Panchayati Raj & COVID-19: Relevance must be enhanced

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By Moin Qazi

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on the economy: broken supply chains, record unemployment, failing small businesses. Much the same way it is affecting people with pre-existing health conditions more strongly, so is the pandemic-triggered economic crisis exposing vulnerable communities to greater distress. COVID-19 has magnified the existing inequality, and an effective response will require solidarity and partnership. The crisis is a stress-test of our ability to cooperate, learn and adapt in the face of deep uncertainties and rising risks.

The experience of development practitioners in handling such crisis informs them that community-driven development (CDD) programmes, which encourage people to design their own solutions, can be a critical part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis. We need an equitable, whole-of-society approach to tackle a crisis of this magnitude and scale. CDD programmes are usually driven by such approaches. 

During a crisis of the covid type, local governments are normally flooded with demands that cannot be met with their limited resources. In this context, CDD programmes can play a critical role in providing consensus-driven support to prioritise and optimise the resources.

We also need multiple interventions across sectors to address the different dimensions of the crisis. CDD programmes often complement traditional safety net systems by delivering cash and in-kind transfers as well as basic services such as water and sanitation. They do so through participation from communities, people’s representatives, and local governments 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also emphasised that the pandemic has taught us that we need to be self-sufficient. “It has taught us that we have to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. It has taught us that we should not look for solutions outside the country. This is the biggest lesson we have learnt. Every village has to be self-sufficient enough to provide for its basic needs. Similarly, every district has to be self-sufficient at its level, every State has to be self-reliant at its level and the whole country has to be self-reliant at its level,” he said while interacting with heads of gram panchayats (village councils) through video conferencing on the National Panchayati Raj Day on April 24.

India has a huge social capital of empowered women belonging to self-help groups many of whom form the backbone of the grassroots leadership of Panchayat Raj Institutions. These women are already in the forefront of relief work and are producing face masks and other protective gear for both the people and corona warriors. With a huge reverse migration of populations to villages, these women leaders can play a vital role in transitioning these communities through this extraordinary challenge.

In 1993, India introduced the Panchayati Raj (Village Government) Act, mandating a three-tiered structure of local governance at the village, block and district levels with reservation of one-third of all posts in gram panchayats – village councils at the bottom tier of India’s decentralised governance system – for women. The vision was that these female-headed councils would bring greater transparency and better governance in their villages. It revitalised an age-old system of rural local government whose name “panchayat” is drawn from the Sanskrit for “council of five wise men”.

The introduction of the Panchayati Raj, and the strong space for women which it provides, has dramatically increased the political representation of women at the local government level and spurred one of the greatest successes globally for women’s empowerment and grass-roots democracy. The hope was that such a quota system, beyond its immediate impact on gender balance among leaders, will have long-term effects on women’s status in society by changing perceptions of their leadership capabilities and shaping beliefs about what they can achieve.

Through years of exposure and several new official policies later, most elected women now don’t seem to be tokens. Women, especially those from the “untouchable” community, are slowly able to use the affirmative action quotas to attain power that would once have been unthinkable. They tend to be better educated and more knowledgeable than the average woman in their districts. When these seats are coupled with new skills from public speaking to budget management, they are better prepared to negotiate within the political space that has opened for them.

The experience in the electoral office has also created a pipeline of diverse people who have gained representational experience and are able to better represent the needs of people. These women have slowly learned to climb the greasy pole of politics and are actively exploring all the options available to them as citizens of a democracy. Some of the ways in which women are changing governance are evident in the issues they choose to tackle: water, alcohol abuse, education, health and domestic violence.

At the functional level, politics aims at maintaining law and order in society, resolving conflicts, achieving justice, and providing good living conditions for all. Against this background, is there a nobler activity and profession than politics?  However, we all know how murky politics has become over time. But these women are using this opportunity to make politics benign.

While several voluntary organisations and government agencies have been playing a critical role in building capacities of women to improve rural governance, there is scope for incorporating best practices gleaned through insights from some of the more successful villages. In these villages, organisations have been able to build women’s perspectives in the context of development and decentralised planning, enabling women to get a sense of enhanced agency so that they can claim influential space in the political, economic, and cultural systems.

Women have become problem solvers and change-makers who are mentoring and successfully transferring learning, strategies, and replication of innovation to other contexts and across high-impact sectors. They are able to influence and change government policy from “inside the system, creating a micro-macro” balance. This has made leaders and institutions accountable, thereby promoting equity and inclusion, and making the government sensitive and transparent.

In some of the progressive and so-called “smart” villages, women groups have been equipped with technological skills, training that has enabled them to design, build, operate, and maintain water and sanitation systems. Once they gain experience, women handle service contracts for building storage tanks, toilets, stormwater drains, and drainage lines. Thus several new livelihood avenues are becoming available to local women. Rural women are the human face of poverty and development. They toil on their farms but lack access to land titles and are, therefore, not recognised as farmers. This, in turn, denies them access to finance, state entitlements, training technology, and markets. This needs to change.

In several dry areas, women are reviving the traditional knowledge and skills of local ecology-based farming. Multiple crops are grown to cope with the caprices of climate and boost, soil fertility, nutritional security, farm biodiversity, and income viability. Several gram panchayats are building a cadre of “seed guardians” and “seed mothers”. Empowering women farmers to manage their own seed enterprises is enabling them to become decision-makers in the community. India’s experience demonstrates that putting women in leadership positions can catalyse the change process. Although the first generation of women leaders had to cope with entrenched mores and traditions that left them locked into purely domestic roles, their successors have convinced the Indian masses of a woman’s ability and potential to lead. The COVID-19 crisis and its handling at the panchayat level will be another test of their leadership.

 

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The Dispatch Staff

The Dispatch Staff

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