Opinion

Fighting Covid at the village level

MA Oommen/TP Kunhikannan | Updated on January 12, 2021 Published on January 12, 2021

Helping hand Free ration kits were provided to APL and BPL card holders (file photo)   -  Thulasi Kakkat

How Kerala’s Nochad panchayat coped with the pandemic’s impact is proof of potential of grassroots democracy

Nochad, a gram panchayat (GP) in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, has documented the activities and the coping strategies of the people with remarkable success. The second author worked in close cooperation with the panchayat, which mobilised the fairly large network of functionaries at the village level like the Kudumbashree (the three-tier neighbourhood poverty and women empowerment mission), Anganwadi teachers, school teachers and for this exercise.

The findings of the field survey indicating the loss of wage earnings during the lockdown period are instructive. The Covid pandemic has impacted different places and people differently. The coping and containment strategy too differed from region to region.

This article outlines the containment strategy of the Nochad panchayat and measures the economic magnitude of the lockdown on the unorganised sector, notably the vulnerable daily wage-earners.

Nochad panchayat, in North Malabar, with an area of 23.64 sq.km, has an estimated population of 27,726 (female 14,323 and male 13,403) and comprises 17 wards. When the pandemic broke out it had 320 migrant workers from States such as West Bengal and Bihar.

The population consisted of all the major religions of the State, and consistently voted the Left Democratic Front to power. Even before the lockdown, the GP, like many others in the State, started a ‘Break the Chain’ campaign with arrangements for soap and sanitation facilities at critical points of the village besides popularising use of masks.

Seven medical students from the GP who were studying at Wuhan city in China, the epicentre of the pandemic, returned by the end of January and were quarantined for 28 days.

This set off a process of quarantine of those coming from outside, the country or elsewhere. This was done both at homes and at select Covid-care centres facilitated by the GP in collaboration with Health Department personnel.

A strict lockdown was enforced throughout the country from March 25 through May 3. The GP, like the rest of the State at that time, imposed a strict lockdown within homes, use of masks, a restrictive travel regimen, limited access to temples, churches, mosques and so on.

During this phase, the panchayat constituted a Rapid Response Team (RRT) in which all the major local functionaries like the elected ward member, medical officer, health inspector, Kudumbashree, ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activists) and so on were coordinated and pressed into service in all the wards.

Free ration kits of essential commodities were provided to all BPL and APL families by the State. The community kitchen that sprang up, financed by the panchayat and voluntary contributions, functioned for more than 50 days, supporting the migrant workers and the poor. The 11 ration shops (PDS centres) in the GP distributed nearly 200 tonnes of rice and 27 tonnes of wheat free during April and May.

Besides the various stimulus packages at the State level, the cooperative banks in the GP helped small and medium enterprises. Efforts were also made to make the panchayat self-sufficient in the production of vegetables and fruits. Ten tapioca sticks distributed to 7,000 households by NREGS workers under the panchayat’s initiative were crucial to towards providing supplementary diets to the households.

The 16 public libraries supplied dailies, magazines and books to bed-ridden patients, students and others in the wards. To facilitate online classes for poor students, more than 40 TV sets, three smartphones and one Tab were distributed; interestingly, the local police station supplied four TV sets.

The GP was able to contain the pandemic through appropriate isolation of patients in the First-line Treatment centres and with efficient health-care. From January to December 22, reportedly 115 persons died but none due to Covid although 529 persons in the GP were infected up to the last week of November.

Economic impact

The panchayat surveyed 782 households (11 per cent of the total GP houses) identified on a systematic random sampling basis. The tax assessment register was used as the sample frame. The Survey covered eight weeks from March 23 through May 21, 2020.

For the economic classification of households, the survey used the ration cards. All households of Kerala are covered by the public distribution system and classified according to income into four categories, yellow, pink, blue and white.

The white card holders are identified as Above Poverty Line (APL). The yellow and pink card holders are the real BPL (Below Poverty Line) categories.

The sample households comprised 48 per cent BPL and 26 per cent APL. Another 26 per cent form the blue category who are APL, but eligible for subsidies. The sample households had a population of 3,401, out of which 1,256, or 37 per cent, were identified as engaged in different occupations. Of these, daily labourers numbered 735 (58.5 per cent), 124 females and 611 males. They worked in different occupations ranging from agricultural labour to private tuition work. MGNREGA workers and Gulf returnees are excluded from this.

Loss of workdays

The pre-lockdown, weekly average working time disposition of the 735 daily labourers engaged in various occupations on an 8- hour day reckoning works out to 5.33 days per week. During the eight weeks of the lockdown (March 23 to May 21) this declined to 0.62 days or a loss of 4.71 days per week.

Given that 735 persons, or 58.5 per cent, constitute the daily wage earners in the sample population, the estimate for the entire population of the GP will be around 6,002 and the loss of work around 28,269 person days. For eight weeks, this aggregates to 2.26 lakh person days. If we include the loss of work of the NREGA workers and Gulf returnees, it could be much higher. Based on a conservative estimate, the aggregate loss could be around ₹17 crore during the lockdown. This is a huge loss for a village panchayat particularly for the poor labour wage earning households. If we project it for the 941 panchayats the total works out to nearly ₹17,000 crore or about 1.7 per cent of the Gross State Domestic Product.

The important lesson is that gram panchayats if empowered and equipped can play a key role in containing even the worst pandemic. It is high time India rediscovered the potential of the 73rd/74th Constitutional Amendment and the potential of local democracy.

Oommen is Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, and Kunhikannan is Visiting professor in Social Sciences at Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, Kerala

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Published on January 12, 2021
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