Mintal Barangay Hall is one of the barangays located in the beautiful city of Davao in the Philippines. It’s called “Little Tokyo” because of the large settlements of the Japanese community, who came here during the Commonwealth era. A “barangay” is the smallest administrative institution in the Philippines, which works both in the urban and rural areas. Major work related to the daily affairs of people is carried out by the local “barangay”.
The Philippines, just like the rest of the world, is facing unprecedented challenges in the form of COVID-19. However, sanitisation work and regular health surveys are carried out by workers and officials at the local barangays. Though barangays constitute the most basic administrative institution, they form the foundation for the government structure in the Philippines.
Nearly 70 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population lives in rural areas. Similar to the barangays in the Philippines, we have municipalities in the urban areas and panchayats in the rural areas. Good governance depends on the effective working of these local institutions. Therefore, the transformation of India depends on how well the panchayats function. In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Panchayats are effective ways to fulfil the aspirations of people in rural India. They are playing a vital role in India’s transformation.” Since then, there has been a continuous and systematic effort to empower the panchayats with the necessary powers and provisions so that they work in an effective and transparent manner.
In 2014, less than 100 panchayats had broadband connections. This number has increased to nearly 1.25 lakh. Not only this, PM Modi also launched the e-gram swaraj portal which will be a single interface to implement the government’s Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP), which will also address the digital needs of the panchayats.
In 2019, before the local body elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the government of India decided to empower the panchayats with financial and decision-making powers. It was then decided that the functions and functionaries of all the 29 subjects shifted under the 73rd Amendment, will also be transferred to the panchayats of Jammu and Kashmir. This brought basic institutions like primary health centres, primary schools, and anganwadis under the administrative control of the panchayats. Further, the financial powers of the panchayats were increased from Rs 10,000 to Rs 1 lakh, and from Rs 25,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh for block councils. Empowering local body institutions, especially the panchayats, in this manner will ensure an enhanced governance module, better public participation, and the strengthening of democratic principles. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “When the Panchayat Raj is established, public opinion will do what violence can never do”.
The world is now battling the COVID-19 outbreak, we must remember not just the doctors and paramedical staff on the ground, but also the anganwadi and sanitation workers, and officials of the local government, who work tirelessly to ensure that the country comes out of this pandemic. The biggest challenge in this whole fight against COVID-19 has been the issue of migrant workers and labourers. But a bigger challenge lies in ensuring the delivery of adequate healthcare facilities for these workers, who have travelled thousands of kilometres barefoot to reach their villages in different parts of India.
In places like Meerut, around 20,000 migrants have been identified besides 600 migrants who had prior foreign travel history. In response to this, currently, a total of nearly 700 quarantine centres are functional with over 6,600 people under observation. In these places, facilities like food and lodging have been provided by gram pradhans and panchayat secretaries, which highlights the crucial role of the panchayats in taking active measures in these testing times. In states like Kerala, the panchayats have been running community kitchens to feed thousands of poor people every day. States like Karnataka have decentralised panchayats, giving them complete flexibility to work, and have also empowered them with major departments. Not surprisingly, Karnataka has become one of the first states to restart major economic activities in the fourth phase of the lockdown. On the other hand, there are some states where the system of PRIs has not institutionalised yet. For example, states such as Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram have elected autonomous village councils. This highlights how every state, district and village in India is not the same — because of which the framework of governance also differs.
Just like how barangays were important in restoring Philippines’ Asian heritage amidst the Euro-American influence, panchayats in India can also help in building a nationalist perspective by restoring our cultural identity. They enjoy greater trust among people than any other government institution. Therefore, focussing on the panchayats would also enable us to ensure larger participation of people in governance which, in turn, will also revitalise the rural economy and make it self-sufficient.
In the battle against COVID-19, India must pay attention to the role of the local administration, municipalities and panchayats. Today, we have more than 2,50,000 panchayats across India with nearly 3.1 million elected representatives and 1.3 million women representatives. Public participation, people-driven approach, powerful local bodies and panchayats can ensure India’s success against the pandemic.
When we talk about Atmanirbhar Bharat, we should also have in mind Atmanirbhar panchayats. Because when a panchayat becomes atmanirbhar, it not only ensures self-sufficiency, but also ropes in more accountability and transparency in governance, which further leads to a stable and progressive village economy. In this whole effort to make India a self-reliant nation, a larger focus should be on making the panchayats and local bodies more people-driven. It is when the last person living in an Indian village becomes “Atmanirbhar”, will we truly be “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.
(The writer is a junior research fellow with India Foundation)
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