An unintended but welcome consequence of the struggle against COVID-19 is that the “confrontational federalism” that has characterised the Centre’s relations with the states, especially those run by non-BJP parties, is now yielding under the pressure of the nation-wide crisis to an element of “cooperative federalism” that was promised in 2014, and then reduced to a “jumla” over the next six years. Repeated teleconferences between the prime minister and the chief ministers has made a centralising establishment accept, however reluctantly, that there is no way the COVID-19 situation can be tackled except through a measure of cooperation between the Centre and the states, with the Centre acknowledging the need to evolve solutions through a consultative process involving the states and offering flexibility to states to adapt guidelines to their respective circumstances, and the states accepting the need for guidelines from the Centre along with adequate availability of funds to meet this wholly unexpected and very expensive contingency.
What is still to be brought upfront and in focus is further devolution to the panchayats and municipalities in keeping with the constitutional obligations under the 73rd and 74th amendments, enshrined for the past quarter century in Parts IX and IX A of the Constitution. The starting point could best be Entry 23 of the Eleventh Schedule that reads, “Health, sanitation, including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries” among the list of 29 subjects illustratively set out for devolution to the panchayats, subject to conformity legislation being enacted by state legislatures. All state legislation has included this subject and, therefore, empowering the panchayats in this regard with functions, finances and functionaries is now a statutory obligation under state law and governed by the provisions of Article 243G.
This article provides that state legislatures “may, by law, endow the Panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government”. This means state governments cannot and must not treat panchayats as extensions of the state government but as “institutions of (local) self-government”. If the logic of “cooperative federalism” is that states must function not as implementation arms of the central government but as autonomous units within the federation, then panchayats too must be conceived not as an extension of state governments but as “units of self-government”. It is thus that panchayats need to be brought into the three-tier devolution system envisaged in the Constitution: Centre-State-Panchayats (and municipalities).
A principal reason for Kerala’s amazing performance in “flattening the curve” is their robust system of effective devolution that has enabled the Kudumbashree programme to function in association with the panchayats, as state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac emphasised in a recent article in these columns (‘Ahead of the Covid curve’, IE, April 17). Now that the easing of the lockdown appears to be resulting in a flood of migrant workers thankfully returning to their native villages, it becomes even more important to fully involve village panchayats (and municipalities as “institutions of self-government” – 243W) in the anti-COVID-19 campaign. Indeed, unless cooperative federalism is extended to the third tier of government, little will be achieved as it is at the grassroots that the campaign has to be planned and implemented. It may also be specially noted that until there is the full resumption of normal economic activity, there is going to be need to provide free or heavily subsidised food to millions of villagers, including repatriated migrant labour. Entry 28 of the Eleventh Schedule mentions the “public distribution system” as among the subjects for devolution. There are many other entries in the Schedule that are relevant to this exercise but once states accept in letter and spirit the partnership of the panchayats, the coverage will ineluctably be extended to all relevant entries in the Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules and the conformity legislation of the states.
The entire governing establishment in the Centre and the states needs to wake up to the huge potential of local self-government to fight COVID-19. There is an army of 32 lakh elected representatives in the panchayats and about two lakh more in the municipalities raring to rise to the occasion. Well over a third of them, some 10-12 lakh, are drawn from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and, therefore, in touch with the most needy, the most destitute in every village and town. There are some 14 lakh women who have established themselves by election as village leaders. They constitute the largest body of democratically elected women in the world. About a lakh of them are office-bearers in their respective panchayats and municipalities. Can you imagine a woman emerging from her home in the dead of the night to try to stop the slaughter of two sadhus, as the woman sarpanch of Palghar village did, in any circumstance other than regarding herself as responsible for all that went on in her locality because that was the mandate that she had received from her village community? Imagine the constructive role such women can play as “front-line workers” in the battle against the coronavirus.
The most important requirement is planning to receive the migrant labour influx, including testing, quarantine, isolation, social distancing to the extent possible, and ensuring that all without exception are fed and housed and receive the monetary grants that are essential to keep body and soul together. Last mile delivery can only be comprehensively ensured by empowered panchayats (and municipalities) reporting to their respective gram sabhas and ward sabhas mandated under Articles 243 A and 243 S. Relying exclusively on the local bureaucracy for last mile delivery has been the bane of administration.
Planning for withstanding the ingress of COVID-19 requires the full deployment of the mechanisms for district planning envisaged in Article 243 ZD involving all three tiers of the panchayats and the municipalities brought together in the district planning committee. At the village and neighbourhood levels, it is essential to involve the gram sabhas, gram sansads and ward sabhas. Only thus can the war on COVID-19 be made a people’s movement; only thus in a country as huge and populous as ours can we succeed.
The prime minister missed a fantastic opportunity to give the nation this message on National Panchayat Day, April 24, when he broadcast to the nation. Had he done so, India and the world would have sat up and noted that the humanitarian face of the battle is the reflection of the face of the people in the panchayats and municipalities.
The writer is a senior Congress leader and former Union minister