across the world as consequences of acute environmental pressure rather than as isolated events. This view also broadens the scope beyond what are normally considered emergency crisis situations. For example, desertification is a form of disaster arising from environmental pressure that causes large-scale population dislocation and significantly affects the agrarian community. And desertification is a problem that has spread across both Africa and Asia and affects the lives of several million people.

Traditional response to disaster relief shows functional problems like misuse and waste of relief material. For example, donor agencies work with NGOs to distribute blankets or other resources without first finding out whether they are needed. Class tensions are aggravated by relief efforts that favor certain groups of people. Usually the lower-middle and middle classes receive the most aid, while the more affluent classes are ignored.

Many relief organizations view disaster relief as a stand-alone effort to get a community back on its feet, rather than as an infusion of resources–human and financial–in a much longer-term effort to work with and strengthen communities. They go in with specific goals like generating income, improving education, and improving health and implement projects with a certain target in mind. Rather than acting as facilitators in helping the community to identify and plan their own programs, with local participation and buy-in, these organizations tend to benefit small groups of people on an ongoing basis.




THE STRATEGY

Dilip's new approach is a critical and timely intervention. He looks at disasters as opportunities for social transformation. He employs innovative new strategies to look at the substantive needs of disaster victims and formalizes development planning and implementation within local communities. Dilip works with existing community groups to identify the individuals and organizations, both formal and informal, with the capacity to implement programs. These are the people who live in the area and understand how decisions that affect their communities are made. Dilip then guides the community in forming a village committee, which includes representatives of diverse backgrounds and expertise like members of the panchayat (the existing local government) and established citizen groups. Committee members volunteer their time; they are not "externals" but residents themselves who obviously have a stake in the well-being of the community. By involving members of the community in the development process, Dilip instills a sense of ownership right from the beginning. This allows him to respond to the needs of the community, and ensure local accountability, more responsible handling of pubic money, and proactive and innovative local management solutions.

During the Sunderbans cyclone relief operations, Dilip found that the communities guided by strong village committees distributed relief supplies in record time–all the villages collected materials from a central location, rather than relying on citizen groups to come to each island one at a time. This method cut storage and transport costs, freeing up excess money to be used as part of a revolving fund to finance agricultural those for seeds and fertilizer. In 1999, during the floods in the North 24 Parganas, two representatives of community organizations in the Sunderbans area managed to set up a similar response system in the flooded areas, an effort that involved 35 community organizations. The flood-relief work was carried out efficiently with community participation and NGO facilitation.

Dilip is initiating the same process in the states of Orissa and Jharkhand but in nondisaster relief situations. In Orissa he is involving the community in efforts to reverse the damaging effects of prawn production in Chilika Lake. In North Bengal he is involving communities in managing their forests. To enable other groups to benefit from the process, Dilip is working with community groups to document the participatory development process that has proved so successful in the Sunderbans. He plans to share the information he has gathered with organizations like the Campaign Against Child Labour and Campaign Against Child Trafficking. He hopes they will use it to create a how-to template of sorts for their efforts throughout the country. Having demonstrated his approach in traditional disaster situations, Dilip is now applying what he has learned to additional instances of acute environmental pressure: flooding in West Bengal and prawn farming in Orissa.




THE PERSON

Dilip began his career as an active trade unionist and was deeply involved in the political movement in the collieries of Bihar in the 1970s and '80s. As such he was instrumental in returning land to its rightful tribal owners who were powerless against the might of the mine owners. From his early days, Dilip felt strongly that people should have ownership of their land and of their futures.

In the mid-1980s, Dilip left his career as a trade union leader and moved to Calcutta, joining the Child in Need Institute (CINI) in 1985–first as a public awareness officer and later as a health programs officer. From the beginning, Dilip was convinced that the community would rather feel like part of the development process than like a recipient of outside help. At CINI Dilip was allowed the flexibility to try several ideas; he set up village development forums, and he introduced the concept of "phasing in and out,"–the process of transferring development programs to the local people once the ventures have taken root. Yet through this work, Dilip realized that even the most well-meaning citizen organizations were often unwilling to hand over their programs to "beneficiaries," thus creating a problem that, in his view, hampered the advancement of sustainable development.

In 1995 Dilip left CINI to work for Oxfam in the cyclone-torn Sunderbans, a region of vast mangrove forests and islands in the southernmost region of West Bengal. Rather than merely doling out relief supplies prescribed by emergency relief guidelines, Dilip began to see the regularity of cyclones as an opportunity to involve the communities, not only in disaster relief efforts but also in continuing the development and management of the region.