Simi Mehta

One of the greatest human tragedies of a contemporary era unleashed by the coronavirus has become a wakeup call and has provided several lessons in the conduct of all aspects of human personal, professional, societal and institutional lives in India and in every country of the world. One of the institutions that have been deeply impacted by COVID-19 has been the Panchayati Raj in India. Panchayats have been the core of functioning of India’s rural governance even before they received the constitution mandate to the 73rd constitutional amendment in 1992, forming the basis of the spirit of decentralization in the country.

There are 2.5 lakh gram panchayats; over 6 lakhs villages; around 4500 urban local bodies and 4000 census towns in the country. Panchayats have been at the forefront of village level governance and quality. With this background, the lecture on “Lessons from COVID-19: Empowering Panchayati Raj Institutions” (PRIs) was organized by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on August 18, 2020. It sought to provide clarity on how the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have been empowered during the time of crisis so that the citizens in the villages can be assured of continuity and smooth functioning of their activities.

Panchayati raj Institutions

Prof James Manor, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK stated that decentralization increases accountability, transparency by drawing ordinary people in villages into democratic processes. According to a book Decentralization and Empowerment for Rural Development authored by Hari K. Nagarajan, Hans Binswanger-Mkhize, S. S. Meenakshisundaram, Panchayati Raj can assist in poverty alleviation. When the elected local councils exists for many years in the local government, poor people learn how the democratic process works at local level. They pursue their rights and participate more in democracy.

He highlighted that gram panchayats used to save lives even before pandemic because women in panchayats help in building trust among the ordinary people with the health service providers since ordinary women are afraid to visit doctors because of their intimidating appearances.

The women members of panchayats even helped the doctors and nurses to explain the villagers of their diseases and treatment in the language they understood. Consequently, the number of villages taking medical services without fear increased a lot. By creating a sense of trust, panchayats saved lives. In times of COVID-19, the trust developed by Panchayati raj will be able to test, trace and treat the under the current scenario and will be able to contain the crisis.

He exemplified how the civil servants in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh understand that PRIs help to achieve their plans. But legislators are wary of their powers being taken away at local level so the ineffectiveness remains. The world has a lot to learn from Indian Panchayat system.

He exemplified how Britain is centralizing the system to tackle the health crisis which is costing the lives of people and the neutrality of local councils is being ignored. He also highlighted how the decentralization system weakened in South Africa where local councils are being dominated by the people at higher levels. Thus, their efforts to implement the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of India in South Africa failed because of less access to financial resources. Now, the testing, tracing and treatment in South Africa has lagged.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, Former Union Minister of Panchayati Raj highlighted the constitutional duties of the panchayats as per Schedule 9, Schedule 11 and Schedule 12 of the Indian Constitution. He opined that constitutional amenders would have known that in the event of a health major problem in India would require a resolution at both rural and urban levels so they devised a mechanism called the District Planning committee on which members elected to the rural panchayats would be represented to a large extent than those elected to all municipal bodies.

According to legislation under 243G, panchayats with powers and authority enable them to function as institutions of self-government in respect of preparation of plans and implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice. But empowerment of PRIs have to be entrusted with this responsibility by the state legislature.

According to the entries in the Schedule 11 of Indian Constitution, item 23 relates the empowerment of PRIs to health and sanitation including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries which is significant in the current scenario of pandemic. States have actually fulfilled the constitutional mandate to empower the panchayat to look into health and sanitation, which are intimately connected with COVID-19 and where such responsibilities are institutionally exercised through hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries under the overall supervision of the PRIs. He was optimistic that PRIs would be greatly successful in attending to problems of COVID-19 in rural India.

There are three subjects that are affected by COVID-19 pandemic. First, women and child development where Anganwadi workers along with the auxiliary nurses and midwives are responsible for development of child, pregnant and lactating mothers. Secondly, mentally and physically challenged people who are not able to access medical care. People with money and in higher caste in rural India can have access to medical care with their influence but it would be difficult for people with less money or people in backward castes. Lastly, the public distribution system (PDS) which can provide access to food grains as mandated by Schedule 11.

He highlighted that the term Panchayat is specifically used for rural India, but the constitution includes metropolitan areas and districts as well. He opined that the most vulnerable state in India was Kerala because a substantial working population constitutes the Kerala diaspora, especially in the Gulf, Britain and USA. The first COVID-19 case was introduced through China in Kerala and it was believed that it would be difficult to handle the crisis, but it is universally accepted that the state handled it very effectively.

