The coronavirus pandemic has proved that a centralised policy executed by single authority at the top, with little interaction with actors on the ground, is not very helpful in combating the pandemic.
This was reflected in India’s initial response to Covid-19, when the nationwide lockdown was announced hastily, without much thought about the impact it would have on the people. They were not given enough time to prepare and the local authorities had no clue about what was to be done.
The central government’s carelessness and lack of coordination with local authorities brought about tremendous suffering for the country’s poor. Because of the lockdown restrictions, there were no buses or trains and migrant workers, stuck in different parts of the country, had to walk on foot to their hometowns.
These situations could have been prevented if people on the ground had been consulted and local authorities given adequate support to deal with the crisis.
A major lesson that can be learnt is that robust decentralisation in governance is needed in these unprecedented times. These are situations when we need the third tier of government, that is the local government, to take up the mantle and reach out to the grassroots level, hear people’s problems, note down their viewpoints and frame region-specific policies.
Different sections of society, such as farmers, migrant labourers and healthcare workers, are facing different challenges, so adopting a unified policy for all sections and regions to fight Covid-19 was bound to fail.
Decentralisation is key
Economist Friedrich Hayek, in an article titled The Use of Knowledge in Society, argued that knowledge is not present with anyone in its totality, rather it is dispersed and is in the possession of separate individuals. Thus centralised planning is not very efficient as what is known by a single agent is only a small fraction of the sum total of knowledge held by all members of society.
In this regard, one can learn a great deal from Kerala as it did good, at least initially, in fighting the pandemic. Some credit for this goes to Kerala’s successful experiments with decentralisation, as seen in the launch of People’s Plan Campaign in 1996. The campaign led to the devolution of 35 per cent of the states’ development budget from a centralised bureaucracy to local governments.
Gram panchayats in Kerala reached out to the people, who are main stakeholders in a democracy, and involved them in the decision-making process. They empowered local communities to formulate and implement their own development priorities.
Kerala also adopted the welfare policy approach, wherein the main aim is to protect and promote the wellbeing of its people. As a result, Kerala’s expenditure on healthcare is the highest in the country. The Aardram Mission launched by the state government helped to create a people-friendly healthcare delivery system in the state. It transformed primary health centres into family health centres as a first-level health delivery point.
Moreover, the Kerala government was proactive in its response and announced its Rs 20,000-crore relief package that included a free public distribution system, a kit with essentials for everyone, 2,300 community kitchens, regular anganwadi ration delivery, cash transfers and more, far before the Centre announced its plan.
Kerala also had a strong coordination between the local governments and civil society organisations. Here, the panchayats work closely with the network of self-help groups (SHGs) and civil society outfits to ensure that the benefits of the schemes launched by the state government percolate down to the poor.
An excellent example of this collaboration is Kudumbashree, a women’s empowerment group that started community kitchens in all local bodies so that food could be prepared and delivered to needy people and those in home quarantine.
The success of a democracy is measured in terms of the extent of public participation. Decentralisation is an effective way to ensure the participation of people in the functioning of the government. There is a need to strengthen local governments and one way to do this is to make them financially independent. Other states can replicate similar models of decentralisation in their states to strengthen their participatory democracy. Decentralisation will act as a bridge between the government and people, which will strengthen the democratic fabric of our nation.
Siddhima Sirohi is a student of Political Science at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi