I had written a few weeks back that the lockdowns ordered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic had been instrumental in stalling, if not reversing the trend towards re-centralisation of powers and functions by the State and the Union Governments. A webinar organised by the Gulati institute of Finance and Taxation, Thiruvananthapuram, on 16 and 17 May on the role of Local Governments during the crisis, reinforced that impression. From across the country, with the exception of some States, the experience seemed to be that local governments had been energised by the crisis, and had taken on frontline duties such as ensuring that lockdown instructions were followed strictly, that the poor and migrant labour were fed, that essential supply chains were kept alive and that nobody was left out.
However, as State officials and NGO representatives spoke about local governments, I thought to myself whether the roles assumed by the local governments were actually empowering them or elevating them to more obedient slaves. The first thing I noticed is that, barring some exceptions with Kerala usually being amongst them, the actual local governments are pardanasheen – others speak for them rather than they themselves. Kerala was the outstanding exception; on the second day of the Webinar, the leaders of 14 Municipalities and Panchayats at different levels spoke of the efforts of their elected bodies and administrations to tackle the crisis. While the curative care system led the efforts of rapidly identifying cases and treating patients, it was clear that equally important actions such as contact tracing and quarantining could not have been achieved without the active participation and initiative of the local governments. The local governments led from the front on awareness creation on hand sanitisation, maintaining of physical distancing and usage of masks.
With respect to all the downstream side effects of a lockdown, namely, the economic suspended animation, the loss of livelihoods all around and particularly of the poor and migrant labour, the disruption of normal daily activity, the risks of hunger, the travails of the old, the ones taking medication and the boredom of the young, the local governments were at the forefront of the battle. Panchayats resorted to several innovations to overcome these problems, including the running of community kitchens, painstakingly tracking every vulnerable individual and dealing with their problems not merely through software, but through the warmth of a humane approach.
I also wondered how such cooperative action could be rapidly ensured, in the absence of a fiscal system that puts sufficient funds in the hands of the local governments, in State after State. It is there that I encountered the phenomenon that my friend and mentor, Shri S.M. Vijayanand, the former Rural Development Secretary of the Union Government and former Chief Secretary of Kerala, calls, ‘soft devolution’. Vijayanand terms this as a situation where even when functional assignments and fiscal transfers fall short of the conventional ideal requirements to empower local governments, they still manage to wrest the advantage and serve the people, thus earning their appreciation and trust. I began to see how Panchayats were able to raise public funds and also weave in their own revenues, to organise community kitchens, care for the vulnerable, and even online art and music competitions to keep children happy and occupied.
While all these developments are worthy of note and appreciation, I sense a danger in ‘soft devolution’ and its appreciation beyond a point. ‘Soft devolution’ tends to let off the hook higher level governments who have been remiss thus far in giving funds to local governments.
Actions such as contact tracing and quarantining could not have been achieved without the active participation and initiative of the local governments.
A classic case of such injustice – and injustice I shall term it, for the lack of a more expressive word – is the role that local governments are expected to play in disaster management. Odisha is a state that is not as much appreciated as it ought to be, for the way it has handled the COVID-19 crisis, through its Panchayats. I was intrigued to hear that the government had even endowed the Panchayats with magisterial powers that are usually confined to the revenue administration, to enforce some of the more coercive aspects of the lockdown. Odisha is also a state that has had an impeccable track record in managing major disasters such as super-cyclones, with minimal human casualties, which is something that could never have been achieved without the active participation of local governments. However, all of this is achieved through ‘soft devolution’. Odisha stands with other states in the low extent of fiscal devolution to the Panchayats.
The common refrain heard from most States was that while Panchayats were at the frontline of handling disasters, they were not endowed with funds from the disaster management pool, to the extents of their requirements. Such funds remained confined to State authorities, even as the Panchayats pulled out all stops to provide succor to the people, often relying on local voluntarism, and local contributions in cash and kind.
This is injustice. This, in spite of the track record of States such as Kerala and Odisha in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, is still not efficient enough. And therefore, success achieved or inadvertently realised through ‘soft devolution’, cannot be an excuse to postpone ‘hard devolution’.