Coronavirus a wake-up call for ward committees

Coronavirus: Wake up, ward committees

Representative photo (Credit: AFP)

As we enter the last week of the current lockdown, the country is coping with a new normal. Those with food, shelter and little worry have transcended to the digital world, working from home and plugging in to shop, play, socialise and be entertained while maintaining physical distance. Television and social media provide them enough information on the coronavirus through articles, videos and news. It is up to each individual to engage or distance from it all and be the ‘Siddartha’ protected from all the human misery and suffering around.

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Many parts of the country have endured many calamities in the past -- earthquakes, floods, plague, bomb blasts and more. And the country has coped with the long-drawn processes of rebuilding local lives and livelihoods with aid and empathy flowing in from all over the world. But with the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown witnessed a different kind of tragedy. As the disturbing scenes of the catastrophe unfolded with thousands of migrants trying to reach home by foot due to the uncertainty of everything, the stories of those who had walked with old and young, pregnant and disabled, with no money, food or water, and facing police brutalities were heart-breaking. The misfortune of frontline health workers with inadequate or no personal protective equipment and the reports of inadequately equipped healthcare systems have been deeply alarming.

Also Read: Coronavirus India update: State-wise total number of confirmed cases

The lockdown was imperative to control the spread of Covid-19. But the question remains, how prepared were we for a lockdown? Under the National Disaster Management Act 2005 (under which the current lockdown was declared), the rules and guidelines are explicit in the details of handling such disasters. Besides this, several other laws, both at the national and the state level, provide provisions to manage emergencies and disasters. Environmental laws, pollution laws, municipal laws, the provisions of the 73rd and 74th amendments are a few that address these provisions.

Policies, planning, procedures and preparation are critical steps to ensure that our cities, towns, and villages are equipped to deal with an emergency or unforeseen incident under these legal provisions. Ideally, the roles and responsibilities of various agencies are clearly articulated, protocols are written down and drills conducted to be prepared for a disaster. This is to make sure that everyone hears and understands the messages clearly so that people’s activities are well coordinated to minimise the impact of any disaster. Emergency response readiness is established by evolving systems and capabilities before disasters strike. In an ideal world, general lockdown guidelines and rules are reviewed regularly, are easily accessible and are known to the public.

Countrywide lockdowns require planned execution, based on severity and the epicentres of the disaster. Lockdowns can be partial, progressive or complete, with the broad objective of ensuring safety and security to all, and need extensive coordination and collaboration. Consultations with state governments, administrative machinery, economists, public health professionals, sociologists, and other expert groups are essential. Lockdowns are best done in stages after ensuring essential and emergency services are available to everyone. 

Defining essential and emergency services must be done in consultation with state and district level governments. Essential and emergency services differ from state to state and urban to rural. And within urban and rural areas, it will further differ based on the needs of different sections of society. Broadly, these services will include access to food, healthcare, shelter, mobility, telecommunication, electricity, water, waste management, firefighting services, safety and protection. 

A lockdown with no plan in place and lack of proper information amongst the public creates panic, forcing people to adopt a certain behaviour, with some of their basic freedoms and rights taken away. This, especially in the absence of basic facilities such as access to food, water, mobility, and healthcare, leads to anxiety and confusion. In a single stroke, the entire nation was brought to a grinding halt to deal with the Covid-19 virus with an imaginary ‘Lakshman Rekha’ drawn at the threshold of every home in the country -- with no plan in place. And the result was that the people of the country were left to deal with the confusion. 

In a few weeks from now, despite all the central and state government efforts to tackle the situation, the challenge to reach out to all the 1.37 billion people of this country will remain. Some of these challenges will be more daunting in the years to come. Unemployment, malnutrition, disease, and distress will strike sooner than later. There will be other challenges such as school dropouts, an increase in crimes, domestic violence, trafficking, homelessness, orphaned children and more, who will be susceptible to human rights abuses, too.

Disaster management and rehabilitation work best when local governments are taken into confidence and prepared to be efficient. Cities with all the infrastructure will continue to be centres for rejuvenation of economies. Strengthening ward committees as per the provisions of the 74th Amendment is crucial now. A review and reform of these provisions are fundamentally essential. While it has a list of 18 functions as per the Twelfth Schedule, many more need to be included, along with more power to the mayor. 

Once each ward is fully operational in handling local concerns, it will be prepared for emergencies. Raising awareness to guarantee that everyone engages at the ward level and takes responsibility is vital. China, Taiwan and Singapore bounced back to near-normal post-Covid-19 much faster because of efficient local governance. Many other alternative local governance accounts, especially those of the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Rojava in Kurdistan, are inspiring at these times.

The resilience shown in the early days of the lockdown has begun to fade. People now face an unprecedented amount of anxiety, depression, emotional disturbance, frustration, violence and mental health issues. The pandemic has changed the global economic landscape. There may be little support from International aid, leaving us with little option but to find innovative ways of rebuilding the economy and welfare of the people. Waking up ward committees in the time of a pandemic is the need of the hour.

(The writer is an independent researcher and consultant. She works at the intersections of community action with law, policy, planning and governance)