The lockdown exit plan will gradually give way to decentralised responsibilities to panchayats and municipalities. The sooner this shift takes place the better it will be
Given the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government imposed a nationwide lockdown by invoking provisions of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DM Act). The law was enacted by invoking entry number 23, namely, “Social Security and Social Insurance; Employment and Unemployment” in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. Hence, it empowers Union and State Governments to frame rules and issue executive orders. In fact, the subject “disaster management” is not specifically mentioned in all the three lists of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Therefore, the Parliament exercised its power to enact a law on the subject.
Other entries like “Public Order” and “Public Health” were included in the State List when the Constitution was framed. Further, consequent upon the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1993, “Public Health” found place in the 11th and 12th Schedules. As a result, panchayats and municipalities have been assigned civic powers to render “public health” to citizens in their respective jurisdictions.
Rightly so, as democratic and cooperative organisations at the local level are arguably the best to render preventive and prophylactic measures like inoculation and vaccination. The main function of these local self-governments is to make the people understand what change or innovation benefits them, why it does so and how it can be introduced. It is for the community to participate in all the activities which lead to such change or innovation.
Panchayats and municipalities were brought into the statute book to promote better living for the community with the active participation of the community. Here, the word “community” means a local society in a geographical rural or urban area, cutting across caste, religious and economic differences.
Ironically, these key institutions have not found their rightful place in the DM Act. A passing reference is made to “local authorities” under Section 41 of the DM Act. As per the section, these panchayats, municipalities and cantonment boards are mandated to carry out “relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities” only under the “directions of the District Authority.” The DM Act stipulates, under Section 25, the setting up of a ‘District Disaster Management Authority’ under the stewardship of a District Collector/Magistrate, who is assisted by the chairperson of the district council in the capacity of co-chairperson of the district authority.
Further, Section 31 of the DM Act provides for a “plan” by the district authority in consultation with local authorities subject to approval by the State. The provision is akin to Article 243 ZD, a mandatory constitutional provision, which envisages a district planning committee (DPC) for spatial planning, infrastructure development and environmental conservation.
States have given the provision of DPC in their respective Acts but seem to be reluctant to make them operational. As a result, the process of decentralised planning is hampered and associated capacity-development is completely denied.
On the other hand, the DM Act is unambiguous in assigning powers to Union and State Governments. Section 62 of the Act stipulates extraordinary powers to the Centre by which any authority in Union Ministries, statutory bodies and State Governments is bound to take direction from the nodal Central Ministry. In addition, a national plan is drawn up under Section 11.
At the State level, under Section 14, a State Disaster Management Authority is required under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister of the State. This authority is assisted by a State Executive Committee headed by the Chief Secretary of the State. The committee prepares the State Disaster Management Plan after following the guidelines of the National Authority and a select consultation with the district and local authorities.
Penal provisions in Chapter 10 of the DM Act pave the way for security personnel to take coercive measures against offenders. However, medical professionals are not covered under this provision. Recent incidents of stone pelting and misbehaviour with doctors and nurses compelled the Government to introduce penal provisions protecting healthcare personnel and their property against violence. For the purpose, an Ordinance was promulgated on April 22 to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 in the light of the current pandemic. This could be a permanent provision to maintain the morale of the healthcare professional and discipline miscreants.
It may be observed that the pandemic till date is being controlled through centralised institutional arrangements with remarkable cooperation of all State Governments and public servants and security forces have been enforcing the lockdown effectively. The lockdown exit plan will gradually give way to decentralised responsibilities to panchayats and municipalities. The sooner this shift takes place the better it will be.
The Government has prominently pronounced the role of local self-governments to combat COVID-19, which can only be prevented by changing human attitudes and behaviours. Local governments and the community are best placed to bring this change and inculcate social distancing on a sustainable basis. Hence, the role of local governments must be prominent, at least, in the DM Act.
(The writer is faculty, Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)