Ward committees: The missing link that could have made Chennai’s COVID fight stronger

Rural areas and a few other cities have demonstrated the importance of ward committees and areas sabhas, but their absence in Chennai has limited community response to the pandemic.

In a press meet held on July 8th, TN CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami hinted that a further extension of the lockdown which is set to end at the end of the month is unlikely. The chief minister said, “Extending lockdown will cause economic slowdown thereby putting onus on the public to adhere to safety norms to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” He further emphasised the need for self-regulation among the general public even as the state continued to clock a high number of cases daily. 

The fact however is that the premise of self-regulation by the public assumes that all people have the resources, capability and heightened social consciousness to act. In reality, however, we need platforms for them to come together to make this a reality. 

Rural governance holds lessons for cities

Decentralised governance has helped tackle the pandemic better in rural areas of Tamil Nadu to a certain extent. There are examples of how panchayat and task force committees in villages have responded to COVID-19.

The Sittilingi Panchayat from Dharmapuri district took various precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID -19 in their panchayat, just as the pandemic began to unfold in the neighbouring district of Kerala. Groups of volunteers in minivans with microphones drove across all 24 villages that were part of the panchayat to spread awareness about COVID-19 explained the importance of lockdown to people. The panchayat issued a time slot for services to prevent overcrowding and maintain physical distancing. 

Youth volunteers regularly kept track of migrant workers and their needs. They also helped those who have been placed in isolation with their needs. A proactive panchayat leadership along with a team of youth volunteers were in the frontline. Effective community surveillance helped to keep things under control.

Similar efforts were underway in three panchayats at Pachamalai hills in Trichy. The local bodies collectively imposed curfew in their panchayats with residents of the hills barring entry of outsiders. Vehicles commuting in and out of villages for essentials were sanitised. 

Proximity and familiarity of panchayat members to the people of the village makes such community-level surveillance effective. 

Such examples can be found in other states as well. Villages in Raigad district, Orissa, through the help of the Village Development Committee, ensured food security and delivery of essentials while maintaining physical distancing and adhering to lockdown rules. 

In rural areas, panchayat and community involvement has played a crucial role in containing the  spread of COVID-19. These examples lead to the question of what ward-level governance in Chennai could have done in the fight against COVID-19. 

Whither ward committees and area sabhas

The 74th amendment mandates the constitution of Ward Committees (WCs) in all municipalities with a population of 3 lakhs or more. Model Nagar Raj Bill (2010) adopted by Tamil Nadu mandates the constitution of one ward committee per ward and ten area sabhas per ward in order to maximise citizen participation  The ward committee and area sabhas devolve the state’s power to citizens and civic bodies in urban governance.

In contravention of these provisions, Chennai has just one ward committee per zone, with a total of 15 ward committees. Chennai has 200 electoral wards in total and on an average 13 wards are clubbed together in each ward committee. 

These ward committees have been claiming JNNURM funds for UBSP (Urban Basic Services for Poor) without adhering to Community Participation Law (CPL). The constitution of the committees was merely to claim central funds with no intention in decentralising power. Since there has been no urban local body elections in the state since 2016, both governance and administration are completely in the hands of bureaucrats.

Social capital and urban governance

The absence of democratic spaces such as ward committees and area sabhas has been occupied and exploited by persons with affluence and social capital.

Resident Welfare Associations (RWAS) have received better public services than those with less agency. Karen Coelho and T Venkat, two independent researchers, have conducted a socio-political analysis of 97 neighbourhood associations in Chennai. Of the 97 associations, 84 showed features of middle-class collective actions which led to instances of exclusion.

The recent incident where the Chennai Boat Club RWA requested the installation of barricades to restrict  outsiders’ mobility into the locality is one such example. Though the request was turned down, the demand displayed a disregard for the rights of other citizens, especially those who depended on public spaces such as markets, bazaars and the city’s streets for their livelihoods.

Gaps in city governance

Staff of the Chennai Corporation have taken on the bulk of the work during the pandemic. They have been assisted by contract workers and volunteers. Monitoring of containment zones, door-to-door-surveys, distribution of immunity boosters, spreading awareness about preventive measures, organisation of fever camps, supply of essentials to those in need, managing migrant worker camps, contact tracing, assisting families of COVID+ patients to quarantine are a few of the tasks being carried out by the army of workers.

The involvement of the people of the city, in comparison, has been limited in scope. Those who have signed up to volunteer with the Chennai Corporation or are attached with NGOs and other organisations working on the ground can do their part to help battle this virus. However, an institutional mechanism such as ward committees and area sabhas, with their cross-sectional representation, could have been a game-changer in the city’s fight against COVID-19.

In Bengaluru, 55 ward committees have been roped in to assist the local body. The ward committees have taken on various duties depending on the needs identified by the local body. They have been assisting in contact tracing, monitoring containment areas, distributing medicines and essentials and assisting in data collection among other activities. 

In Kerala, the ward sabhas came into play in the fight against COVID-19. With the announcement of the lockdown, the participatory model swung into action with the setting up of community kitchens across the state. The members of Kerala’s women empowerment programme, Kudumbashree, which is nestled in the concept of local self-governance, joined hands with the local bodies to provide relief material and spread awareness. 

Time for reimagination

The pandemic has exposed the shortfalls faced by Chennai in community participation and the lack of avenues for the same. A robust, participatory model of local governance would have eased the burden on the local authorities, freeing up time and resources to focus on pressing tasks such as effective contact tracing while citizens tended to the needs of the community. The local knowledge of citizens could have been tapped into effectively to come to the aid of the vulnerable in a timely manner. 

Forums such as area sabhas and ward committees could also have been used by the citizens to communicate their needs in an effective manner. Concerns of citizens regarding safety, livelihood and health could have been better addressed at these meetings, which strive to represent citizens from all walks of life and provide a democratic platform for their voice.

In the absence of such democratic space, the voices of RWAs and bureaucrats are likely to take centre stage. This further keeps youth, women and civil society organisations away from participation in urban governance. Ward committees and area sabhas are necessary to ensure proportional representation for women, minorities, RWAs, informal civic groups, traders associations and registered civil society organisations.

The pandemic has irrevocably changed urban spaces across the world and a decentralised response to the challenges posed by it could be the best way forward. The problem we face may be worldwide, but the answers could be found in your ward. 

[With inputs from Rajesh Joseph, Faculty in School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bangalore]

Comments:

  1. T.D.Babu says:

    Very good article on the need of ward committees or the ward sabhas for a good governance and to bridge the government with the people to understand the ground reality and strategic approach to solve or handle any given situation.

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