Panchayati Raj institutions are closest to the people and are trusted by communities. Gram panchayats are also essential to ensure that the response against the crisis includes consultations with stakeholders and participatory decision-making at the local level. The response of Panchayats to their capacity to control and deal with the pandemic has been laudable. Several Panchayats mobilized local resources to support the vulnerable people in the area by providing food, shelter, and medical assistance. Most Gram Panchayats across India are now expected to respond to local social and economic needs urgently and humanely. Their action plan could have been better but since panchayats lack institutional and human capacities to implement their disaster plans; along with various financial and administrative constraints they have these local institutions become mere implementers of State and Centre’s order. This article shall be addressing three vital issues- crucial role of the grassroots institution in various aspects in these disasters like Covid-19, giving benefits to people of the scheme at the rural level to them self-reliant and limits of Panchayati Raj institution. Also, this article will look into the lessons that can be drawn from the COVID-19 situation to make the PRIs future-ready.
PANCHAYATS AS UNSUNG WARRIORS OF PANDEMIC
The concept of local self-government is not new to our country and there has been mention of community assemblies since the Vedic Age. Gandhi himself believed in the primary harmony of social existence, the essentially cooperative nature of social exchange. Central to his vision was privileging the local over distant. He envisioned that a free India would rest on a foundation of gram panchayats, village republics that governed locally and epitomized Swaraj in practice. Participation in public life was integral.
Panchayati Raj Institutions have a critical role to play
As villages prepare for a long battle, gram panchayats will have a critical role to play. These institutions are nearest to the people and are trusted by communities. Gram panchayats are also essential to ensure that the response against the crisis includes consultations with stakeholders and participatory decision-making at the local level.
The importance of participatory governance and public discussion in times of crisis has also been accentuated by Amartya Sen who says, “Tackling a social calamity is not like fighting a war which works best when a leader can use top-down power to order everyone to do what the leader wants—with no need for consultation. In contrast, what is needed for dealing with a social calamity is participatory governance and alert public discussion.”
It would have been impossible to impose the lockdown in the State effectively without the cooperation and support of the panchayats. The lockdown has tied the hands of the government; only essential services of the government, such as the police and the health departments, are functioning without physical restrictions. All other departmental staff has stopped traveling to villages, giving instructions, and monitoring their programs and plans. Governance abhors vacuums, and that is what is prompting the revival of democratic decentralization. As locked-in senior officials cannot oversee their frontline workers, panchayats have stepped in and are taking charge. Across India, more than 2,60,000-gram panchayats need to be prepared and mobilized for grassroots action against COVID-19. They will work closely with primary health centers, ASHA workers, local health volunteers, and district administrations in the coming months.
Some actions which have been taken by PRI’s and suggestions too, for better performance-
• Setting up quarantine centers
As the cases are rising in villages also, Gram panchayats should take the initiative to set up local quarantine centers with facilities such as food, drinking water, and toilets. This will also prevent migrants from hiding in their houses. Several gram panchayats have already done this with the help of local non-profit partners. They could also enlist the help of corporates in managing or funding these quarantine centers.
• Creating Awareness and checking rumours
gram panchayats, through social media by providing authentic information, reporting fake videos or news to the police, and encouraging the community to check information circulating on social media with the gram panchayat. Block panchayat officers should enable such drives by providing locally-trained community mobilizers. Keep a portal for regular updates.
• Ensuring the safe operation of local markets and daily needs and enhance the trust between the communities of health care workers and local people. The government should also ensure the PPE and other safety equipment for both the public and health officers
• Ensuring food and livelihood security
Distribution of food grains to the poor under the Public Distribution System (PDS) is still irregular in some parts of the country. As a result of the lockdown, many farmers’ savings have been depleted, which will affect their ability to buy inputs for the next cropping season, which could further impact food security. The central government’s support of INR 2,000 to more than eight crore farmers will provide some relief to the farmers, however, they can also save money by adopting more feasible agricultural practices, such as using seeds and fertilizers more judiciously. Gram panchayats can support farmers in this process by collaborating with Krishi Vigyan Kendra’s (KVKs), which are agricultural extension centers that can train farmers on the latest farming methods and technologies. In some states, gram panchayats have agricultural functionaries, known as Kisan Mitras. These individuals can be engaged to further disseminate relevant knowledge and information to farmers. Gram panchayats can, therefore, bridge the gap between KVKs and the farmers. MNREGA should be promptly implemented to give jobs to people especially the migrant workers who are seeking it. Large relief fund allocation has been done by the government in this respect.
