Prema Gopalan

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2003
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Prema Gopalan's work was prepared when Prema Gopalan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Prema Gopalan is empowering women to build bridges between facilitating policy at the government level and taking ownership at the local level. This work aims to put rural poor women at the center of decentralized, democratic, basic-service management.

The New Idea

Prema is empowering women to influence and change government policy from inside the system, creating a "micro-macro" balance that will help stop the tremendous waste of resources. Prema has made it possible for women to be involved from the first step of the policy process: to draft a new sectoral reform policy at the Maharashtra state level to effect a transfer of power and resources relating to water and sanitation to women at decentralized, community institutions and local governments. Prema is now taking advantage of this historic policy to involve the women in promoting community ownership of water supply systems and their management by demonstrating how collaborations between gram panchayats (village administration committees) and community groups that are operated by women can manage water systems.
This is not only changing the way women participate in the planning process for development of their own community, but also creating for them channels of economic development. She and her team at SSP, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (literally, swayam: own; shikshan: learning; prayog: practical application) have been working closely with the government–and now international institutions–to realize their long-term vision: transforming the way water supply and sanitation projects are managed through institutionalized community ownership.

The Problem

Decades of research show that no one has a greater stake and interest in water and sanitation than poor women who bear the brunt of both water scarcity and lack of sanitation in their daily lives and on their own bodies. Yet, surprisingly, there are few models in place that have translated this fact into community-based mechanisms. Water committees, even if they exist, are dominated by traditional male leaders who do not provide space for women to participate.

To address the major gender bias in Indian society, both rural and urban, there is a need to build the core social, economic, and political competencies of women. Collectives of grassroots women organized around savings-credit and microenterprise do exist, but building women's perspectives in the context of decentralized planning, development, and reforms in the sector of water, health, and education is an area that needs a lot of attention. If a "critical mass" of well-informed women's groups and poor communities can be encouraged to participate in the development reforms, then their concerns can become central to the planning process.

For the past decade, the privatization of services like water, sanitation, health care, waste management, and other essential services has caused deep concern, particularly in Third World countries where these services have never reached large sections of the poor with any consistency or quality. Transnational networks like the Citizens Network for Essential Services have been formed in response to this challenge that is hitting poor populations hard by reducing the affordability and accessibility of health, education, water, sanitation, and electricity. This is because "privatization" and "deregulation" (moving it out of the government or public sector) have been viewed and implemented rather narrowly, usually into the hands of private companies and investors. What Prema proposes is to demonstrate that "privatization" can actually democratize the management of basic services, and that village women can form the backbone of leadership for such a process.

The Strategy

Prema's initial work with water and sanitation is covering 25 villages in Maharashtra state. Today, her organization partners with 1,310 self-help groups with over 19,518 women members. Prema's vision is to put these women at the core of the developmental process, from the planning to the implementation level. She is collaborating with the government for promoting community ownership of water supply systems through multiple strategies. Her work ranges from involving women to voice their demands, to designing of the government order, to implementing, managing, and monitoring it to ensure a transition from a supply-led to a demand-driven approach for water and sanitation.

First, Prema supports women organizing themselves in collectives–first in savings and credit and later in monitoring water and sanitation. These savings-credit groups are then clustered under "federations" (currently seven) which serve as their visible identity. These federations are community-owned, with women's groups as the stakeholders. Prema's team at SSP has also helped women build mahiti kendras (knowledge centers) or community information networks on spaces donated by village administration. Run by the women's network, these centers provide women with information, training, and other skills, particularly the ability to look at the problem with new perspectives. Prema strengthens women's groups by offering skills training to lead participatory processes within communities to mobilize, inform, and plan. Women are trained to do mapping of their villages and to identify critical gaps, so that they can decide what systems they want to change. Most want a system that is more convenient (they spend hours fetching water); safe (they have to guard against water-borne illnesses); and inclusive (they want a say in decisions).

Second, Prema facilitates active participation by women in gram sabhas (village assemblies) to voice their concerns and demand better services. Women's groups are also linked to the gram panchayats, where they present their findings and solutions. During these community meetings, women's groups urge the villagers and gram panchayats to form a working group within the village to manage water supply systems. When the Village Water and Sanitation Committees are formed, women who were active are selected for the committees to ensure their participation. This also gives women's groups recognition in their public role as managers and planners, while their abilities to define problems and work out solutions grow and improve. As a result, women feel empowered to address other complex issues around water: improving ground water and surface water capacities by recharging water sources; improving retention capacity of the land; exploring possible water saving and low-cost sanitation measures.

