It’s been more than three months since the whole of India went on a strict lockdown to fight the pandemic. While the medical workers are at the forefront of the battle across the nation, gram panchayats were holding the fort in rural India. The panchayats have shown an extraordinary spirit and resilience, despite lacking in human and institutional capacities, during this ongoing fight with the pandemic.

The entire nation, and particularly the mukhiyas and other members of the panchayats in Bihar, have learned about the sudden lockdown on television. The sudden announcement of lockdown gave little time to these grassroots institutional entities to prepare for the upcoming long battle. They knew that it would unleash mayhem unless the villages are protected.

The panchayats were quick to respond to the crisis as they wasted little time waiting for the formal instructions from the government. They knew that awareness among the people is a palliative to panic. Sri Shakil Ahmed, mukhiya of Sabaiya panchayat of Kotwa Block, East Champaran, said doctors and public health officials have come to the village to spread the awareness about the symptoms of Covid-19 among the people. He further said, his panchayat has distributed pamphlets, made public announcements in all the villages, sprinkled disinfectants, and monitored the situation continuously. All the mukhiyas contacted for the study said, they urged villagers to monitor for the symptoms, and practice social-distancing norms.

Support mobilised

The panchayats mobilised support, particularly from school teachers and health functionaries, in making extensive arrangements needed for containing the crisis. The repertoire of arrangements included, identifying buildings for quarantine centres; providing testing facilities and basic amenities in the quarantine centres; tracking of people in the quarantine centres and isolation; issuing job cards to workers returning from cities; distribution of sanitisers, soaps, and masks; distribution of ration to poor; ensuring direct benefit transfer to beneficiaries; timely harvesting and safeguarding of agricultural produce; and running community kitchens to support the poor and the members in the quarantine center.

It was a logistical nightmare for panchayats to oversee such arrangements on a large scale, given their limited financial and human resources. Srimati Priyanka, mukhiya of Larua panchayat of Morwa block, Samastipur district, said initially few people required support for food and the villagers themselves managed the community kitchens by contributing grains and vegetables grown in their kitchen gardens. The Chmavaliya panchayat in West Champaran has experienced over 4,000 reverse migrants during the crisis. The community kitchens have taken the help of mid-day meal kitchens to prepare food on a large scale for the people placed under quarantine.

The panchayats, as per the directive of the State government, have utilised the funds from Pancham Vitt Aayog to make all the necessary arrangements. The mukhiyas did not hesitate to bridge the shortage of funds with their own wherever necessary. According to them, they felt it is their duty and, more so, they did out of concern towards humanity.

The mukhiyas were able to manage the logistical nightmare successfully by leveraging on their social capital within the community and the determination to stand united against the invisible enemy. Our study found that frontal institutions could instil confidence among communities in fighting the crisis. There were seldom conflicts at the grassroots level as people viewed panchayats, primarily, as an insider working for the benefit of the community, unlike a block office.

DBT by State

The direct benefit transfer (DBT) of ₹500 per month for three months to all Jan Dhan account-holders and a one-time transfer of ₹1,000 by the Bihar government for all ration card holders provided much needed monetary support to the poor. Though there were instances of beneficiaries not receiving the amount in their accounts, the mukhiyas said that the transfers eased and comforted the minds of the poor.

Upendra Narayan Mandal, mukhiya of Katouna panchayat, Barhat Block, Jamui district said 80 per cent of the beneficiaries in his panchayat have received the transfers. The spokesperson, husband of mukhiya Srimati Lakshmi Devi of Chamvaliya panchayat, West Champaran district, said DBTs have reached less than 40 per cent of the people in her panchayat and they are working with the appropriate authorities to help DBT reach all the beneficiaries.

Further to DBT, husband of mukhiya Srimati Nutan Kumari of Sarbahdi panchayat, Biharshariff, Nalanda district, said that the panchayat has provided three kilos of rice, three kilos of wheat and one kilo of dal per person to all the households in their panchayat. The mukhiyas were all proud to say that unlike the poor in urban areas, the poor in rural areas do not face the acute pangs of hunger. They said village as a cohesive social unit ensured that none of the poor households had to go to sleep without a proper meal during the lockdown period.

Infrastructural challenges

The panchayats included in the study faced infrastructural challenges related to the availability of primary healthcare centres and treatment facilities. The mukhiyas , in most panchayats, anticipated problems arising out of infrastructural gaps, have arranged for a vehicle to transport sick and pregnant women to the nearest healthcare facility. A few of them have quoted instances of using their vehicles or hiring vehicles at their own expense to transport pregnant women to the nearest healthcare centre.