• Strengthening panchayat-level planning
Gram Panchayat Development Planning (GPDP) needs to be accelerated to counter the negative impacts of the lockdown. Effective use of the e-Gram Swaraj Portal, which is a single interface for gram panchayats to prepare and implement their GPDPs, launched by PM Modi on 24th April. State governments can support gram panchayats by building their capacity to use the portal and implementing plans that have been approved. Gram panchayats can also enlist the help of SHGs in the GPDP process, as they are already actively involved in village-level livelihood activities. The involvement of SHGs in GPDP preparation has also been encouraged by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.
Cases of Kerala, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh
One of the most talked-about examples is Kerala. With its long history of decentralization and both primary and secondary healthcare having placed under the purview of the third-tier institutions, panchayats in Kerala are on the forefront of coordinating government in tracing, organizing health check-up camps, sanitation, social distancing messages among others. This apart, panchayats have been playing a lead role in sustaining agricultural activities by ensuring the labour supply and availability of critical food supply chains in villages.
Other states have delegated a lot of responsibilities to their panchayats as well. Recognizing their importance in containing the spread of the virus, recently Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik delegated sarpanch with the powers of a district collector. Using Section 51 of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, he has empowered sarpanch to ensure quarantine of returnees and their families. To ensure a decentralized way of tackling pandemic, the Odisha government has ensured every Gram Panchayat with registry facility and mechanisms for community-based monitoring.
In Odisha’s Nuapada, Lokadrusti is working with the gram panchayats to ensure that children of migrants who remain in the village and live in seasonal hostels that the NGO operates are provided care by local guardians, who are getting Rs 1,950 for one-and-a-half months to look after the children.
Where most states are struggling to disburse advance supply, gram panchayats in Odisha are ensuring that beneficiaries are receiving entitlement under the public distribution system (PDS) in advance for three months. In Sukma, a tribal district in Chhattisgarh, the gram panchayat has provided ration to families without waiting for supplies from the state government. Individuals and communities are chipping in with contributions to meet the needs of the poor; self-help groups, farmers’ collectives, and youth groups are helping out too. In many states, panchayats are working with women self-help groups and running community kitchens and providing cooked food. In Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district, Sivni gram panchayat’s self-reliance in vegetable production is inspiring others. Gram panchayats across India are also supporting migrants who are in transit.
In some states, the gram panchayats have utilized the 14th Finance Commission funds for procuring supplies or supported self-help groups for stitching masks. In Punjab, gram panchayats have been empowered to spend up to Rs 50,000 on purchase of medicines and food for poor people, subject to an expenditure limit of Rs 5,000 per day.
PRIs all over the country are estimated to support local social and financial requirements immediately and compassionately. However, the estimations are far from reality due to the lack of capacities at the panchayats level. When the panchayats, local leaders, community members, and community-based organizations are empowered, they will be able to effectively and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The key learnings from the Covid Crisis which can improve the functioning of the PRI’s and reform them to an extent include:
– There is a need to strengthen disaster governance through inter-agency coordination
– Capacity building for disaster management should start from the grassroots level following the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) 2005.
– Panchayats should be equipped to act using their resources to provide food, shelter, and support to the vulnerable even before directions from central or state governments are received.
– Panchayats have lacked the capacities and resources to act freely in the pandemic and due to ruled imposed by district, state, and central administrations.
-Proper financial devolution of power is required for functioning and implementing the schemes and programs.
– Community-based disaster management plans at the local level will help local bodies in acting rapidly and effectively in such disastrous situations.
– The integration of disaster management plan and Gram Panchayat Development Planning (GPDP) is essential.
– The increased role of panchayats in preparation of state or centrally sponsored schemes for community development is needed.
– Local-level disaster audits are important in the rapid response of the local bodies in a situation like COVID-19.
– Gram panchayats or the Self-Help Group (SHG) based Public Distribution System (PDS) will ensure the food security of the rural poor.
– Shifting of regulatory power from state or district authority to gram panchayats is important to efficiently arrest the spread of COVID-19.
– Gram panchayats should emphasize developing their social capital.
– Support of the local police will help Panchayats in dealing with the pandemic in many parts of the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic will be a long and uphill battle. And gram panchayats will be at the forefront, preventing the virus from spreading in villages, where 66 percent of India lives. Their success will also depend on the extent to which state and central governments involve gram panchayats in decision-making. When we talk about Atmanirbhar Bharat, we should also have in mind Atmanirbhar panchayats. Because when a panchayat becomes Atmanirbhar, it not only ensures self-sufficiency, but also ropes in more accountability and transparency in governance, which further leads to a stable and progressive village economy. In this whole effort to make India a self-reliant nation, a larger focus should be on making the panchayats and local bodies more people-driven. It is when the last person living in an Indian village becomes “Atmanirbhar”, will we truly be “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.