Decentralised Planning During COVID-19
By Siddhima Sirohi
COVID-19 has proved that a centralised policy executed by the single authority at the top with little interaction with actors on the ground is not very helpful in combating the pandemic. This was reflected in India’s initial response to COVID-19 when the nationwide lockdown was announced hastily without thinking much about the impact it will have on the people. They were not given enough time to prepare and the local authorities had no clue about what was to be done. Central government’s carelessness and lack of coordination with local authorities brought humongous sufferings for the country’s poor. Because of the lockdown restrictions, the buses and trains were not ferrying so the migrants stuck in different parts of the country had to walk on foot to their hometowns. These situations could have been prevented if people on the ground were consulted and local authorities were strengthened to deal with it.
A major lesson that can be learned is that robust decentralisation in governance is needed in these unprecedented times. These are the times when we need the third tier of government that is the local government to take up the mantle and reach out to the grassroots, hear their problems, note down their viewpoints and frame region-specific policies. Different sections of the society like farmers, migrant labourers, households, health authorities are facing different challenges and thus adopting a unified policy for all sections and regions to fight COVID-19 is bound to fail.
Friedrich Hayek in his scholarly article titled “The Use of Knowledge in Society” argued that knowledge is not present with anyone in its totality rather it is dispersed and is in possession of separate individuals. Thus Centralised planning is not very efficient as what is known by a single agent is only a small fraction of the sum total of knowledge held by all members of society. On the contrary decentralised planning complements the dispersed nature of information spread throughout society and is a much better method of planning.
In this regard, one can learn a great deal from Kerala as it has realised the true potential of decentralisation and is doing comparatively better than other states in fighting the pandemic. Some credit for this goes to Kerala’s successful experiments with decentralisation with the launch of the People’s Plan Campaign in 1996. The campaign led to the devolution of 35 per cent of the states’ development budget from a centralised bureaucracy to local governments. Gram Panchayats in Kerala reached out to the people who are the main stakeholders in democracy and involved them in the decision-making process. They empowered the local communities to formulate and implement their own development priorities.
Apart from its successful experiments with decentralisation, there are two other reasons that are key to Kerala’s Success. First is the welfare policy approach adopted by the state government wherein the main aim is to protect and promote the well being of its citizens. As a result of which Kerala’s expenditure on healthcare is the highest in the country. The Aardram Mission launched by the state government helped to create a people-friendly health delivery system in the state. It transformed the Primary Health Centres into Family Health Centres as a first-level health delivery point. Moreover, Kerala government was proactive in its response and announced its `20,000 crores relief package that included free public distribution system, a kit with essentials for everyone, 2,300 community kitchens, regular Anganwadi ration delivery, cash transfers etc. far before the centre announced its plan.
The second reason for the success of Kerala is the strong coordination between the local governments and civil society organisations. Here the panchayats work closely with the network of self-help groups (SHGs) and civil society organisations to ensure that benefits of the schemes launched by the state government percolate down to the poor. An excellent example of this collaboration is Kudumbashree, a women empowerment group that started Community Kitchen in all local bodies so that the food could be prepared and delivered to needy people and those people who are under home quarantine.
The success of a democracy is measured in terms of the extent of public participation. Decentralisation is an effective way to ensure the participation of people in the functioning of the government. There is a need to strengthen local governments and one way to do this is to make them financially independent. Other states can learn from Kerala and replicate similar models of decentralisation in their states to strengthen participatory democracy. Decentralisation will act as a bridge between the government and people which in turn will strengthen the democratic fabric of our nation.
Vidya Krishnan, 27 March 2020 ,”The Callousness of India’s COVID-19 Response” , The Atlantic
Friedrich Hayek,September 1995,”The Use of Knowledge in Society”, American Economic Review,XXXV, No. 4
Rachita Vora, 1 April 2020,”COVID-19 and lessons from Kerala”,Indian Development Review (idr)
Aruna Roy and Saba Kohli Dave,2 May 2020,”When People and Governments Come Together”,Economic and Political Weekly (EPW)