As India completes the first week of its 21-day nationwide lockdown to battle the spread of the Covid-19 virus, it is increasingly clear that the worst is not over yet. If not another round of lockdown, India may witness at least similar measures that will restrict citizens’ movements in the coming months when the second wave of coronavirus infections hits the globe again.
Once again, the prolonged period of crisis will shine the light on India’s state capacity. But should India depend only on its elite administrative and law enforcement bureaucracy of IAS and IPS? A democracy like India is uniquely positioned to deploy its local level self-governing councils to address the challenges.
Look beyond central solutions
Despite a visible national purpose to fight this global pandemic, it is normal that there are going to be excesses on both sides – from citizens and the state — at such a time.
Some citizens will venture out risking themselves as well as others, but police lathi-charging and hurling abuses to even those buying or selling essential goods like groceries and medical supplies will only make things worse in coming weeks, with the burden of more days in the lockdown and exponentially rising cases. Similarly, thousands of migrant workers walking on foot to reach home and hundreds lining up for food at shelter homes laid bare the hollowness of India’s disaster management system.
The local excesses fit into an all too familiar pattern. As Yamini Aiyar very perceptively wrote: “The future of the State, particularly in India, will depend on the choices we make today. This could be our opportunity to strengthen our health systems and rebuild faith in public systems. Or we could invest in building capacities for enforcement and policing, which may have unwelcome consequences in the long-term.”
Democracies can and must serve their citizens better in times of such crisis. State capacity is not merely about efficiency in the delivery of goods and services. It also entails the principles of equity and accountability. Yet, the Indian government continues to pursue top-down strategies and offer central solutions. While a nationally co-ordinated strategy such as Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoMs) and the armed forces in a stand-by mode is needed to deal with the crisis, a piece of vast government machinery led by locally elected officials remains under-utilised in the fight against this pandemic.
India is home to the largest body of elected officials of the local self-government anywhere in the world: more than 2.6 lakh gram panchayats with approximately three million elected representatives at all levels, of which more than one million are women. Similarly, there are 5,000 urban local bodies, and this does not include elected Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs).
The three-tiered local government system remains one of the most representative of all, largely due to the most radical affirmative action programme of reserving seats for marginalised communities.
Citizens trust local govts
How can the local governments help in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic? In China, local volunteers in the city of Chengdu associated with the Communist Party enforce Covid-19 related regulations. Similarly, the city administration of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, has been fully engaged, along with its local university, since the beginning of the outbreak, in developing educational materials for students and the public.
In the United States, the local government in California enforced the ‘stay at home’ measure well before the federal and state governments. During the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ outbreak, North Carolina used local governments and communities to control the pandemic.
Why should India turn to local governments? Opinion surveys have consistently shown that Indian citizens have a very high level of trust in their local governments (panchayats and municipalities), and they are also more likely to approach a panchayat leader than any other official of the Indian state. On the other hand, the level of trust in police and government official is the lowest among all the institutions of the state. The survey data also suggests that citizens find higher government officials inattentive to their problems and also rude on many occasions in comparison to elected representatives.
Delegate power, trust local politicians
Why do locally elected officials not fit into the schemes of the national and state governments in India?
First, despite constitutional amendments, the real devolution of power to elected local governments remains an anathema to the Indian state. India’s elite bureaucracy seeks to manage everything or have a role in every policy. This excessive bureaucratic intervention has overburdened the state and lowered state capacity. None of this has, however, deterred its centralising tendencies.
Second, among national and state governments, there is a profound lack of trust in locally elected politicians. The top echelons of the Indian state believe that locally vested interests will not only ruin any policy initiative, but corruption will run endemic. So, instead, they turn to bureaucratic solutions — in this case a lathi-wielding policeman.
Burden on local govts to act
The question is fairly simple. In these times of Covid-19 lockdown, if you wish to leave your home, prevent the virus from invading your community, or seek some empathy from the government, would you entrust your faith in a local committee – run by your panchayat or a residents welfare association — or a single overworked policeman standing at a corner?
Yes, local governments may use the occasion to settle petty jealousies, but it remains an open question as to how widespread and damaging those actions will be compared to ad hoc police action. A police state is not subject to citizen scrutiny, but locally elected officials will meet their fate at the next panchayat or urban body elections.
For all its weaknesses, elections in India do seem to have an in-built corrective mechanism – performers are rewarded at the polls and excesses are punished. The higher levels of government sometime succeed in passing the blame of their non-performance, but local incumbents cannot hide their excesses.
So far India seems to be lucky that the onset of the Covid-19 global pandemic was late in comparison to many other countries. The relatively slower transmission of infection has also provided the government much needed time to ramp up its health infrastructure when the number of patients increases exponentially. Mega crises like this are often hidden opportunities for radical transformations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two addresses to the nation not only outlined the gravity of the situation, but citizens largely following the advisory also demonstrates the immense public faith in his leadership.
Modi commands the political capital, and there is now a political moment available too, to make “self” in the local self-government a reality. If India wants to increase the capacity of the state to deal with emergencies, large and small, and to make good governance a reality, the Covid-19 pandemic crisis is its opportunity that should not go waste.
Pradeep Chhibber is a Professor of Political Science and Indo-American Community Chair in India Studies at UC Berkeley, US. Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.