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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Why community efforts are essential for real change

The pandemic has highlighted that solutions to any social problem call for an effective collective action that coordinates the aspirations of several groups of stakeholders.

Written by Sachin Chaturvedi |
Updated: May 25, 2021 9:04:14 am
A mother helps her child to wear mask in Chandigarh (Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

During the second wave of Covid infections, communities emerged as resilient entities across the country. India’s ethos, value systems and cultural strengths have automatically generated new energies and scores of new groups. Community actions enabled society to overcome the failure of the state and market. However, the one big battle they are facing is that of information asymmetry on various medical equipment, hospital delivery strategies and lack of clarity over the ever-changing rules and regulations by governments.

It is in this context that the call by the Prime Minister for active engagement of civil society in coping with the pandemic assumes great significance. The empowered group of secretaries has also identified the role of civil society during this period of crisis. The task for the NITI Aayog should be to address specific issues involving the pandemic without losing much time. NITI should engage government institutions that encourage public participation and also support new frameworks for crisis management that critically look into the weaknesses and failures of the existing ones in attracting community participation in an effective manner. This would also help in NITI’s own goal of localisation of development as part of its SDG strategy.

NITI should create mechanisms for facilitating the creation of a required space for community initiatives that are already playing an important role. Instead of any new sarkari scheme, it should leverage advanced technologies (ABCD — artificial intelligence, blockchain, cloud computing and data analytics) for bridging demand-supply gaps. It is time for NITI to apply the institutional framework where it has to, to rationalise select activities of communities and overcome the failure of the state where it is imminent.

NITI should partner with willing state governments to explore the launch of platforms that promote cross-learning and experience-sharing to reduce the cost of operations and to avoid reinventing the wheel. This may help in scaling up and, in some cases, overcome the asymmetric flow of information. The scope for the usual bureaucratic hassles should be minimised and opportunities for participation of communities in decision making and their implementation at local levels may be explored.

The advantage for NITI is DARPAN, its portal for all voluntary organisations/non-governmental organisations engaged in development activities. The challenge would be to work on an ecosystem that facilitates the entry of new actors, which have grown out of new social and economic policies. Several informal entities, start-ups and others, at times undefined, may also have to be engaged.

At the time of the first Five Year Plan, J D Sethi and other Gandhian economists had called for community participation. At that point community groups collected money and supplemented government efforts for development. Somehow, over the years these ideas got lost and we ended up with the entities engaged in rent seeking. As a result, the approach of community action took the form of NGOs and several of them did not adopt the desired ethics. Foreign assistance and ODA inflows facilitated several large-scale projects, but at the same time several of them also ended up with FCRA-related issues. But there are several NGOs that contributed remarkably during the migrant labour crisis.

Several micro-models are coming up, but few have a larger footprint. Small groups of students or one district collector or even a gurdwara are capable of reducing misery. In Nandurbar, for instance, a dedicated district collector has received wide attention for his apt handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rajendra Bharud could achieve what now seems a rare coordination between beds, number of critical patients and supply of oxygen. Apart from raising the city’s two oxygen plants, private hospitals were motivated to produce sufficient supply of oxygen to meet future needs of the region. At the end of the day, they had more beds with oxygen than required. As a result, people from neighbouring districts and states are now availing the medical facilities of Nandurbar.

Breathe India and HelpNow represent an array of options that have come up from IITians. These apps have facilitated access to oxygen concentrators, hospitals and ambulances. BreatheIndia could get nearly 200 concentrators and raise an amount of Rs 2.41 crore. HelpNow, launched by an undergrad from IIT Bombay, has a mission to save lives by providing timely and quality medical help with neat and sanitised ambulances.

There are several such initiatives that are taking place across the country with little connection with each other. These micro-models need to be scaled up. According to economic theory, every transaction has a quid pro quo but in the models which we are discussing, there is a unidirectional transfer, that is, a quid for which there is no quo.

Newspapers are doing the difficult and painful task of reporting on Covid-related losses and misery. Heart-breaking pictures and reports have contributed to what medical professionals call Takotsubo cardiomyopathy — a temporary heart condition that is brought on by stress. In these times, it is important that society gets together and comes forward to support with its own initiatives and inherent strength. This should be reported on a large scale for motivating many more so that the dependence on the system is considerably reduced.

We also have to realise that the state or the market cannot be the only provider for what citizens need. Effective social interactions and community participation can play an important role in scaling up some of the actions that have been found useful. The pandemic has placed before us ways in which community actions have contributed to resilience. Solutions to any social problem call for an effective collective action that coordinates the aspirations of several groups of stakeholders. The present situation underlines the necessity of combined efforts to face this challenge.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 25, 2021 under the title ‘The kindness of strangers’. The writer is director general, RIS. Views are personal

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