Empower Gram Panchayats to be able to deal with crises like COVID-19 effectively in rural areas

The reason millions of migrant workers headed for their villages in lockdown despite great hardship is that they have ecosystem to help them with basic needs; this needs to be strengthened further

Empower Gram Panchayats to be able to deal with crises like COVID-19 effectively in rural areas

Dr Mahi Pal

It has been months since COVID-19 took the shape of a pandemic. It is being fought like a war.The entire Indian society and economy has been put under serious stress on account of this. It has caused massive problems everywhere in both rural and urban areas. The abrupt imposition of a lockdown in the third week of Mach 2020 compelled thousand of casual workers to march toward their native villages for relief. Some of such workers have even died on the way of their villages.

Why did they take this drastic step? Because their villages, fellow-villagers and their institutions like Gram Panchayats (GP) are still relevant insofar meting out their requirements like money etc goes. In such a situation, the role of Panchayatswho are close to villagers is more important as compared to the state and Central governments. They are required to take necessary steps at their level on the criteria devised by the state and central governments.

State Panchayat Acts also have provisions for Panchayats to control pandemics at their level. For example, serial no 23 (khe) under Section 15 of the Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat Act empowers the Gram Panchayat to control anpandemic. Different state Panchayats have various such provisions to provide relief if a pandemic breaks out.

But what is provided in the Act is not assumed to be known by the Panchayats. There are more than 2 lakhs and 55 thousands Panchayats in the country comprising more than three millions elected representatives comprising 46 per cent women and 26 per cent SCs and STs.

Interestingly, GPs can handle a situation like COVID-19 effectively if the following things become realities for them. These things are even more important in the years to come because villages need to be kept neat and clean so that eventualities like COVID -19 could be controlled effectively.

First, Panchayats must function as de facto rural local governments. For this purpose, they must have clearly defined functions, adequate funds to carry out their functions and adequate functionaries to attend to the assigned tasks to them. This is a minimum level is to be honoured.

But the reality is different. Available information reveals that none of the states/UTs have achieved 100 per cent devolution (means expected to be transferred to Panchayats) even more than two decades after the implementation of the 73rdAmendment Act.

Second, all GPs do not have office building from where they can discharge their duties and functions. Except Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Manipur and Tamil Nadu, these institutions do not have offices in other states. In states like UP and Bihar, this problem is very serious. Without offices, how can Panchayats would handle the issues of COVID 19 effectively. Where would the meetings of the GPsbe held? Where could the villagers would come to meet president of GP and chairman of the health and sanitation committee?

There is no data whether all committees which are so important in the context of COVID-19 have been constituted. In such a situation, PanchayatiRaj would be either in the almirah of the president of GP or in bag of the Gram Sachiv. When rural society is so stratified on caste and class basis, how can one imagine that marginalized group would go to the residence of the president and if they would go there, they would be getting as much respect as a higher caste person enjoys there.

Thirdly, most of the GPs are not endowed with adequate computers, telephones, internet facilities and personnel. In this situation, how would GPs network with people of different revenue villages?

Fourthly, awareness and capacity building needs to be taught to presidents of Panchayats, members of Gram Panchayats, members of various subject committees and their chairpersons. Lack of clearly leads to misgovernance. A president of a GP in UP wassent jail by the district administration because he did keep the migrants as they should be kept. When the camp was inspected and the president was asked why that happened, he had no answer. However, it was reported in the media that food was not served to quarantined persons. So they went to their houses in the night to eat.

Under these circumstances, there is a clear need to provide adequate infrastructure to GPs in terms of buildings and other infrastrature like computers and related facilitates, adequate personal – both technical and non-technical – and proper capacity building of officials and non-officials through developing their inner resources by removing negativity from their attitudes, inculcating sense of ownership of community and public assets and elimination of egoistic attitudes by developing proper reading materials and training module.

There is an urgent need to develop social capital through social re-engineering in rural areas so that an environment of cooperation and coordination is created. More money needs to be given to the villages. The example of Kerala in controlling COVID- 19 made global news. The reason: empowered Panchayats, whose members ensured effective planning and management.

(The author is a former officer of Indian Economic Service and president of Karpa Foundation)

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