Civil Society Steps Up

Government Continues to be Ineffective

Rajesh Tandon

The country is filled with woes of COVID-19, along with that civil society stands holding the beacon of hope with citizen initiatives providing information, making resources available. It seems as though every citizen in the country has taken upon themselves to make up for the ineffectiveness of the Central Government in tackling the growing crisis due to Second Wave of COVID-19 in India. With the rising death toll and infection rates India seems to have plunged into a health crisis.

Case of Uttar Pradesh

Sudama Prasad of Nainpur village in rural areas of Kanpur in UP has moved his family to sleep in the field in open to prevent infection. One or two members of all households in his village are sick for the past 2-3 weeks; common symptoms are fever, cough, body-ache, weakness.

At least three persons have died in the village during this period, one of them rather young. There is no health facility as Health Centre has no staff and no medicines; serious cases are taken to block headquarter at Ghatampur. All government health facilities are over-flowing with patients, and private clinics/hospitals have closed doors.

The recently conducted, and heavily contested, panchayat elections in UP have been in the news. But panchayat leaders at the village or block levels (Gram and Chhetra Panchayats) have not been playing any roles during these past months in preventing and managing infections. A large number of village residents who work as migrant labour in adjoining cities of Kanpur and Lucknow came to villages, through choice and persuasion, to vote in Panchayat elections, since early April.

A large number of villagers from these districts went to Haridwar for Kumbh Mela in late march (and early April). Since then, flu-like infections are being reported on a widespread level in these villages. Report from Khairabad block of Sitapur indicates nearly 70% households have one or more ‘sick’ person with Corona-like symptoms.

Failure of Federal Policy Mandate

Despite constitutional mandates to panchayats, functional devolution of responsibilities and resources have not been systematically structured even after nearly three decades. Primary health care services and staff are not accountable to elected panchayat leaders. The health department’s local functionaries are asked to set up village health committees, without functional linkages with panchayats and its decision-making structures.

Block level panchayats, in most states, lack any meaningful functional responsibility or resources. In recent UP elections, few candidates were that interested in block level seats in comparison to seat of Sarpanch at village level. It is like why politicians would be more interested in contesting as MLA (state assembly) in comparison to MP (national parliament)?

Successive governments at national and state levels have ‘pampered’ Gram Panchayats by directly transferring funds to them, by-passing block and even district level panchayat system. Various Finance Commissions have followed similar patterns. So funds and responsibilities to block and district panchayats have been diluted and blurred. District medical officer reports to the District Collector, not to elected Zila Parishad Chairperson.

So panchayat elections in UP, and elsewhere, have been conducted with so much expense, risk of spreading infections to government functionaries conducting elections and widespread rural infection during the raging ‘second’ wave of this pandemic. But it is the appointed officials who are in-charge of relief and health services, with hardly any roles for elected panchayat officials.

District Disaster Management Authority in Kanpur (as in most districts of the country) and Covid Task Force is headed by District Collector; there is no responsibility to elected District Panchayat leaders, MLAs and MPs. The mostly forgotten constitutional authority, District Panchayat Committee (DPC), remains cut-off from managing the pandemic, though it is mandated for coordinating planning at district levels. Most DPCs in UP (and elsewhere) remain defunct, and controlled by Ministers, as opposed to elected Zila Parishad Chairperson or Mayor of the city where district is headquartered.

However, the State Disaster Management Authority and State Covid Relief Task Force are headed by the elected Chief Minister, assisted by only appointed officials. Then, the National Disaster Management Authority is headed by the Prime Minister, and managed by the Home Minister of the national government.

In functional terms, therefore, only the Prime Minister & Home Minister at national level, and Chief Ministers at state level, as elected leaders, are responsible for managing the pandemic, with help from appointed officials. Elected parliamentarians, legislators and panchayat/municipal leaders seem to have no formal responsibilities in disaster management.

Just as elected panchayat leaders at village, block and district levels have not been even invited to play any roles at this juncture in UP in sharing responsibility in Covid Task Force and management of the pandemic, similar pattern is visible at national level with no involvement of other elected parliamentarians and Chief Ministers.

So, what can people like Sudama do at the village level? Whom should they approach to inform about the spread of the infections and lack of testing, care and treatment in his and surrounding villages? What can civil society organizations do when structural mechanisms for coordination at block and district levels do not exist, despite policy guidelines to this effect decades ago?

Can Civil Society be the Answer?

It is another matter that the UP government, like national government, generally considers all civil society anti-national, should it provide any ground-level feedback or make any suggestions for improvements in delivery of any public scheme.

Over the last decade or so, digital platforms, Apps and digital helplines have become popular with national and state governments. So, the face-to-face information dissemination system, local mobilization for awareness generation and health-care treatments (like it was done for immunization to kids, TB, Malaria, HIV, anti-natal care, etc.) and grievance redressal system have been made defunct and/or dysfunctional.

So, citizens are calling helplines (which are al As urban middle-class families have also begun to discover, the ‘system’ does not deliver, even for them. So, they reach out to fellow citizens, relatives and friends. This is the essence of citizenship…horizontal citizenship expressed through mutual solidarity and accountability.

But, citizens’ initiatives alone can not address the crisis. Horizontal citizenship does make significant contributions, civil society does provide important services, but not alone. If the vertical citizenship…vis-à-vis the government…does not function, citizens’ efforts alone can be merely a short-term patch-work. If the formal system of government…decision-making and resource allocation…breaks down (as is evident during the past six weeks or so), governance of society, let alone during crisis, can not be ‘out-sourced’ to citizens and civil society.

All praise for my civil society friends in Kanpur (where I belong to), and hundreds of citizens in Delhi and everywhere, for their compassionate and spirited efforts in providing some relief to the sick at this juncture. But, the collapse of effective governance of democracy needs to be addressed systematically. The design, structure, rules & norms of functioning of government institutions can not continue to be inflexible, un-coordinated and unaccountable.

The largest democracy in the world has more than 2 million elected representatives, from bottom-up. They should be mandated, equipped and held accountable for effective governance of the country, in partnership with citizens and their associations. Over-centralization through offices of district collectors, Chief Ministers, Home Minister and Prime Minister do not make governance agile, flexible, responsive and resilient. It is time to redesign the governance of India’s democracy as more resilient and accountable.

First Published in Times of India: Redesigning resilience in governance on May 08, 2021.

About the Author

Dr Tandon

Dr. Rajesh Tandon, is Founder President of PRIA Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi and Co-Chair  of the UNESCO Chair on Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher  Education.

Read another piece by Dr. Rajesh Tandon titled Gasping For Breath: Oxygen for Living Governance Systems.

Watch Dr. Rajesh Tandon at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalK



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