We are in the middle of a nation-wide 21 day lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are grappling with our own sudden isolation, working from home as well as the extremely troubling images and video grabs of the vast number of urban migrant workers who, after Prime Minister Modi’s address to the nation, began vending their way back to their villages.
There has, rightly, been a huge outcry about how the government did not factor in how the very poor and disadvantaged would react and respond to the news of the lockdown, and how insecure and alienated they feel in the cities where they work. The law enforcement agencies have struggled to implement the curfew, and resorted to violence which is seemingly their de facto response in any crisis with who they see as ‘recalcitrant’ citizens. The Indian State has shown itself to be ill-equipped to deal with the immediate outcome of the lockdown – with the lack of imagination on part of the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies.
Frontline Grassroots Health Functionaries Are Overburdened
The task which lies ahead seems daunting, yet, it may be made a bit easier if we take and utilise the human resources of our grassroots community level institutions. The need of the hour is to spur our community-based and community-led institutions, as well as give them the agency to develop and execute solutions which are based on the needs of their own communities. Local solutions work best, as the community is able to ideate, identify, facilitate and execute plans which are rooted in their own cultural and social contexts.
These solutions will also turn out to be low-cost and overall more effective. We see that states such as Kerala are very effectively already utilising their decentralised local governance structures and institutions to maximise their efforts in combating the pandemic.
Some states have begun the process, such as Jharkhand, guided by NGOs such as Pradan. What is needed is that all states adopt these measures, and scale up their interventions.
India has a functioning and effective decentralised local governance in the form of the panchayati raj institutions.
The lowest level of our democracy is the gram panchayat. There are 255,208 gram panchayats in our country. Sizes of panchayats vary in the country – yet, it is the lowest level of grassroots administration. Each panchayat is divided into wards, and each ward has a member.
In addition, India has the frontline grassroots health functionaries: anganwadi worker (crèche) (AWW), Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), and ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife). Yet, it is well known how our frontline grassroots health functionaries are already overburdened and overloaded.
Need of the Hour: Disseminating Information to Wider Community & Providing Food & Aid to the Poor
A quick scan through the Ministry of Panchayat Raj’s website shows how health information on COVID-19 has already been developed – in Hindi and English. The need of the hour now is how quickly these information and communications tools (ICTs) can get to our gram panchayats to start the process of disseminating to the wider community, as well as how quickly the government is able to provide the food and financial aid to the poor and marginalised who will be hit the hardest during the lockdown and even after.
The district and block level authorities, in consultation with the gram panchayats, must begin the process of organising for today as well as what lies ahead.
There are several quasi-government community-based organisations such as Village Education Communities (VEC is a regulatory body that exists at the school level in a village, to ensure community participation in the smooth functioning of the school.) and Self-Help Groups (SHGs) who can be mobilised to supplement the work of the lower level government functionaries.
Sensitisation of Gram Panchayats, SHGs Against Stigma During Pandemic
In fact, SHGs may prove to be pivotal in helping combat the spread of COVID-19 – the task of the State will be made easier were they to partner with the women of the community rather than any other top-down approach. India’s Self Help Group (SHG) movement has emerged as the world’s largest network of community-based organisations (CBOs), and is predominantly women-led. According to the Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Women and Child Development, the programme aims to ensure that at least one woman member from each rural poor household (about 9 crore) is brought into the fold of women SHGs and their federations. As on 31 May 2019, 5.96 crore women have been mobilised into 54.07 lakh women Self Help Groups (SHGs) under the programme.
This vast human resource needs be urgently tapped into and galvanised. They provide the key to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Our health infrastructure and governance structure is stretched at the best of times, and already shown itself to be paralysed with the mammoth task which has suddenly fallen upon it. The decentralised institutions such as gram panchayats, VECs, SHGs must be sensitised about stigma and against practices such as:
- Public display of names of persons infected with the coronavirus
- Marking and publicly naming and shaming of people who have stepped out for their needs by the police
- Vigilante actions by citizens against health workers, people seeking supplies, care-givers
How Self Help Groups Can Be Used to Map & Identify Vulnerable People
We will also require the mapping of the population and identification of vulnerable people such as – older people, people with chronic diseases, persons with disability, bed-ridden, and terminally-ill persons. Pregnant and lactating women should be identified who will need on-going routine antenatal care and are likely to face obstetric emergencies and others. In addition, identification of their special needs including their food, supplies, medical and care needs and ensure the supply of these materials through publicly assured channels. Mapping and identifying anyone with recent travel history to a city/country with higher level of infection should also be done.
SHGs can effectively and easily spread the key messages on COVID-19 as well as help the local authorities with the above tasks. The Government of India as well as different state governments are announcing various schemes and packages to provide support in the form of food security, direct transfers, and pensions, and so on. The SHGs can be kept abreast of these developments and help disseminate the information to those around them.
They can then create a list of those who are eligible for government support, and help facilitate their access to such support. And in addition, dispel myths and address local panic.
There is also a fear that with lockdown and social distancing, domestic violence may increase. SHG members can provide information to all families and vulnerable persons about support for women and children and violence, as well as maintain regular communication with families and ask them whether they are facing any problems while self-isolating. However, SHG and VEC members must be given the requisite safety and protective equipment as well as a stipend/honorarium for their time and effort.
Facilitating Return of Migrant Returnees, Quarantining, Providing Them With Food
SHGs and VECs can also be tasked with the job of cooking food for identified quarantined returnees as well as those vulnerable groups mentioned above, and those whose livelihoods have been affected by the health emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic and consequent lockdown, thus also giving them an option of having additional and supplementary income for their own household’s income.
SHG members can also help with the vast logistical task of distributing food supplies and identifying the beneficiaries. They can assist and facilitate the migrant returnees from cities who have retuned due to distress and loss of jobs, help identify them and quarantine them in facilities such as local schools, panchayat bhawans (halls) and other public buildings. Gram panchayats, via their functionaries, can also help with the provision of soap, food banks, community (soup) kitchens etc. to those who are struggling with loss of income or who do not have the means to buy it.
As someone who has worked at the grassroots with women in both panchayats and as well as with SHGs, I cannot stress enough the urgency to begin combating COVID-19 by taking along the women of India as key agents against the pandemic.
We need physical distancing, but we also need social solidarity.
(Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion. She tweets @RadhaKhn. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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