Spread of COVID-19 pandemic across India has recently assumed serious proportions. The vulnerabilities of the rural communities need to be especially addressed. Comparatively low level of awareness amongst the rural population coupled with inadequate support systems in villages may create a constraining situation in dealing with the pandemic in an effective manner. Hence, the gram panchayats and rural local bodies need to be properly sensitised and facilitated towards meeting the challenge and provide leadership as they did last year and received appreciation at the highest level for various measures.
Keeping the above factors in view, the Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance, has on the recommendation of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (MoPR), released an amount of Rs.8,923.8 crore to 25 states for providing grants to rural local bodies. The amount released is the first instalment of the Basic (Untied) Grants and may be utilised among other things for various prevention and mitigation measures needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ministry has issued advisory for the guidance of gram panchayats as regards the action for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, which inter alia includes the following areas:
- Intensive communication campaign for the awareness of rural communities on the nature of the COVID-19 infection, and preventive and mitigative measures, in accordance with the advice of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), doctors and medical institutions while especially taking care to dispel false notions and beliefs. The background material and creatives for this awareness campaign may be drawn suitably from the digital repository of MoHFW, Government of India.
- To draw the frontline volunteers for the campaign from the local community such as elected gram panchayat representatives, teachers, ASHA workers among others.
- Providing suitable facilities with necessary protective equipment like finger oxymeters, N-95 masks, infrared thermal scanning instruments, sanitisers among other basic needs.
- Display of the information on availability of testing and vaccination centers, doctors and hospital beds on real-time basis to facilitate effective utilisation of available infrastructure by the rural citizens.
- To leverage the available IT infrastructure in the gram panchayat offices, schools and Common Service Centres (CSCs) may be leveraged for tracking and information display
- To activate the gram panchayats to provide the necessary institutional village level support catering to their respective locations. Wherever possible, they may improvise households as home quarantine locations, where maximum of the asymptomatic COVID-19 positive cases can be managed. Additionally they may also set up specific quarantine and isolation centres for the needy and returning migrant labourers. In consultation with the Health department, the gram panchayats may be designated to facilitate vaccination drives to ensure maximum coverage of eligible population.
- Providing relief and rehabilitation measures considering the distress and livelihood hindrances that are likely to arise due to the spread of the virus. For this purpose, various Central and state government welfare schemes may be leveraged towards provision of rations, drinking water supply, sanitation and MGNREGA employment so that these reach the right beneficiaries. The gram panchayats should be directly involved in dispensation of such relief, including to all vulnerable sections such as senior citizens, women, children and differently abled.
- Establishing a proper inter-linkage with the medical facilities at the nearby district and sub-districts so that emergency requirements like ambulances, advanced testing and treatment facilities and multi-speciality care are provided to those in need without much loss of time.
The states have been further advised that the elected representatives of gram panchayats may take the lead with cooperation of various other service volunteers in their areas. Village and ward-level committees and nigrani samitis in this regard may be created and activated, if not already done, to spearhead the movement by undertaking extensive mitigation activities. Apart from advising the panchayats to utilise the available XIV / XV FC grants as per guidelines, the possibility of provision of additional funds to them from the NDRF and or SDRF may also be considered.
Responding enthusiastically, the states have taken various measures including innovative one worth citing and emulating by other states. Transport plan of provisioning of ambulances in each gram panchayat to support the health system, two chambered cars and auto rickshaws for the needy, ambulances in frontline treatment centres of Kerala, self-proclaimed lockdown by Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in Gujarat, migrant database for capturing the returnee migrants in the panchayats both from outside the state and within the state by Assam and eSanjeevani OPD, free online medical consultation for sick people by Himachal Pradesh are worth commendable.
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