An unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 drastically affected various spheres of life. It completely disrupted everyday life. Be it social, political or economic—all walks of life faced the burns of this deadly disease.
A virus that originated in the Wuhan Province of China reached nearly every corner of the world. Lockdowns and strict restrictions on movements were imposed by governments worldwide. In this backdrop, the role of local elected representatives’ became imperative in India in tackling the crisis.
The unparalleled crisis that unfolded due to successive waves of infections significantly impacted local governance bodies. Panchayat Raj Institutions faced the ‘scissor effect’. Due to the pandemic, the revenues diminished. This was because of lockdowns and restrictions on mobility. Also, a part of expenditure went towards pandemic management and the welfare of people.
The efforts of local governments were lauded by many for their dynamic approach to winning over the crisis. From quarantining patients to returning migrants to their villages to enforcing containment zones in infected areas, local governments played a vital role. Identifying people with vulnerabilities could not have been possible without the involvement of local elected representatives. However, the third tier of government faced many hardships and difficulties while dealing with the pandemic, which had previously gone unnoticed.
The first and foremost problem local bodies faced was regarding funds.
It was estimated that local bodies would lose around 15to 25% of their revenues due to the pandemic. Nearly 98 per cent of respondents to the RBI’s qualitative survey of Municipal Corporations reported that faced various financial challenges. These included increase in expenditure, decline in revenue collection, loss of funds, as well as delayed release of funds from the State governments.
The loss of revenue got more pronounced during the second wave. Around 22 per cent of respondents reported that the losses in revenue were more than 50 per cent during the second wave.
Local bodies experienced fiscal stress during the successive waves of COVID-19. The main reason was increased expenditure on health, sanitation, and public services. Panchayat Raj Institutions witnessed a drought of funds and functionaries with scarce resources to raise revenues and increased functions.
Local bodies, both urban and rural, faced a financial crisis and a severe crunch in the workforce. If we consider the CAG report on the audit of the implementation of the 74th Amendment act in Karnataka, it highlighted that of the 56,000 sanctioned staff strength, there is a 31 per cent vacancy.
Although established by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, local bodies have been ignored and neglected for the last 28 years. The 15th Finance before the arrival of the second wave emphasized the decentralization of primary healthcare.
States like Kerala and Odisha emerged victorious in fighting the situation because they utilized panchayats effectively to reach vulnerable people. Panchayats implement nearly 80% of the rural development schemes. The importance of Panchayati Raj institutions in India can be gauged by the fact that they are the biggest experiment of democracy at grass root level in the world.
During the pandemic, local bodies depended on the States and borrowings for funds. NGOs and philanthropists helped in easing the burden on Municipal Corporations. The Municipal Corporations surveyed by RBI also mentioned that they had to cut down on their expenditure related to non-essential areas.
This pandemic taught us an important lesson: the Third Tier of government cannot be ignored. Local bodies took several initiatives such as tracking, monitoring, and sanitization awareness. These initiatives were effective as the local population actively cooperated and participated in these initiatives.
Local bodies also adopted some innovative approaches to contain the spread of the virus. The formulation of the Corona Monitoring Committee at village level and the resolution of ‘No Mask No Entry’ in Andhra Pradesh are few such examples. Enabling the safe operation of local markets and the distribution of food rations to daily wage-earning households were necessary welfare measures.
It is unfortunate that local bodies are ignored despite being a great harbinger of change and democratic decentralization in India. Corrupt representatives, scarcity of funds and functionaries, are some of the major challenges to the smooth functioning of Panchayat raj Institutions.
Increasing the Budget, providing financial autonomy to civic bodies, and enhancing resource availability will be a step toward empowering the third tier of democracy in India.
Over-reliance on funds from state governments should be done away with by increasing autonomy to change or introduce taxes, access to new sources of revenue, and increased taxpayer compliance.
Increasing transparency and efficiency in the working of civic bodies will be instrumental in building a solid foundation of democracy at the grass-root level.
Suggestions of the 2nd Administrative Reforms commission are handy in transforming Panchayat Raj Institutions. Developmental schemes that can be better managed locally should be transferred to civic bodies for implementation. Augmenting the output of local bodies using E-governance is the master key to good governance.
Connecting Gram panchayats through the internet and implementing the E-Gram Swaraj scheme are steps in the right direction for strengthening local bodies.