Responding to COVID-19 at the grassroots
Kerala and Karnataka have shown how democratic decentralisation has worked in their favour
- Mahatma Gandhi envisioned that a free India would rest on a foundation of gram panchayats, village republics that governed locally and epitomised Swaraj in practice. B.R. Ambedkar was sceptical; he described the caste-ridden, unequal village society as a cesspool. Yet, he was not unequivocally against decentralisation.
Locally relevant initiatives
- The 73rd Constitutional Amendment mandates the constitution of panchayats at the district, intermediate and village levels as devolved institutions of self-government and provides for the endowment of powers and responsibilities to plan and implement programmes for social justice and economic development.
- This fulfilled the vision of the Mahatma, whilst addressing Dr. Ambedkar’s concerns by providing for reservation in both the elected seats and leadership positions of sarpanches, mukhiyas and adhyakshas.
- Yet, the progress of panchayati raj has been patchy, since its constitutionalisation 27 years ago.
- Some States have walked the talk by devolving untied grants to panchayats so that they can plan flexibly and implement locally relevant initiatives.
- However, in most, the substantive spirit of the constitutional design has been obstructed by politicians and bureaucrats, who fear the loss of their patronage powers.
- Panchayats are not given enough funds and are bypassed by State-controlled line departments that continue to implement programmes falling within the rightful domain of the former.
- The plague waves of the 15th century, which killed nearly three quarters of England and nine-tenths of people in some quarters of Europe, also undermined the political position of the Pope, whose assurances that god would come to the help of the virtuous, were not fulfilled.
- While much of the deservedly generous appreciation that Kerala has received for combating the COVID-19 pandemic so far is focused on its Chief Minister and Health Minister, administering the lockdown with firmness and compassion and alleviating the distress caused to the poor has also been largely due to Kerala’s empowered panchayats.
- Nearly a third of Kerala’s plan funds have been given to the panchayats as flexible development and maintenance funds, a policy that the government follows even though it suffers from chronic fiscal stress.
- The Kudumbashree system, which encourages women to form self-help groups and their federations, acts as an organised civil society counterpoint to the panchayats, collaborating with and yet holding to account the latter for their performance.
- Kudumbashree has also been an effective incubator for women leaders who have then stepped into the political sphere; nearly 65% of all women elected to the panchayats are Kudumbashree members.
A revival in Karnataka
- In contrast, Karnataka typifies the stop-start approach of most States to strengthening local governments.
- For political reasons they have passed laws that create a powerful framework for democratic decentralisation.
- But in practice the panchayats are tied down through restricted finance and administrative controls, parallel structures, and have deputed officers who owe allegiance to their line departments rather than to the elected panchayat body.
- First, it would have been impossible to impose the lockdown in the State effectively without the cooperation and support of the panchayats.
- Second, the lockdown has also tied the hands of the government; only essential services of the government, such as the police and the health departments, are functioning without physical restrictions.
- All other departmental staff have stopped travelling to villages, giving instructions and monitoring their programmes and plans.
- The primary health centre doctor, auxiliary nurse midwives and accredited social health activists are part of the task force in which all elected representatives and panchayat-level staff participate.
- Decisions taken on COVID-19 related management such as implementing the lockdown, disinfection, providing food to those who need it and ensuring the supply of other essential services are implemented by the village- level task forces.
- In a panchayat in Kolar district, while the entire body resolved to buy masks for people, the panchayat development officer, an officer deputed from above and placed with the panchayat, obstructed the resolution.
- He owed no allegiance to the panchayat to which he was posted, and ignored government guidelines giving flexibility to panchayats to decide appropriate responses to the pandemic.
- A confident and caring government ought to continue with the current elected bodies functioning as administrators.
- If instead they appoint officials or their chosen political representatives to take charge, then we will know where the government stands on its commitment to democratic decentralisation.