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Urban Resilience and Risk Reduction

SEEDS and the ‘Disaster Vigilantes’ of Delhi


PDAP, a citizens’ forum linking volunteers in the community and a group of prominent citizens

SEEDS, Delhi-based NGO

East Delhi municipality and Delhi State government

Local actors

Task force of community-based youth volunteers: ‘disaster vigilantes’

Community action groups

Teachers and school students

Success factors

Mobilisation of volunteers as a resource to serve the community

Influential citizens leading PDPA, with access to decision makers

Vulnerability understood holistically, including daily threats to well-being, not just rare catastrophes and a development lens


As the world continues to urbanize, humanitarian action will increasingly unfold in cities. In Delhi, India’s capital, the dramatic collapse of a building in the city’s poor east in 2010 led to hundreds of casualties. It drove the creation of PDAP (Purvi Dilli Apada Prehari), a community-based group of ‘disaster vigilantes.’  PDAP is a task force of youth volunteers who work with their own agendas and their own resources to address threats to their communities. They are supported by a group of prominent citizens who engage and advocate with authorities, complementing the grassroots mobilisation. Deepa, a young volunteer in East Delhi with PDAP, explains why she became involved: “PDAP represents a platform where we can contribute to the community at large, understand their concerns and problems, and find local solutions.” The issues that the community and PDAP struggle with go beyond the high impact events with which disaster risk management is typically concerned. Community members take a holistic view and as a result engage with issues such as solid waste management and sexual harassment as part of a broader focus on safety and security.

SEEDS (Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society) is an Indian NGO based in Delhi. It looks to the low income and migrant-dominated neighbourhoods of East Delhi to reimagine disaster preparedness for the 21st century from a local perspective. SEEDS has supported PDAP from the start. SEEDS emphasises that building resilience to disaster in urban neighbourhoods demands understanding how populations perceive threats. Underlying vulnerabilities in East Delhi include the high population density and – due to the poverty and marginality of resident populations – inadequate public services. 

Everyday hazards that remain unaddressed result in an accumulation of risk. Urban populations constantly navigate hazards such as low hanging cables that can electrocute, house fires that can quickly spread uncontrollably to hundreds of homes, and sexual harassment and risk of assault for women.  As such, a localised approach to resilience and disaster risk management must include not only the rare but large-scale events such as earthquake and flood that threaten East Delhi. They must also consider the daily threats that take lives and reduce quality of life. Parag Talankar from SEEDS explains that while SEEDS is a humanitarian organisation, one cannot separate humanitarian action from development: “We need to use a development lens. The development happening now is destructive not constructive. The goal should be not just to mainstream disaster risk reduction, but to build resilience, and that includes a range of developmentally linked interventions.” As a result of this perspective, SEEDS’ Urban Resilience Programme in East Delhi is both rooted in the daily lives of its residents and owned and driven by mobilised community members themselves. It is a community-based disaster risk management program. The program takes a ‘whole of society’ approach, engaging members of a citizens’ forum – the PDAP as well as youth volunteers, community action groups, school students and their teachers.

The action

PDAP interventions include preparing risk assessment plans for neighbourhoods where youth map risks as they see them, training volunteers in search and rescue, and preparing evacuation plans for children. In schools, volunteers trained students to prepare for flood, earthquake and fire, and delivered road safety and sanitation training. To address the issue of poor building quality, masons were trained so they can ensure standards are maintained. Volunteers in communities identify issues and contact SEEDS for support. As a facilitator, SEEDS then builds the capacity to address the issue. In some neighbourhoods, volunteers monitor CCTV cameras. This increases safety, particularly for women. Deepa expands on this: “A major issue in the neighbourhood was eve teasing [sexual harassment of women]. We met with the authorities and volunteers who had experienced harassment presented their stories to the district administration. Change was driven by new instructions given to the police in the area, while PDAP volunteers presented street theatre to raise awareness of the issue. Before we had to face the boys who were harassing us and avoid any eye contact, now we are bold and can teach other young women.”

