Manu Gupta
Ashoka Fellow since 2019   |   India

Manu Gupta

Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS)
Dr. Manu Gupta is building resilient communities across Asia Pacific. He is, simultaneously enabling multiple stakeholders such as national and state governments, United Nations bodies and civil…
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This description of Manu Gupta's work was prepared when Manu Gupta was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019.


Dr. Manu Gupta is building resilient communities across Asia Pacific. He is, simultaneously enabling multiple stakeholders such as national and state governments, United Nations bodies and civil society organizations in the region to proactively and effectively mitigate and reduce impact of disasters.   

The New Idea

Manu believes that every community has the right to dignity, well-being and control over their own lives. This core belief has helped SEEDS design strategies that ensure the impacted communities are at the centre of the decision making process. Manu, through his organization SEEDS is building local leadership in communities across the Asia Pacific for strengthening their resilience. In the sphere of disaster risk management, SEEDS has been a pioneer in developing comprehensive (covering the entire spectrum- mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and reconstruction), contextually appropriate disaster management framework with communities at the centre of strategizing and decision making.  

On the frontlines, SEEDS is enabling communities to be proactive and responsive to natural disasters and, at the macro level, it is influencing and enabling national and international governments to devise effective strategies towards mitigation, relief, recovery and reconstruction. 

In the last 25 years, SEEDS has effectively brought about a paradigm shift in understanding and managing disasters in the Asia Pacific region. It has pioneered and demonstrated locally sourced and community-led innovations such as owner-driven re-construction strategy, national school safety framework, transition shelters inspired by indigenous traditional knowledge, sourcing and facilitating the inflow of engineers, architects and skilled professionals into the field of disaster management.  Manu is now working to scale his unique mission of community-owned disaster management approach from Asia-Pacific, globally. 

The Problem

Every year disasters caused by natural hazards put millions across the globe at risk and cause huge losses. The impact of natural disasters on the global economy between 1998 and 2017, is close to $2.908 trillion.  The impact is felt across lives, properties, livelihoods and more importantly resilience of communities, leaving them emotionally weak and unable to bounce back. Recurrence of disasters has become frequent with climate changing at a faster rate. Climate change has become one of the most pressing global concerns many countries are now starting to share.

Developing countries account for 95% of all deaths caused by natural disasters and suffer losses that are 20 times greater. The increased vulnerability of poorer countries to disasters is illustrated by the fact that in the last 20 years only one high-income territory- the island of Puerto-Rico has been featured in a league table of the top ten economic losses (UNISDR, 2018).  Women, young girls and boys are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men. In most cases, it is not the hazard that causes the havoc; other factors such as unplanned and unsafe construction, lack of early warning systems, lack of knowledge on safety measures to be taken before and after the calamity are the real causes of destruction and loss of life. The fact that poor and vulnerable communities don’t have a voice in managing and dealing with disasters makes the impact even worse for them.

India is prone to all kinds of disasters - cyclones, droughts, heat-waves, tsunami, floods, landslides etc. In 2005, the Government of India enacted the Disaster Management Act. The Act provides a framework for a decentralized governance structure to address disasters. In doing so, India started investing in the area of disaster management from a policy perspective. But the efforts largely remain top-down. Every disaster is addressed in an event-specific, high-cost manner, the top-down manner where communities have little say. The need for building the resilience and capacity of disaster-affected or disaster-prone communities has been of a limited focus for most policymakers, donors, disaster relief, or even development-related agencies.  

In the life-cycle of a disaster there are generally important recognized stages: mitigation, response, early recovery, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Agencies working on disaster management, including government bodies, intervene at different stages. Some provide relief, some do rehabilitation, others do reconstruction. No one agency has oversight over entire life-cycle, making it more difficult to engage with disaster management in a comprehensive manner. When these agencies leave the disaster hit areas, the communities are left confused and in want of more support. They don’t feel empowered enough to bounce back on their own thus continuing this loop of dependency. This systemic issue in the spectrum of disaster management is generally due to lack of larger goal of resilience building undertaken collaboratively. Vulnerable communities have their own local coping mechanisms and experience in mitigating disasters but are not consulted, and the local knowledge has hitherto not been utilised. As a result, the safety, security and sustainability needs of the communities are not reflected in disaster response or recovery plans.   

The Strategy

SEEDS follows a humanistic approach to disaster management across its entire life cycle. Their work starts with an emphasis on listening to people, their needs, concerns and grassroots innovations. From there, the solutions emerge through dialogue with community members, led and expanded by local leaders. The core of sustainability lies in ‘localizing leadership’ framework. The solutions after having been implemented and evaluated are framed as good practices to be used in advocacy work. Further, advocacy involves spreading the idea with in the systems and building institutions to make those new norms. Manu assumes a mentorship role in the periphery and lets these institutions lead the space. The above approach is the bedrock of SEEDS’s work in the field of disaster management. In each of these stages of disaster management – mitigation, response, relief, recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation, SEEDS has developed comprehensive processes to effectively engage and make positive impacts.  

