Fighting a Pandemic through the Force of Democratic Decentralisation

Kudumbashree is one of the world’s largest networks of women organised as self-help groups engaged in state-led poverty eradication and women empowerment programmes.

An unbridgeable gap is evident between the approach of the Kerala state and the rest of the country in their management of the Covid-19 pandemic in all its phases. Contrary to analyses in many articles that have covered Kerala’s performance, the defining factor contributing to this difference is neither preparedness nor extensive testing. For neither preparedness for identifying the infected nor expanded testing would have filled the stomachs and quelled fears in the hearts of common people. The critical factor is institutional and political and is where the Government of India and several States have failed. Stoking fear through any manner – be it food insecurity,  inadequate shelter, fear of police atrocity, or communal stereotyping – the government fails by alienating the support and cooperation of the people. While the fear of hunger forces them to break the lockdown, the fear of stigma makes the infected not to come out. If anything, the history of pandemics has taught that draconian measures will only force people to resist or flee, pulling all into an abyss.1

The humanistic politics of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Central Government. They took into account fallouts not only of the infection but also possible loss of income and lack of emergency facilities that accompany a pandemic. There is no better place to understand this than the account books of the state. The economic scenario of Kerala was not one of the brightest before the Covid-19 due to incessant natural calamities and the global slowdown. The fact that the centre had not paid the due Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation of ₹ 3000 crore had put the state coffers on tight strings. Fund cuts were looming in sectors which were considered inessential. It was in such a scenario that Covid-19 struck.

However, despite being overstretched financially, why were the common people of Kerala not forced to depend on the presumed benevolence of the rich and the well to do? How did the ruling government manage to meet the basic requirements of the people? What institutional and administrative mechanisms were summoned for dealing with the crisis? What is the historical legacy of those institutions? Answers to these questions will show that the democratic foundations laid by the Left and democratic forces during the people’s planning campaign in the wake of decentralisation has played a crucial role in the Kerala Government’s relief efforts to contain Covid-19.

Package to Prevent Panic

Kerala’s efforts at dealing with the Covid-19 in economic terms began on March 19, 2020, two days before the nation observed the Janata curfew. Kerala Government announced an economic package of ₹ 20,000 crore focusing on the common people. The state announced the package banking on the  ₹ 25,000 crore, the maximum borrowing limit the state is allowed in the next financial year. According to Dr Thomas Isaac, the finance minister of the state, the first week of the new financial year has seen around 50 percent increase in expenditure over the budgetary allocation due to Covid-19 relief measures.2

The package involved immediate disbursal of food grains and essentials through the public distribution system. In ensuring food security at a larger level, the government has speedily distributed 15 kg of food grains through ration shops as soon as the lockdown was announced. In April, the government supplied 15 kg of extra food grains per family above the regular distribution along with a grocery kit.

List of food items in the COVID19 food kit announced by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
Grocery kit infographic. Source: OnManorama

The package also included speedy disbursal of pensions, welfare funds, short-term loans, scholarships, and other financial assistance. The effectiveness of this package depended not only on the proactiveness but also on the scope of its coverage. The government aimed to provide ₹ 8500 for 54 lakh pensioners through social security measures apart from assistance for those not registered in any pension programmes.

The organised labour movements and the Left politics have ensured a welfare system in Kerala that has instituted pension schemes, welfare funds and relevant boards for almost all sections of the working population in the state. There are welfare fund boards for abkari workers,3 motor transport workers, toddy workers, headload workers, shops and commercial establishments, construction workers, advocates’ clerks, fishermen, plantation labourers, tailoring workers, jewellery workers, bamboo, kattuvally4 and pandanus leaf workers, cashew workers, unorganised labourers, lottery vendors, and many other workers. The welfare funds and pension funds under these boards formed the substantive portion of the ₹ 20,000 crore relief package.

On March 21, Dr. Thomas Issac, in his social media post, explained that three exemplary institutions of the state are going to make the fight against the Covid-19 possible.5 These are the vast and dense network of cooperative banks, the remarkable women’s self-help group Kudumbashree, and the local self-government institutions. All these institutions are testimony to the legacy of decentralisation and peoples planning in the state. A lot of scholarly works have been published about this unique democratic experiment that was successfully implemented in a resource-scarce state in the developing world. One such work is  'Local Democracy and Development: People’s Campaign for Decentralised Planning in Kerala' written by Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac with Richard W. Franke, and published by LeftWord books.