Third, Prema is improving income potential by equipping women's groups with technological skills training that will help them design, build, operate, and maintain water and sanitation systems. Women benefit from the developments in a number of ways. The water and sanitation sector opens up the livelihood opportunities further. Also, it creates a bias-free perception of women by involving them in nontraditional roles, like managing community contracts for building storage tanks, storm water drains, toilets, drainage lines, and forming maintenance teams to handle service contracts. Local service teams are developed and managed by the women's federations to carry out participatory assessments and technical surveys, building of necessary infrastructure, regular operation and maintenance of the supply system and repairs, water quality and treatment, and source protection and augmentation. Federations take on projects on a pilot basis to build credibility for themselves and equip village women's teams with skills to undertake service contracts. Federations may also lend venture capital to start innovative enterprises in sanitation. The federations are supported in forging links with banks, state, and market agencies to develop and manage basic services and development projects.

Prema's spread strategy is multipronged. SSP is riding on the growing momentum around the world of communities contesting the privatization of public services. In the case of India, the government has increasingly turned to village women's self-help groups to help implement a variety of rural development programs. Prema's idea is unique because it is being developed in order to scale up to huge proportions. The emphasis will not be on perfect little models but on creating management and accountability systems that will lend themselves to scaling up across thousands of villages. SSP's involvement in sector reform at both the state and grassroots levels places it in the sole position of being able to take lessons learned in the field to broad policy initiatives at state and national levels and from the water and sanitation sector to other areas like health and education.

Prema has put together a good training team at SSP, which has trained over 10,000 gram panchayats on their role, financial management, and community participation in development issues. This team is able to train people elsewhere. As part of its sharing and educational mission, SSP has a wide array of publications that are available to active development practitioners. SSP is also a coconvener of a national network, Community Enterprise Forum of India that supports community enterprise with poor communities where they link with over 200 NGOs in several states. Multiple strategies include enterprise development training and accessing resources from financial institutions and government through joint initiatives.

Over the last three years, SSP has facilitated a learning exchange among grassroots women's groups to share lessons from community-led disaster relief and development, local governance, and economic initiatives across several countries and regions of the world. Additionally, Prema is a steering committee member of GROOTS International–a network of autonomous grassroots women's organizations, across the world) and leads the People Centered Disaster Group of the Huairou Commission (a partnership coalition of UN agencies, development organizations, and grassroots groups working in support of women and habitat issues). These organizations share and adapt grassroots women's successful development practices to other parts of the world and advise intergovernmental bodies, policymakers, and other development donors on the changes required to improve and not marginalize this participation.

The Person

It was not till she took her first job in a development research organization that Prema got her first taste of what is it like to work with people. Born in Pune in an upper middle-class family, Prema went to school all over India because her father was in the army. She completed her master's degree in social work at TISS, one of the premier institutions in the country. While she was traveling across the country to compile a directory of NGOs in India, she became interested in issues of women and poverty. She came back and joined SNDT Women's University as a research associate to do a predoctoral study on women in the informal sector. Her findings left her restless–she wanted to work directly with the people and not do research in an academic environment.

In 1984 she was among a group of people who founded SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers) to work with the urban poor on issues of housing. She spent four years in SPARC working and learning hands-on, but her interest in rural issues made her branch out on her own to work with rural communities. In 1989 she set up SSP. Her search for economic alternatives for women belonging to poor communities led her to pioneer the work with savings and credit in rural Maharashtra. But her real lesson came when she began working directly with women's groups and communities in the socially and economically underdeveloped districts of Latur and Osmanabad after the devastating earthquake in September 1993. In the Maharashtra Emergency Earthquake Rehabilitation Program, SSP, as community-participation consultant to the Government of Maharashtra, implemented the model for the community-driven reconstruction program across 2,000,000 households in 1,300 villages.

In her 1995 to 1998 partnership with the government in the post-earthquake rehabilitation program, Prema realized that rural women, who were stepping out of their homes for the first time in their lives to organize themselves into groups, can grow to establish themselves as planners in local development and governance. Building on the capacities of the grassroots women's collectives during the reconstruction efforts, SSP later steered the community groups through a broad-based development strategy to address the economic necessities and social empowerment of women and the poor. The amazing results that Prema saw when she invested in strengthening the economic capacities of women's groups and federations to empower women for local self governance made her believe that her idea is a viable way of helping grassroots communities cope with globalization and take up opportunities through technology and opening markets.