With Prime Minister Narendra Modi holding a video conference with sarpanchs from across India to mark the Panchayati Raj Divas Friday, the gram panchayats truly are in the spotlight. Undoubtedly, village councils have emerged as the focal point in response to Covid-19, which is a positive development. It is not just in Kerala that the local government has played an important role in containing the spread of the coronavirus. Panchayats across India have realised that they have to shoulder significant responsibilities beyond just providing relief during this unprecedented crisis.
Over the past decades, crores of rupees have been spent on strengthening and building the capacities for gram panchayats. We even have an institution aptly named National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj. But what is new about this moment is that gram panchayats have been forced to step up despite their lack of preparedness for a disaster of the order unleashed by the coronavirus. Hopefully a majority will successfully respond to the challenges.
Even partial success offers an opportunity – and hopefully an impetus – for a new beginning. The gram panchayats are learning by doing and working in jugaad mode to beat the odds stacked against them. Perceptions and optics matter. Just as the income tax department acknowledges the contribution of individual filing returns, it is time to recognise and applaud the efforts being made by the gram panchayats, mainly because we cannot afford to have them fail.
That this opportunity to strengthen them should not be squandered is the key insight that emerged at a webinar titled ‘Socio-Economic Impact of COVID-19 — Insights from the Field, Emerging Concerns and Way Forward’, co-hosted mid-April by Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi; Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai; and UNICEF, Maharashtra.
The uncelebrated warriors
Gram panchayats are going the extra mile to ensure essential services are not disrupted, especially for the vulnerable. 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 community 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.
Foot soldiers to fund managers
Increasing beneficiaries covered under the PDS as well as enhancing supplies of essentials such as oil, spices, pulses, etc. have already been highlighted as necessary steps at this time. Similarly, ramping up allocations under the employment guarantee scheme and permitting labour to be paid for harvesting from this fund will significantly relieve gram panchayats, whose financial and human resources are stretched. An idea worth considering is to give a limited sum as untied funds to the panchayats, which can be used for purchasing essential supplies. The foot soldiers in rural India, such as the ASHA workers, who are building awareness and helping in containment of Covid-19, need personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers, masks, gloves, etc.
In some states, the gram panchayats have utilised 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. Even before the lockdown was implemented, gram panchayats in Odisha were provided Rs 5 lakh to expedite quarantine facilities for returning migrants and now, the state is giving pradhans powers equivalent to the district collectors to implement quarantine and help with the disease management of migrant workers whom the state government plans to bring back once the lockdown is lifted.
More power to gram panchayats
Local solutions cannot happen without decentralisation and giving gram panchayats the flexibility to act as per needs of the people. At the moment, gram panchayats seem to be snowed down under a multiplicity of orders and instructions from different departments and higher levels of government. It is equally important for different tiers of government to communicate in multiple languages and not only in the official language of the state or in Hindi.
Now would be the time to create an effective peer-to-peer learning network where gram panchayats can learn from the experiences of others within the same state and across states. There are reports that in the name of quarantine and social distancing, returning migrants are being ostracised. How are the gram panchayats addressing this problem? What would be an effective way to disseminate information on mental health? In urban India, domestic violence has risen during the lockdown and it probably has in rural India as well.
There is scope for cross-learning on what type of messaging might work and civil society organisations – which the gram panchayats have learnt to trust and leverage – can assist in developing materials of relevance to the local area. There is much for urban local bodies – which have shown reluctance to utilise NGO beneficiary lists to provide food and rations – to learn from the gram panchayats in this regard.
This is not the time to look back at the shortcomings of what was achieved with grants made available by the 14th Finance Commission of India to the gram panchayats — for example, did they strengthen the management information systems or improve the quality of data? Instead, we must start learning from past failures.
In these exceptional times when the entire country is under a lockdown to contain a disease for which there is no cure, gram panchayats are showing the capacity – and accompanying local knowledge and collaborations – to respond, subject to provision of resources by the state and central governments. Yes, they are being given ad-hoc tasks, including collection of data on returning migrants. What is important is not to think of a patchwork of responses by the gram panchayats. Instead, it would be useful to start with the 29 responsibilities listed under Article 243G in the Constitution and ensure gram panchayats identify local priorities and formulate a clear strategy for when the lockdown is lifted.
S Chandrasekhar is Professor, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai and Mukta Naik is Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal.