Revitalising local self-governance
In times of civil disturbances such as the ongoing pandemic and the resultant lockdown, the need for robust and accountable local self-administration becomes more pronounced
At a time when the whole of India is brooding over whether the lockdown in the states should continue further or what could be the outcome of an 'unlock' phase at a time when the number of victims is still on a rise, one thing has been made abundantly clear is that humanity has never been quite so helpless.
I grew up at a time and amidst such people that, whenever there was a crisis, your neighbours would flock to your side in a crowd. Then, the relatives would start pouring in. Now society has changed a great deal. Families are becoming smaller and the advent of COVID-19 has dampened such open displays of community spirit.
This makes the role of local self-governance or administration more important. It is time to review and empower the local self-administration and make more accountable. The worldwide disaster due to COVID-19 has made it imperative that we should make the norms of 'preventive vigilance' and 'business continuity plan' much more effective.
While non-COVID medical treatment has come to a virtual halt during the lockdown, emergencies cannot be ruled out, particularly for the elderly or the infirm. Many people have suffered during the lockdown. While there have been regular ads on TV channels advising citizens to consult doctors if necessary, hardly anyone knew where such freely available doctors may be found. The clinics were closed. No OPDs at hospitals were open nor vehicles were available for going to hospitals. Whether you have a common cold, acute stomach pain, severe back pain, vertigo or chest pain, you have no doctor to consult.
Similarly, if you had an electrical breakdown at your house or the only pump in your building stops working, who do you turn to? All the shops were closed and your buddies cannot reach you even if they are willing to make the journey. Do you spend the whole day without lights or fans or can you manage without water? What if you happen to be one of the many individuals who are in an assisted-living situation, requiring constant aid to fulfil daily functions of life?
Indian democracy spends vast sums on municipality elections and upkeep of municipalities. It is time to return the obligation. The public face of such municipalities has brightened considerably over the years. Most of the municipal bodies now have very large offices. Even most of the individual wards have their own sprawling offices. But can we guarantee that these offices always function at optimum capacity? Are these manned by competent officials who can read, write and proactively resolve the complaints within a given TAT even in absence of the councillors? Are there good managers who can coordinate with other bodies for better life of citizens?
No. Unfortunately, some less enlightened people, small and marginal traders of the area often identify the 'ward office'' of a municipality as 'the party office'. And those who understand that the 'ward office' is not a 'party office', abhor visiting the office to avoid the presence of unwanted disrespectful people in the ward office. How many ward offices provide helpline numbers and how many wards receive complaints online?
The fear of Coronavirus and the helplessness of the citizens can be reduced by continuously improving on local self-government and by providing some easy business continuity plans. For example, in a COVID-19 like situation, in addition to routine work, every municipality can maintain a pool of doctors on rotation who can be made available for non-COVID emergencies. While a lot of doctors are fighting from the front end, they can also provide support from the back end and come back to the front if and when necessary. This sort of an arrangement would in particular benefit senior citizens that not only require more frequent medical attention but are also more vulnerable to the contagion that is currently spreading. To ensure proper BCP measures, the municipality units may also maintain a pool of electricians, plumbers, drivers, etc., to meet with civic emergencies.
In a COVID-19 type of situation, many citizens are ready to pay for services but the shops and services that they require either closed or inaccessible. Is it not the responsibility of the administration to bail out a distressed person from such a situation? Even in more normal times, the municipality should be ready with the necessary BCP support.
Local self-administration can function more responsibly and professionally, especially in a time of crisis as is the case now. The municipality offices may be manned by more responsible and educated officials to reduce the pressure on state governments, particularly in pressing situations like a lockdown which will haunt us for years to come. We do not know what is in store for us in the future. We can only try and be ready with more hospitals, a more comprehensive stock of essentials and a more accountable system of local self-administration.
The writer is DGM, IDBI Bank. Views expressed are personal