In short, the People’s Plan Campaign followed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments on decentralisation and local self-governments in 1993. By mobilising people through direct political and administrative actions, a system of deliberative democracy was built where people discussed, planned, and implemented the development projects in their areas. To this respect, the government devolved the essential functions or subjects to the local governments, making them physically and financially responsible for their upkeep and development, including school education and health. While this experiment innovated entities such as Kudumbashree, it calibrated the cooperative sector in the state in the project. Kerala’s quick and adept response to the pandemic cannot be understood without comprehending the history of decentralisation and the contemporary relevance of these institutions.

Covid-19 and Cooperatives

There are a total of 1625 primary cooperative societies and 60 urban banks, with more than 4500 branches spread across the state.6 Moreover, the recently established Kerala Bank with 825 branches is a reconfiguration of the robust cooperative banking movement in Kerala. It is the second-largest bank in the state. At a time when the centre is withholding funds for Kerala, it is these Cooperative banks which made ₹ 1200 crore immediately available for the disbursal of pensions for millions of beneficiaries. However, this was made available after a deduction of 2 per cent income tax, a condition which would not have been applicable to other banks.7

About half of the total pensioners receive their pensions directly through doorstep delivery by cooperative banks.8 The pensioners also have an alternative to get their money dropped into their bank account. While pensions for the earlier category were prioritised and funds were disbursed in the first week of April, pensions for the latter were dropped in their bank accounts from April 9. The initial pension consisted of ₹ 1200 for two months, October and November 2019 totalling ₹ 2400. To the pleasant surprise of many, the government soon followed it with the disbursal of pension for next five months totalling around ₹ 6100. Thus a total of ₹ 8500 were being provided to each pensioner.

A problem arose in some places during initial disbursal where several senior citizens queued up in the banks jeopardising their own life. It was found that misinformation spread among the elderly that money has to be immediately withdrawn from their Jan Dhan accounts i.e. Rs. 500 to receive their next instalment. Soon the government in consultation with banks decided to allot specific dates for account numbers ending with specific numbers. This system was introduced earlier at the  state treasuries to avoid crowding. Thus the government was not only prepared but was also constantly monitoring the problems that emanate in the process.

As mentioned above, these funds are distributed mainly to the beneficiaries of the pension schemes. It caters to around 54 lakh people assisting senior citizens and their families. But still there are many who need assistance of other kinds. The government also announced assistance ranging between ₹ 1000 and ₹ 5000 for those who do not avail pension. But the relief measures did not end with financial assistance. The Government also ensured that special needs of the specific sections of the population are also met, like the elderly and disabled who have no aid to cook, families who might be ineligible for welfare assistance but still are in need, children, and those in care centres. 

Kudumbashree and Food Security

Kudumbashree is one of the world’s largest networks of women organised as self-help groups engaged in state-led poverty eradication and women empowerment programmes. Formed in 1997 as part of the People’s Campaign, Kudumbashree currently has an army of 43,93,579 members organised in 2,91,507 neighbourhood groups, 19,489 area development societies, and 1064 community development societies.9 They engage in a wide variety of activities, which include running micro-enterprises, farm activities, animal husbandry, and marketing. In the social sector, they are involved in catering to destitutes and children. They are serving 181 institutes for more than 6000 physically and mentally challenged children. They are also provided the responsibility of the implementation of a crucial tribal development programme. It is the official implementing agency of all the major poverty eradication schemes of state and central governments such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM), National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), Deen Dayal Upadhyay-Grameen Kaushal Yojana (DDU-GKY), Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (MKSP), Start-Up Village Entrepreneurship Programme (SVEP), and the special package to Attappady tribal development.

Kudumbashree is operating 1225 community kitchens, along with the local self-government institutions, providing food free to all the needy and deserving families as identified by the local bodies and for ₹ 20 to those who can afford it.10 The food includes rice, sambar, and vegetable dishes every day. Extra items like seafood and meat dishes were also made available. The total bill for this effort is partly subsidised by Kudumbashree Mission. Some community kitchens were formed by utilising the network of 1479 hotels and 946 catering units currently run by Kudumbashree.11 These community kitchens complement the immediate PDS provision of the government in ensuring food security.

