The Panchayati Raj, first adopted by Nagaur in Rajasthan on October 2, 1959 , has expanded vastly. There are now 2,60,512 Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) represented by about 31 lakh elected members across India. This system of local self-governance, where people in the villages participate in the decision-making process, is the backbone of democracy. The People’s Plan Campaign and Vibrant Gram Sabha Dashboard, rolled out this year, aspire to strengthen the Panchayati Raj system by making gram sabhas more vibrant.
A bottom-up approach
Unlike other disasters like earthquakes, COVID-19 is an unusual crisis as it is long-drawn and affects people everywhere. When the traditional top-down disaster response system was compromised during the bad months of the pandemic, it was PRIs that played a remarkable role. They helped reduce risks, responded swiftly and thus helped people recover quickly. The PRIs provided essential leadership at the local level. They performed both regulatory and welfare functions. For instance, during the nationwide lockdown, PRIs set up containment zones, arranged transport, identified buildings for quarantining people and provisioned food for the incoming migrants. Moreover, effective implementation of welfare schemes like MGNREGA and the National Rural Livelihood Mission quickened the pace of recovery while ensuring support to the vulnerable population.
Gram sabhas act as a sounding board for diverse ideas and opinions. They provide a platform to build consensus and make resolutions in the community’s interest. During the pandemic,, gram sabhas resolved to adhere to COVID-19 norms. In addition, regular engagement with frontline workers like ASHA workers and Anganwadi workers through committees bridged the trust gap between the community and the officials.
By representing diverse communities, PRIs mobilise them effectively. During the COVID-19 crisis, they organised community-based surveillance systems involving village elders, the youth and self-help groups (SHGs) to keep a strict vigil in quarantine centres and monitor symptoms in households. More recently, their role in mobilising citizens for COVID-19 vaccination is exemplary.
The Yokohama strategy during the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction in May 1994 emphasised that it is important to focus on disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness rather than disaster response alone, to reduce vulnerability. In this respect, certain initiatives can be taken to build the capacity of PRIs. One, it is crucial to include disaster management chapters in Panchayat Raj Acts and make disaster planning and spending part of Panchayati Raj development plans and local-level committees. This will ensure citizen-centric mapping and planning of resources. Various insurance products customised to local needs will build financial resilience of the community.
Two, conducting regular location-specific training programmes for the community and organising platforms for sharing best practices will strengthen individual and institutional capacities. Assigning roles to individual members and providing them with the necessary skills can make such programmes more meaningful.
Three, since the community is usually the first responder in case of a disaster, community-based disaster management plans would help. These would provide a strategy for resource utilisation and maintenance during a disaster. Such plans should tap the traditional wisdom of local communities which will complement modern practices. Moreover, financial contributions from the community should be encouraged through the establishment of community disaster funds in all gram panchayats. It is imperative to make disaster resilience an inherent part of the community culture now more than ever.
Ravi Mittal is Chief Executive Officer of the Zila Panchayat in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh