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Local bodies' centralized control reason for Gujarat's Covid care 'failure': Aiyar

Counterview Desk

Even as the World Health Organisation (WHO) has lately begun appreciating the management of Covid-19 in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad, suggesting the need to take it as a case study for its various measures being implemented, former Union panchayat minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, pointing towards “positive correlation” between Panchayat Raj system and effective handling of Covid-19, has said this is where Gujarat has failed.
WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, praising the Covid-19 management in Ahmedabad, reportedly said that “initiatives” in Ahmedabad like ‘Dhanvantari Rath’, 104 fever helpline, Sanjivani Van, and active participation of private hospitals in control and treatment were case study for other cities in India and abroad.
Participating in a webinar on “Lessons from COVID-19: Empowering Panchayati Raj Institutions” (PRIs), organized by Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) on August 18, 2020, others who participated in the webinar – among them James Manor, emeritus professor, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK -- stated that decentralization increases accountability and transparency by drawing ordinary people into the democratic processes.
Praising the Kerala, where Covid-19 cases have recently seen a sudden spike, Aiyar claimed this was due to the legacy of “people’s planning movement which aimed for decentralizing the planning system.”

Excerpts from Aiyar’s intervention:

The constitutional amenders as per Schedule 9, Schedule 11 and Schedule 12 of the Indian Constitution 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 the 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 panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) has 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.
The term Panchayat is specifically used for rural India, but the constitution includes metropolitan areas and districts as well. 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’s 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.  
Dharavi, being the largest slum in Asia, would have had massive deaths if not controlled effectively by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation
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. State of Kerala for has been effectively combating the pandemic with very minimal loss of human life. This is possible only if there is local government operating in the sectors that matters most to the people.
The Gujarat model is about 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 system since 1937, 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 began being governed under a 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.
When WHO was on the verge of declaring coronavirus as pandemic, the Trump visit was attended by more than 100,000 people in the stadium without any precautionary measures, due to which Ahmedabad became the hotspot.
However, 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. 
The report given by the committee formed for leveraging panchayat raj system, of which I 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 the Indian Constitution. 
The states with 50% reservation for women in local governments have performed extremely in India in handling the crisis. 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. Gandhiji 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.
The more effective is the Panchayati raj system, less is corruption. 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. 

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