As second wave is creating havoc in rural side, the local governance mechanism often does provide the first line of defence. It’s time to strengthen them
Dr Nupur Tiwary | May 24, 2021
The second wave of the pandemic is fast entering rural areas. About 40% of the total cases are being reported from rural areas and infected villagers living in the peripheral areas of cities are turning to hospitals there in large numbers. India’s rural local government has to take the central stage in the fight against Covid-19.
Last year, on the Panchayati Raj day (April 24), prime minister Narendra Modi addressed thousands of elected representatives of Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs) through video conferencing. It was not a usual address, and stressed the important role of the panchayats in fighting the pandemic.
Two days before that, 6,798 gram panchayats of Odisha pledged they would sincerely work towards containing the spread of coronavirus in the panchayats and look after the food and other medical needs of villages.
Panchayats are very important institutions to trace and stop the spread of the virus in the rural locality and the responsibility of panchayats has even increased during this critical second wave of pandemic, since a large number of labourers from cities have returned to villages. The crisis has certainly established the critical and the most important role of panchayats in mobilising resources, managing intricate tasks and shouldering responsibilities which no other institution can replace.
There are 2,56,103 PRIs in our country with around 31.00 lakh elected members, of whom 14.39 lakh are women representatives, according to the ministry of panchayati raj data of 2018. This large number of representatives can work like a huge force in this time of the pandemic. In the states like Odisha, Kerala and Rajasthan, panchayats have set the precedence in shouldering responsibilities in the pandemic and many best practices have emerged. Panchayats also have with them health workers like ASHA, social health activists, ANM, local community members like teachers and self-help groups, who work very closely with the people.
The Panchayati Raj system has a critical role in this pandemic due to various reasons.
* PRIs are very closely connected to people and they know the pulse of the people to get the specific local information (Manor 1999).
* PRIs are imbedded in the society from where they are elected and they are accountable and responsible to major public urgent needs. Above all, they are answerable to the people.
* Due to their proximity with the people they can be easily accessible to the general public than the more distant bureaucrats. The local authorities are directly elected by the people and they have bigger responsibility and a sense of Identity towards them.
In some states, panchayats have been receiving the returning migrant labourers at the bus or railway stations and providing transport services to them, so that the migrants can be directly taken to quarantine centres. Panchayats have been registering their details, tracing their travel details and also tracing the symptoms. Panchayat are also responsible for lodging a complaint to the police where there is any kind of violation of the pandemic protocols. At many places panchayats have created WhatsApp groups and they are using other digital technologies like Google spreadsheets for awareness generation and basic services during this pandemic
In many places, for example in Kerala, the district administration is taking the help of panchayats to undertake household service in villages to identify those households and individuals who need support in terms of social and economic needs and who are not registered with any of the government welfare schemes.
Panchayats can play an important role in direct cash transfers for those who do not have bank account and are in need of the economic support. Panchayats can look into the distribution of cooked food to the people who are quarantined and to those households with no income. This food can be provided from the common community run kitchen of village self-help groups. Various volunteers groups across the panchayats can be formed for supporting the panchayats in this pandemic, like Kudumbashree, a self-help group in Kerala, which showed how they had been using a volunteer army of 50,000 people to respond to the Covid crisis.
If a person is found showing symptoms of Covid, it can be reported by the volunteer in-charge to an ASHA worker, who can inform the panchayat committees coordinating with the local health centres or hospitals. If any household is violating the lockdown rules then ASHA workers can visit them to tell them to comply with the rules. If they don't, it can be reported to the local police. Panchayats can also help in providing relief measures through its various committees.
Self-help group members in many panchayats of Kerala are not only running the kitchen for the community but they are also making masks and distributing the mask amongst local people to stop the spread of the pandemic.
In states like Kerala and Odisha the district administration is consulting and taking advice of the gram panchayat members not on casual terms but on a serious note in emergency situations. Panchayat are playing an important role in tracing who have returned to the village and further trace who have they contacted with which is coming out very handy by the support of panchayats.
Panchayats have also played a leading role in agricultural activities during this Covid crisis by ensuring labour supply and providing food supply chain in villages. The union government has also allowed the panchayats to use the Fund under the 14th Finance Commission for Covid-19 emergency measures.
Panchayats can appoint nodal officers for each gram panchayat to co-ordinate the work with sarpanch and act as a link with the block development officer who further coordinates with the higher authorities.
The PRIs can take a number of responsibilities during this second wave, which are:
* Quarantine the migrants who are returning to village
* Find out if anyone is going hungry and providing food relief to them
* Execute and supervise lockdown at village level
* Produce and distribute face masks by SHGs
* Organise awareness camps in villages involving aganwadi employees and ASHA workers, also through mobile vans and wall paintings
* Mobilise a cadre of volunteers, placing their mobile numbers in public place and notice board of the gram panchayat
The significance of panchayats in planning, implementation and public delivery of basic services in the Covid crisis cannot be overlooked, as the practices in Kerala, Odisha and Rajasthan have proved. It should be noted here that the Finance Ministry released a grant of Rs. 8,923.8 crore on May 8 for Covid-19 relief to panchayats in 25 states, as part of the first instalment of the ‘Untied Grants’ for 2021-22.
However, panchayats have remained weak institutions and we are a long way from such robust construction of our local government institutional mechanisms. Functions devolved to panchayats are imprecise and overlap with state activities. Expenditure responsibilities are either unfunded or restricted through the assignment of tied funds, and staff is inadequate, because of poor training and their greater allegiance to the state than to the local self-government.
States have been requested to actively empower the panchayats in the larger interest of the people. Some states have devolved very little functions to GPs, like Tripura (13 functions), Uttar Pradesh (12functions) and Telangana (4 functions), according to the ministry data of 2018. So, there is a need for further effective devolution of 3Fs – functions, finance and functionaries.
It is important that post-pandemic the central and state governments give the panchayats prime importance for disaster management at rural level. These grassroots governance institutions have become a winner in containing the pandemic situation in rural areas, but it is equally important that the government transfer the full functions, finance and functionaries to panchayat as mandated by the Constitution so that they get the right to function as a full-fledged local self-government.
Dr Tiwary is Faculty, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), New Delhi.
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