Government is an essential partner. When government line departments work together with the community it ensures a convergence of efforts and more sustainable and effective service delivery. A ‘citizen app’ for smartphones makes authorities accountable, by enabling volunteers to photograph situations of concern and share them to provoke action. Examples include low hanging cables or garbage on the streets. This shows how PDAP links formal systems to informal approaches. Deepa explains: “Before, when approaching government officials about problems in the community we were asked for proof. Now the app provides the evidence that confirms the problem.” PDAP plays a crucial role in bridging the governance gaps that emerge when the structuring of authorities is as complex as it is in Delhi. The Delhi state government and the municipality divide responsibilities for services in ways that make addressing the city’s challenges more difficult. One example is how the state is responsible for secondary schools (through the District Magistrate’s Office) and the East Delhi municipality for primary schools. As a result, any coherent engagement with school students must bring the two authorities together, and PDAP has added value in doing precisely this.

PDAP uses a substitutive approach, in which volunteers provide services that authorities are unable to provide. Examples include disaster preparedness and road safety training. It combines this with advocacy to drive change from the authorities. Advocacy exploits both the presence of mobilised community groups on the ground and the fact that the PDAP core group is well connected.  As PDAP President Pavinder Mishra says, “The core group of PDAP are influential in the community and beyond and enjoy a good reputation. They are involved with various political parties and have their differences but have agreed to not exploit PDAP for any narrow agenda but to solve community problems.” As a result, this group can access those who govern the city while avoiding the partisan political issues that often obstruct positive change. For example, the East Delhi Mayor has been cooperative, immediately acting when they raise an issue with him.

Using informal influence is counter to international humanitarian practice. However, PDAP has consciously chosen to remain informal and unregistered to avoid, as PDAP Chair Pawan Maini said, becoming “a monopoly of five people. Now it belongs to no-one and to the whole community, and people work for the community not for money.” As a result, PDAP does not raise funds. Instead, it sees its role as a multiplier, using its connections to partner with others, including NGOs and the authorities. “We go to the people first, then seek answers from the authorities to get problems solved,” said PDAP General Secretary, Nikita Chaturvedi.

Successes and challenges

The impact of PDAP action is clear in how informed and active citizens are using government resources for better service delivery, and youth are taking a lead in addressing daily hazards. The focus on schools seeks to make them safe urban spaces. These impacts increase the resilience of the community. They reflect an increase in the level of knowledge of community members, the extent of behaviour change and the degree of engagement of the community with risk management activities.  Because of the way it works PDAP does not need external resources and can continue to raise awareness even without such support. “While PDAP was a baby of SEEDS it now has a life beyond SEEDS, and we remain partners,” says Pawan Maini. “The challenge to its ability to drive change is the limit of ‘people power’” – the extent to which a mobilised community can transform itself and those who govern it.

Partnership and participation

The partnership most crucial to the PDAP approach is that between government and citizens, acting to create new routes of accountability. Government and community resources are both used to implement community action plans for disaster risk reduction.

Participation concerns not only the community. PDAP also enables partnerships with local NGOs and the authorities who use the volunteer network for their activities. Community participation, where citizens engage with both their communities and those who govern them, is an outcome in itself and not just a tool.

SEEDS sees itself as a partner to communities, supporting then technically. It has no predefined agenda but shares ideas to create a joint plan. “We decide on what issues to address through consultation with the community. We live in the community, we are familiar with the issues. To address our issues we go to PDAP, they go to SEEDS, discuss and come up with a joint plan,” says Nikita Chaturvedi.

Capacity and capacity building

Parag from SEEDS insists that the localisation agenda must be rooted in capacity building, and shares the lessons he has learned through the work with PDAP. “Workshop style capacity building is not a solution since this does not change behaviour,” he says. “Rather, work is required at the micro-level to enable capacity to analyse and respond to risk, including the day-to-day. The capacity building of PDAP volunteers has empowered youth through critical risk reduction skills that enable them to take direct action on a range of neighbourhood safety issues.” Training improves capacity, as does working with communities on issues they identify as important. In the process this creates an additional capacity building tool. As Deepa, the volunteer, said: “Now we – the volunteers – are a resource, not just for SEEDS. Thanks to our knowledge SEEDS and others can call on us to build capacity to reduce risks, in schools and in the community.”

Produced with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

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