India needs to adopt decentralized governance to deal with emergencies like pandemic

An Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, note on environmentalist Leo Saldanha’s insistence at a webinar on the need for governments to be in a state of ‘ever-readiness’ to deal with pandemics:

Unabashed assaults by human beings on the natural ecological system have caused the virus to spread in the first place. While finding a definite cure to contain the virus, any complacency towards the environment would make the human lives more unsustainable on planet earth, said Dr Simi Mehta while hosting an IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk on the State of Environment, #PlanetTalks on Vulnerabilities of Indian Governance in handling the climate crisis amid COVID-19 and recession organized by Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development at IMPRI on September 25, 2020.

Reminiscing the loss of many notable personalities such as singer S B Subramanyam due to COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Leo Saldanha stated that lives have become precarious considering the developments from the last two decades. Global warming has resulted in rapid melting of ice caps in the Arctics and the Antarctica, and at the current pace water levels would rise by several meters, thereby posing irreversible damages to island and low-lying countries and their populations. Even for India, the vast coastal population is vulnerable. The vulnerability of human lives have further been exacerbated with the sudden spread of coronavirus which is progressively becoming asymptomatic.

While applauding and highlighting the problem with the past responses of Indian governments to disasters such as 1999 cycle of cyclones and pandemics, Saldanha said governments have been using emergency powers such as police powers on ground. He believed normative governance should accept the state of ever readiness to deal with pandemics. Evident from the cycles of floods in India in metropolitan areas shows that cities are not even ready for excessive rainfall. This is a result of maldevelopment.

He opined that Indian governance system has been highly centralized since the 1990s with its neo-liberal policies. It does not recognize people’s wisdom and does not implement the plans and schemes in our constitutions that are really secured with dealing with natural crises. India is not able to deal with unnatural crises such as maldevelopment of cities due to negligence towards fundamental principles of governance. Since the fundamental principle of governance in India is rooted in democracy, therefore the government must involve the people in the operations of governance. But this is far from being true. The heavily centralized structure of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments have been a major reason in making the villages and municipalities unmanageable.

To ensure transparency in governance, people need to struggle as evident in the case of Lokpal Bill, Right to Information Act, Forest rights Act among others. While addressing the plight of Adivasis, who have been seen as inferior since they refuse to accept the capitalist model of the private sector, Saldanha highlighted they have been denied their rights on natural resources and displaced from their lands. They possess immense amount of knowledge of forest resources and this knowledge is protected under Biodiversity Act signed in Conventional Biological Diversity as part of UN Rio Declaration. Saddened about the non-implementation for Forest Rights Act 2006, he stated that Indian governments have been suppressing the progressive models for one pretense or the other and created emergencies on the ground. He condemned the clinical trials of genetically modified organism (GMO) by central government in 9 states amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the Supreme Court has challenged the move stating that it is against food security because it will turn food systems into proprietorship and for worse become genetically contaminated. This is a highly unsustainable move.

Biodiversity needs to be protected from biopiracy and making speeches at international for a like the UNFCCC, etc. would not yield desired results. Addressing the unprecedented forest fires in west coast of United States and typhoons in the east coast of US, Saldanha also highlighted the 600-700 spots that caught fires in Western Ghats two years back in Karnataka, which the forest department was not able to manage it. He also addressed that when the lockdown in India was lifted many industries such as LG Polymers, oil wells in Assam among others started blowing up and released huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Unprepared industries are countering the promises made to the Conference of Parties to reduce carbon emissions.

On the farming front, efforts have been made to monetize farming and snatching the sovereign system of food from the hands of farmers over to the corporate sector. Mr Saldanha pointed to the structural displacement of democratic governance by ignoring the voices of the parliamentarians and the farmers against the three farm bills. The natural food from organic farming has also been commodified from the so-called zero budget farming. This has led the lands to slip out of the hands of farmers. Giving examples of land regulations in Karnataka where no clearance is required for diverting commons and agricultural lands for industrial activities, he coined this situation as land grab which will lead to dispossession at a time where we should encourage more natural farming, agro-ecological approaches should include revival of pastural communities and non-displacement of fishing communities. These lands are being turned into cities and cities are building disasters.

Highlighting the research study being done by the Environmental Support Group, he stated that a lot of resources were wasted in preparing for the Trump visit in February 2020, while having the knowledge of the presence of the coronavirus in India. The resources could have been invested into building health infrastructure in dysfunctional public health centers in villages to deal with the pandemic. Recalling the Disaster Management Act which was passed due to the Tsunami, he underlined that those regions with effective local governments have the greatest capacities of response, relief and rehabilitation and therefore the government could have established a decentralized response. By 2008, India had guidelines to deal with pandemics, wherein people are aware of where to get the help from and help will be provided to them but when the COVID-19 struck, these guidelines went in vain. Lessons should be learnt from countries such as South Korea who created local units as a response to SARS. In fact, Kerala must be applauded for dealing with pandemic.

The pandemic has brought the education of a large number of students to a standstill. Online education necessitated a smart phone with adequate data but believing that every student would have an access to this was erroneous. The televisions having wider reach must have been used to deliver classes and mechanisms could have been created for the same. The capitalization of public spaces and prioritization of public sector needs has essentially meant that the public sector has not been a priority for the center. Mr Saldanha was worried about the status of the money donated by the public to the PM CARE Fund, which was set up to deal with the pandemic. Further, GST was supposed to be shared between states and center but the former has been asked to borrow money, because of the latter’s incapacity to pay them their due compensation.

He is concerned that the world is moving towards an age where infections would be much more frequent and current models will not to work. The working model would be one where every village, ward and city are able to survive with their own capacity to cover themselves.

On the way forward, he advised on the need to sensitize the government system to make regulatory practices effective. India needed a decentralized approach where states are empowered and fully implementing the provisions of 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts. There is a need for intelligent ways to deliver responses to it instead of failing repeatedly and trying to communalize it. The people must keep the governance systems accountable to them — which is the crux of a democracy.

Dr Simi Mehta and Ritika Gupta

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