Kudumbashree is also the lending agency for the ₹ 2000 crore loan package announced by the state government. This ensures that only those in need receive the loans as decisions regarding beneficiaries are taken after deliberations in the local level committees of the self-help groups. To control the spread of fake news, Kudumbashree has also formed 1.9 lakh WhatsApp groups with more than 22.5 lakh members. They are also providing necessary medical and psychological assistance to women, elderly, and children facing violence, harassment, and other problems during the lockdown. They are also contacting 114339 families of inter state migrant labourers (guest labourers) with members above the age of 60 regularly to monitor and ensure their safety. They have also supplied 19.42 lakh cotton masks through 306 units and 4725 litres of sanitisers through 24 units.12

The Role of  Local Self-Government Institutions (LSGIs)

However, all these above measures need a dynamic and prompt coordination mechanism on the ground. Unlike other states, Kerala’s service delivery mechanism is not overdependent on the district administration and the revenue department. The elected local self-government institutions (LSGIs) - various levels of panchayats, municipalities, and corporations - are the linchpins of routine administration and the pandemic management. They coordinate contact tracing, home isolation, tracking the movement of those in quarantine, transport of patients, and arrange all financial and physical assistance needed in running community kitchens and distributing foods to families, migrant labourers, and institutions. The LSGIs are handling the coordination of the Covid-19 relief and prevention irrespective of the social or economic status of the people. Among the 25,000 migrant labour camps run across the country, 15541 were run by Kerala. LSGIs were running 1474 camps as on March 29.

More than 1200 LSGIs with specialised staff, the bedrock of the decentralisation process in Kerala, receive 40 per cent of the state budget funds. These LSGIs implement all the major education, health, welfare, and employment generation programmes along with the help of Kudumbashree mission. There are 21831 elected members in the LSGIs and nearly 55 per cent of elected positions are held by women.  These local bodies also make use of specialised staffing with qualified staff for engineering, health, and other social welfare employees on their payroll.

The state government removed all roadblocks that LSGIs could face in availing funds by removing all restrictions in treasury transactions. Date for submission of bills for clearance were extended and legal obligation to receive district planning committee’s approval for projects if associated with Covid-19 were removed. 

One cannot compare the Kerala model of fighting against Covid-19 with the model adopted by advanced economies like South Korea or Japan casually. To begin with, Kerala might have done testing far more aggressively than any other state in India. Nevertheless it did not meet the actual demand and necessity as India as a nation failed to provide its states with adequate testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE). Moreover, though Kerala has a relatively higher public health infrastructure, it is also the state where the recent growth has promoted a large private sector in health. Thus attribution of efficiency in handling Covid-19 situation to preparedness or public health infrastructure is inadequate to fully account for Kerala’s performance. It demands taking into account factors such as institutional and social infrastructure. The deep democratic foundations that the progressive politics has built, including in the field of public health, are delivering the results for Kerala. Probably this is the difference between Kerala and other governments that have also developed a commendable public health infrastructure like Tamil Nadu in containing Covid-19. The very leadership that was instrumental in the people’s plan campaign has been rising up to tackle large-scale crises for the last three years in Kerala. The LDF has been innovatively maneuvering resources, human resources, and social solidarity in its efforts to protect people from natural calamities. And this is only possible because of the democratisation of power and sense of solidarity cherished by the people of the state.  

Notes

  1. See Snowden (2019) for a discussion on the militaristic response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
  2. See the Facebook post by Dr T M Thomas Isaac on April 07,2020 at 06:14 pm.
  3. Workers engaged in manufacturing or distribution of liquor.
  4. Forest creeper.
  5. See Facebook post by Dr T M Thomas Isaac on March 20, 2020.
  6. GoK (2019).
  7. See Facebook post of Dr T M Thomas Isaac on March 24, 4:55 pm.
  8. Express News Service (2020).
  9. Kudumbasree: Overview.
  10. Community Kitchens: Covid-19.
  11. Isaac (2020).
  12. Covid-19: A Summary of Key Activities by Kudumbashree.

 

References

Express News Service (2020), “People crowd at banks for welfare pensions, overlook lockdown,” The New Indian Express, published March 31, 2019.

Government of Kerala (GoK) (2019), “Kerala’s Own Bank, ‘Kerala Bank’ turns into reality,” Official Website of Chief Minister of Kerala.

Isaac, Thomas (2020), “Kerala’s Citizen-First Approach to Fighting Covid-19,”  NDTV.

Snowden, Frank M. (2019), Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Yale University Press: New Havens.