There is a direct connection between Kerala’s demonstrated capacity and the fact that for the last 20 years with starting of Thomas Isaac famous people’s planning movement which aimed for decentralizing the planning system in the state and have strengthened the local governments in matters of health, sanitation, women and child development, welfare of the weaker sections and public distribution system.

In rural Kerala, Kudumbashree movements linked women Self-Help Groups to the panchayat system. Moreover, in the sphere of education, Kerala has included primary and secondary schools in the Panchayati Raj system and district colleges under the overall supervision of the district Panchayat to have a well-educated system, which does not deprive women of their rights.  He applauded the state of Kerala for effectively combating the pandemic with very minimal loss of human life. He opined that this is possible only if there is local government operating in the sectors that matters most to the people.

He further exemplified the Gujarat model as alleged to be a model of how to run the economy but this development model through Indian politics converted a secular country into Hindu nation. Despite the fact that the old state of Bombay continues to have Panchayati Raj state from 1937 till today, Gujarat is being controlled under a centralised system. Before partition of Maharashtra and Gujarat, the states were under Panchayati Raj system run by Hitendra Desai who showed that local self-government is the basis of all effective government.

Since Gujarat was being governed under the centralised system, the local powers were diminished and Ahmedabad municipality became powerless because almost for every important decision state government had to be referred and the commissioners who would go into the state government and accepted subordinate positions while others were left out. He argued that when World Health Organization was on the verge of declaring coronavirus as pandemic, the Trump visit was attended by more than 100000 people in the stadium without any precautionary measures due to which Ahmedabad became the hotspot.

Moreover, Dharavi, being the largest slum in Asia, would have had massive deaths if not controlled effectively by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Similarly, the cities of Chennai, Kolkata and hilly areas were able to contain the spread of pandemic who have a long history of Panchayati Raj systems and are still governed by it. To effectively handle the crisis, it is important to look at the number of recoveries, number of fatalities along with comorbidities. There exists a positive correlation between operating panchayat raj system and effectively handling the pandemic.

He also exemplified Belgium, home to 10 million people and where the city of Brussels is run by no less than 19 municipalities where people believe nationalism comes from local governments. Even the authority of issuing passports lies with the local authorities.

Aiyar also highlighted that the report given by the committee formed for leveraging panchayat raj system, of which he was the chair would be useful in practice since these five volumes of recommendations contained the ways in which local self-governments can be used to effectively implement the centrally sponsored schemes which provide huge amount of money to local municipalities for expenditures on the issues listed in Schedule 11 and 12 of Indian Constitution.

He also emphasized the role of women in panchayat governance. He believed that the states with 50% reservation for women in local governments have performed extremely in India in handling the crisis. He believed that the reservation for women in state legislature must be raised to 50% and every parliamentary constituency should be divided into two parts, one represented by women and the other half by men. Alternatively, there could be a double constituency party where men and women from different parties can each govern half the constituency. Panchayati raj is the only way to promote social justice to promote the dreams of Gandhi and Ambedkar in the country.

COVID-19 should be a lesson for the current government to make Panchayati raj an inclusive part of governance in the country. He quoted Gandhiji, who said “I shall live for an Indian in which the poorest shall feel this is his country in the making of which he has an effective voice”. Gandhiji saw money power and muscle power both are integral to the democratic part of the country. Thus, India instead of adopting any western model of governance must resort of democracy. Every democracy in the world develops from a local level but Indian democracy is the castle in the air.

He stated the more effective the Panchayati raj system, the less is the corruption. He exemplified how panchayat raj in Uttar Pradesh is corrupt and ineffective as compared to its counterparts in states of Karnataka and Kerala. In northern states of India, there exists Sarpanch Raj instead of a Panchayati Raj. Panchayats are barely consulted and Sarpanchs are not accountable to anyone. He also applauded Chhattisgarh for having a good Panchayati Raj system. He believed that our constitution does not spell out the roles and responsibilities of Gram Sabha. The only state where Gram Sabha is accountable to the administrator is Karnataka. Thus, without a well-structured panchayat raj system it would be impossible be possible to combat corruption.

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Picture Courtesy: India Today