When asked about the personal expenses incurred in such arrangements, one of the mukhiyas responded, “The whole country is in crisis. All actors and people have contributed so much. So, what is the big deal if we are doing something?” The spirit of resilience and the determination to surmount the crisis by rising to the occasion in gram panchayats have, to a large extent, made up for the lack of infrastructural facilities.

Mukhiyas were all praise for their people for their cooperation during the crisis. Migrant workers returning from the cities were either put in quarantine centres or allowed to stay at home but with the condition to get regular check-ups for Covid-19. The number of reverse migrants in the study ranged from one to two hundred people, except for one where the number was close to a thousand.

The villages approached in the study have all operated multiple quarantine centres at panchayat and block levels to accommodate the numbers. Almost all mukhiyas said that there were instances of reverse migrants reaching home in the dark of the night to avoid quarantine. Anticipating resistance for quarantine, the leadership spoke to the families concerned to seek their cooperation and also explained with patience to the returning population about the importance of quarantine.

Quelling rumours

Panchayats had to fight rumours forwarded on WhatsApp on two issues. First, related to pandemic itself and, second, related to provisions made by the government for supporting the community during the lockdown. The panchayats responded to the first of these rumours by promoting awareness in the community about the pandemic, providing necessary support for medical services, and food wherever required. To assuage the fears of the spread of the virus, panchayats, with the help of health officials, have scheduled and conducted regular check-ups of people placed under quarantine. The panchayats have also distributed sanitisers, soaps, and masks to the households from the funds available with the panchayat.

The political conflict experienced by panchayats is about the rumour related to facilities made available by the government in the quarantine centres. The mukhiya of Sarbahdi panchayat said, there were disgruntling murmurs that the panchayats were not making all the necessary provisions as per the guidelines in the quarantine centres. The rumours were dispelled by engaging people in the quarantine centres in meaningful conversations. They set the records straight by detailing the benefits to be provided during quarantine and by co-opting people from an opposing rival party in managing the quarantine facilities to demonstrate transparency.

While panchayats were responding to the health challenges of Covid-19, there were challenges on the economic front as well. April being the harvesting season for wheat, lockdown restricted the movement of produce to the market. The farmers co-opted to help each other to harvest the crop and store the produce in the space available in panchayat buildings.

Panchayats have lowered the instances of distress selling and damage to harvest by facilitating their infrastructure, like the panchayat building, to keep the produce of farmers until they reach the market. However, as per mukhiyas , there was a felt need among the villagers for strengthening the Primary Agricultural Credit Societies (PACS) for better storage infrastructure. Chamvaliya panchayat mukhiya said PACS in her panchayat does not have storage facilities and that the lockdown has added another layer of storage concerns as farmers continue to worry about whether their produce will fetch the right prices if the lockdown continues for a longer time.

Job cards

The reverse migration of workers to the villages has created pressure on opportunities for work. Mukhiyas said panchayats are doing their best to provide job cards to people under the employment guarantee schemes. However, the lack of skill-related jobs under these schemes is a major impediment for people who do not want to do manual labour. The panchayats are unsure about addressing the issue of unemployment of skilled labour. They wished for skilled jobs to be provided under employment guarantee schemes. The mukhiya of Katauna panchayat expressed his concerns about skilled people doing manual labour under 20 or 22 ongoing schemes in the region for a meagre ₹202 per day.

The closure of schools and uncertainty about their reopening is another cause for serious concern. The mukhiyas are apprehensive about the technology-based solutions as most of the households cannot afford the technology. They wished that the crisis ends soon and that children resume their school.

The pandemic is a long drawn battle. The panchayats were able to hold the fort rock solid by mobilising the community to follow social-distancing norms and undergo testing during the lockdown period. Now that the reverse migration crisis is almost over as migrant labourers have reached their homes, the twist is that of new cases arising out of the ending of lockdown. The mukhiyas were unanimous in stating that the availability of basic healthcare is still a concern in this ongoing battle with Covid-19. The outcome of the country’s battle against Covidwould depend upon empowering the panchayats to take decisions and enabling them with adequate resources to fight the virus.

Kumar is Faculty Member, Institute of Rural Management Anand, and Telidevara is Faculty Member, Development Management Institute