Some stellar examples of their work include: Within mitigation and disaster risk reduction, SEEDS was among the first few to develop the Safe Schools Programme back in 2001 in response to the Gujarat earthquake, in India. The Safe Schools Programme enables school students, teachers, parent-teachers groups and civic bodies to prepare for any ensuing disasters. The entire school premise and neighborhoods are audited for safety from a disaster point of view and a blue print of the evacuation plan is drawn with the concerned stakeholders. Once the plan is made, the implementation begins with signages being put up at relevant spots, pathways for evacuation, demarcated congregation zones, mock drills being conducted at periodic intervals. The Safe Schools Programme has served as a template for the National School Safety initiative by the Government of India.   

In response and early recovery: SEEDS has built many localized networks across the country to facilitate quick response and early recovery. It is collaborating with global technology companies, such as Google in improving response capacity for affected communities. In the disaster-prone regions, SEEDS has built capacities of local leaders and community members in developing creative early warning systems, local disaster management plans, conducting regular mock drills. The strategy is to enable communities with relevant skillsets to tackle any ensuing disaster.  

For relief and reconstruction: SEEDS collaborated with Facebook to develop a social network map that maps displacement of people during a disaster. Recently during the recent Kerala floods, SEEDS used this tool to assess and direct the relief efforts towards specific regions.  

Other than coming up with such tech-based solutions, SEEDS collaborates with local and government agencies to provide relief during disasters. In the re-construction phase, SEEDS works with the local leadership, local government bodies to innovate locally-sourced solutions for reconstruction. The ‘owner-driven reconstruction’ (ODR) strategy championed by SEEDS ensures communities play a key role in designing and leading the reconstruction process. This process involves partnering with community members by enabling them to participate in building their own homes along with other community members, and restoring their immediate environment, cleaning up wells etc. ODR has become an established norm in the disaster management space.     

Building Transition Shelters: SEEDS pioneered the concept of ‘transition shelters as opposed to building temporary shelters. The transition shelters are built keeping in mind a long-term recovery needs of affected communities. These structures have strong foundations built from locally sourced materials and are inexpensive and quick to make. SEEDS has also ensured that the ownership of the transition shelters is handed over to both husband and wife (joint title).  Transition shelters have drastically changed the rehabilitation and recovery process in India. Government of India has recognized this as a critical step in the recovery and reconstruction phase of a disaster. Internationally it has become a new norm.    
As representative of national NGO, Manu has co-founded multiple networks namely NEAR (Network for Empowered Aid Response), ADRRN (Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network), AADRR (Alliance for Adoption, and Disaster Risk Reduction), ODRC (Owner Driven Reconstruction Collaborative) across the Asia-Pacific. These alliances and networks have been effective in amplifying needs of affected communities and bring about a norm change in the humanitarian sector. His work now spans more than 10 countries. SEEDS has caused major policy changes at the Asia regional, national level as well as State levels by contributing Guidelines, Government Programmes and national and regional forums.

The Person

Dr. Manu was born in Allahabad (now Prayagraj), Uttar Pradesh and was brought up in Rourkela, Odisha. Manu’s love for being on the field and learning from experiences was evident from his early childhood days and he believes this love comes from his father, who was an on-ground staff in the steel industry. His mother, a geography teacher all her life, roused his interest in natural environment.
After graduating from school, Manu joined the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), one of the most prestigious schools of Architecture in India. At SPA, he was active in the student union for two years. During the second semester of his Master’s degree at SPA, he along with his class mate - Anshu Sharma and three other friends started SEEDS in the college canteen. Post the Masters, while rest of the group moved abroad, Manu and Anshu kept growing SEEDS. They received a research assignment from Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), Government of India which gave them an opportunity to travel the length and breadth of the country to assess development works happening all over.

Manu gained great insights about development projects through these assignments. He realized what they studied in college hardly benefited communities on the ground. During this time the country was faced with some serious disasters such as- Kandla cyclone, Odisha Super cyclone, Chamoli disaster among others. Both Manu and Anshu did volunteered with aid agencies in carrying out relief work and wrote case studies on behalf of IIPA. The major insights gained from these experiences were how the poor people are always the worst hit, and their houses collapsed simply because of basic construction faults. With his training in a architecture and planning, Manu felt extremely responsible for these. Then the 2001 Gujarat earthquake happened, and he decided to go to Patanka, a small village with 250 families and heavily damaged in the earthquake. He spent two years there doing reconstruction work. It is here that SEEDS developed some of the unique, ground-breaking strategies for building resilience of communities. Many of disaster management strategies that SEEDS currently champions, emerged from his experiences working on the ground alongside communities in all these years.

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