When Mrs and Mr Nair* arrived in their village in Kerala on March 11, well before the national lockdown, they were greeted by an ASHA worker who reached their house to collect basic information such as their names, travel details, existing health issues or knowledge of any new symptoms. She then went on to hand them a ‘clean-up’ package, advising them to clean all the surfaces of the house thoroughly. For the next 14 days, calls were received daily from the District Coordination Centres to inquire about existing and new health issues and whether they had interacted with anyone. Being senior citizens and thus particularly vulnerable, efforts were also made to ask them if they require any help with getting medicines or groceries.
The arrival of the ASHA worker at the home of returning families was the result of the leadership and coordination effort being played by local governments to ensure containment of the COVID-19 crisis.
As per current numbers, Kerala has started witnessing a flattening of the curve with the number of new COVID-19 cases lower than those that have recovered. For Kerala, the ability of the state to quickly galvanize panchayats and frontline health workers into action, and directly reach citizens at their homes with health and hygiene information could partially be the result of their past experience of dealing with the Nipah virus epidemic. But they also point to structural advantage – of having a strong decentralised governance architecture.
Leveraging these existing robust structures and functionaries promulgated by the 73rd and 74th amendment to the Constitution has been critical in the ability of states to handle the current crisis.
With today marking the 10th year of the National Panchayati Raj Day in India, we are reminded of three distinct strengths and the significant advantage they bring.
First, is the practical consideration of local level knowledge. Due to their proximity, panchayats are usually the first point of contact for most citizens and thus best placed to know about mobility, as well as, social security needs. Community-level engagement and dissemination of information become an easier task than deploying resources from the state level. Additionally, tracing individuals who have crossed states or districts, make it imperative to have coordination efforts continuing till the last mile, with panchayats being the eyes and ears on the entry and exit of individuals and families, especially during community quarantine.
Second, administratively, while their functions vary, panchayat members are the nodal point across most social welfare programmes and have the power of direct reach in their hands.
With 2.6 lakh rural local bodies (or gram panchayats) and over 10 lakh frontline functionaries (ASHAs, ANMs etc), they can play a vital role in ensuring that welfare services get delivered on the ground and no person is left behind from accessing relief packages for want of documentation or lack of knowledge.
Finally, from the citizen perspective, the panchayat represents the quintessential community. As a number of opinion surveys have shown, Indian citizens have a comparatively higher trust in their local governments and thus, are most likely to approach them rather than other officials for their needs. Appropriate local representation in planning and coordination efforts provides an opportunity for true state-local and citizen action, particularly in times of crisis.
Despite these obvious advantages, discussions on the role of local governments are often cast in a simplistic landscape wherein public officials are assumed to be corrupt and rent-seeking entities incapable of providing responsive service delivery. Consequently, they are often treated as implementation agencies, requiring top-down monitoring, rather than governance entities in their own right. For instance, a study conducted by Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research in 25 Gram Panchayats of Karnataka had found that, of the Rs 6 crore funds that were flowing through the panchayat, only 20 lakhs (or 3%) were funds over which they had direct control.
The current COVID-19 crisis has once again re-emphasised the importance of decentralised governance. The health ministry’s recent ‘Micro Plan for Containing Local Transmission of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)’ has placed panchayats at the forefront in increasing community mobilisation and ensuring active surveillance. Many states too have made panchayats the nodal agency for coordination – from ensuring health activities, information dissemination, and determining that all vulnerable communities have access to food supplies.
These are positive steps. Yet, the manner in which the panchayats are able to respond depends partially on their existing capacity, the devolution of power, and level of trust the state has traditionally placed on them. Potentially, there could be significant gaps between the torrent of duties being delegated to the panchayats, and the reality of how they can implement these activities.
Brief conversations conducted by the authors with around 20 panchayat secretaries and sarpanches pointed out basic challenges with respect to access to finances, availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), the reach and supply of ration to the PDS shops and managing agricultural supply chains. While panchayats in some states such as Kerala and Karnataka have been able to galvanise their own existing source revenues and existing networks to set up community kitchens, undertake doorstep delivery, make their own PPEs, or create grievance redressal units to tackle relief initiatives not reaching the last mile, for many others, they neither have the resources, networks nor the “instructions” to undertake such innovations.
Going forward, for panchayats to do their work effectively, it will be imperative to ensure the following things.
The first set, of course, are immediate. This includes the provision of adequate PPE at the panchayat level, ensuring adequate grain flows to the PDS shops and improving communication within panchayats for better vertical communication with block or district offices to enable them to be first-responders in COVID-19 management.
Second, given the variations across states and panchayats in the extent of devolution and their capacity to respond to these challenges, it could be pertinent to develop mechanisms of cross-sharing of best practices and innovations across panchayats – a useful role that even civil society can play.
But this also paves the way to ask a larger institutional question. Is it pertinent now, more than ever before, to look at the role of the panchayat to be envisioned beyond a village-level task force to contain the COVID-19 crisis? This might be an opportunity to revisit their position in the governance system – to have greater control over their finances, engage with the community for their needs, and arrive at hyper-local solutions. Is it finally time to ensure that there is a bottom-up channel of communication for community development, rather than duties being assigned in a centralised, one-size-fits-all manner?
* Name Changed.
Avani Kapur is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Director of the Accountability Initiative. Aishwarya Panicker is a senior associate (health) at the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International India. Views expressed here are personal.