Roshini Suparna Diwakar

Responding to Covid: A case for strengthening decentralisation

“…the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavoured, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” – Bryan Stevenson

As word and the disease of Covid-19 spread across the world at the start of this year, countries closed their borders, locked themselves up and finally woke up to the realisation that not everything about globalisation is hunky-dory. Multi-national companies and conglomerates have created structures that are extremely hierarchical and centralised, taking the power of decision-making and self-determination away from people.

World over, we witnessed people refocusing on the local and discovering that small businesses can cater to our needs just as well. We depended on local vendors to supply our basic necessities like fruits and vegetables, and cut out consumption of things we didn’t need. Our consumption patterns changed and many of us re-evaluated our roles as consumers. From whom are we buying? What do we really need? How can we survive within our immediate geographical contexts? These questions emerged and many of us across classes really noticed how much local markets matter. Even our Prime Minister told us to be ‘vocal for local’, and suddenly everyone jumped on the bandwagon!

The irony of this is that the very structure that told us to be ‘vocal for local’ continues to consolidate its power. When we emphasise the need to focus on the local, we must include the most influential institution in our lives – the government. Ever since the 73rd and 74th Amendments came into effect, we have had a range of successes in the way they have been adapted. The Amendments were introduced with the idea that local self-government must be strengthened and institutionalised in both rural and urban spaces. The experiences of communities with local government institutions have varied; often, panchayats are more accessible due to the size of population and local social dynamics, while municipal corporations remain more out of reach in congested cities, especially for marginalised communities.

Image courtesy University of Pennsylvania

Fast forward to 2020, and we have witnessed, like never before, the importance of these institutions. This pandemic has forced local governments and communities to step up, and they have been truly on the frontline of this fight. Resources at the level of the local government have been mobilised to protect their communities not only from the virus, but also from the fallout that emerged as a result of the lockdown. Supply of cooked food and rations, provision of sanitation facilities and hygiene products, distribution of masks and medicines, and dissemination of information on Covid and relief measures have all been done by local governments in collaboration with other organisations. Community leaders became the first line of defence for the most vulnerable and invisibilised groups, and partnerships with other stakeholders strengthened to shield them in their own capacities. The possibilities of what local governments can do became evident across the country.

The central government faltered on several fronts, taking time to respond to emerging concerns or failing to recognise the unintended consequences of its decisions in time. In urban areas, migrants and informal workers were left to fend for themselves with almost nothing to fall back on. They depended on local governments and networks for accurate information and to meet their basic needs of food and shelter. Myriad stories of community leaders and grassroots organisations mobilising to respond to the crisis came to the forefront. Organisations provided food to migrants, helped them go home, facilitated access to shelter, provided medicines, and even created small opportunities for income generation.

The issues that the poor have faced during the pandemic have always existed, but they came into the limelight during this period and people who were not engaged in these conversations learnt about different realities. The dialogue in the development sector also shifted during this period. I’d like to believe that more of us are thinking, talking, and reiterating the need to strengthen local institutions. The ‘new normal’ we’re envisioning must include shifting the focus back to communities and the building of local resilience. They are the ones who have been able to respond to the crisis (albeit to various degrees of success, largely determined by their existing abilities to coalesce and mobilise) and create solutions that work for them. Strengthening local institutions is critical to also hold governments accountable in a robust democracy. It is easier to maintain transparency in smaller, localised networks where relationships are strong and interconnected than in centralised, removed institutions. To make this a reality, we will collectively have to shed our preconceived notions about who constitutes as an ‘expert’, who has the ‘answers’ to these problems, and become more active participants/citizens in the process of governing. The practice of decentralisation is a collective effort that can create opportunities for not just better governance, but also a more united community in a progressively fractured world.

Article by Roshini Suparna Diwakar

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