A key arsenal in rural India’s pandemic fight

With migrant labour back in their hometowns, gram panchayats can strengthen containment measures in the interiors

Updated - April 09, 2020 01:00 pm IST

Published - April 09, 2020 12:02 am IST

If you build a fortress to strengthen your defences against an enemy, what is of importance is the strength of its walls. The issue of space or comfort within the fortress is the last question one may dare to ask or even think about, apart from the minimum supplies required for sustenance. But what if the enemy is a virus?

With the ongoing war against COVID-19 , it is the exact opposite which needs equal if not greater attention — the state of preparedness within the fortress. Yes. With the ubiquitous 21-day national lockdown unprecedented in the history of independent India, stronger and harsher than anywhere else in the world, the interiors within the boundaries need attention.

Ground realities

Interestingly, every village is in itself a fortress during these difficult times and every village needs attention within. With the influx of thousands of migrant labourers into their villages, there is an imminent need to isolate them for at least 14 days. Unfortunately, the houses here, which are often one or two-room dwellings, with an average seven family members to accommodate, are some of the worst places where one can hope to contain the deadly disease. Along with the absence of running water within households, the possibility of common points in village arenas becoming hotspots for this deadly contagion becomes manifold.

Notwithstanding the fact that the entire State machinery is now involved in near wartime efforts to contain the spread of this pandemic, only a few States have been able to organically involve their foundational governance structure — i.e. gram panchayats — very effectively and efficiently in this situation. In some southern States with pre-embedded conditions of self-governing and nearly autonomous panchayats, they are becoming the beacons of hope by proactively engaging with citizens at the village level. A case in example is the community kitchens run by local bodies in Kerala, where home delivery of cooked food is spiking as the situation demands.

Enough has been discussed already of the instrumental use of panchayats as mere wings of State administration. Issuing orders from the top is the norm and an ecosystem has evolved where even the elected representatives of panchayats wait for directions and a sarpanch does not assert himself before a bureaucrat. It would be surprising, therefore, if such a conditioned institution, originally envisioned to be the pivot of self-sustaining villages, creatively thinks of dealing with this pandemic. But the time has arrived, to reinvigorate these institutions of people and facilitate them to be the proactive agents in this fight. Many scientists and researchers have already predicted the possibility of villages becoming hotspots of the disease after the 21-day lockdown is lifted. Though geographical spread may be limited, the concentration of the spread may get out of hand. It is here that gram panchayats which are very well placed, and close to their own people with limited resources, can help them in enforcing isolation and making the necessary arrangements. Panchayats can work exactly in three areas: awareness generation, setting up isolation conditions, and streamlining social security measures announced by the Central and State governments.

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Reaching out effectively

First, a model needs to be established, with concrete standard operating procedures and best practices that can be replicated throughout rural India. Organisations such as Professional Assistance For Development Action (PRADAN) have been trying to influence gram panchayats and district administrations in many States ever since the pandemic. With sustained engagement, they have been able to coordinate with the administration to use the resources of panchayats, collaborate with self-help groups and to set isolation conditions within village premises (with beds, sanitisers, drinking water, cooked meals, etc.) in many interior blocks across the districts in central and eastern India. Involving panchayats — and by observing adequate safety measures — to establish isolation facilities across the length and breadth of the country is the need of the hour.

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Consider the second part, even with the harvesting of wheat almost over in States such as Madhya Pradesh; people are still out in the fields, but once they are done with their work it is the panchayat that can do the work effectively to confine people within their homes with adequate awareness generation. The police cannot reach out to each and every village round the clock because of their inadequate resources. Community policing with the active engagement of panchayats, by collaborating with women’s collectives, is a potential area where a people-led movement can be kick-started in a short time span. Who can make the people aware better than their own elected representatives and who the villagers see on a daily basis?

Finally, despite the financial packages being rolled out to avert panic and worry about livelihoods and basic food requirements, it is an inexorable situation that many will be left out as documentation is core to availing these social-service provisioning schemes. The Jandhan–Aadhaar–Mobile trinity is vulnerable in those areas where even mobile connectivity fluctuates, leave alone Internet connectivity. Without the active engagement of panchayats, it would be chaotic to even expect everything remaining under control within villages in case of even a minor disturbance. A seminal understanding developed is that, without the agency of gram panchayats, it is not possible to deploy any system effectively and to adequately take prompt actions to include the excluded.

With a package of ₹1.7-lakh crore to meet the needs of the population and streamlining health services, it is clear that the government is trying its best; with more volunteers and social commitment through raising resources, civil society organisations are trying their best; with pledges of financial support and donations, concerned citizens and industry players are also trying their best. There have been enough ideas floated, proposed and implemented — from food to using railway coaches as isolation wards. But reinvigorating panchayats is an unattended area which needs a push in strengthening the arsenal available in this fight against COVID-19.

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Directions to gram panchayats to use the 14th Finance Commission grants to help villagers is a welcome measure, already done by various State governments. But laying stress on three actions specifically — arranging isolation facilities with cooked meal supply; awareness generation, and finally, ensuring that the most vulnerable have access to the welfare measures announced — is crucial if rural India is to be saved. It is time for panchayats to exercise their agency. For this, thrust is needed from top layer of administration — a direction that will help the nation fight this deadly virus. With enough political will, and a changed perspective of executive machineries, it is totally possible. It is time to unleash the power of panchayats to be with the people and lead this fight.

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