Sarpanchs as game changers

FRONTLINE|June 5, 2020

Sarpanchs as game changers
Odisha manages to keep COVID-19 well under control because of the strong participation of panchayati raj institutions and the community at the grass-roots level under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
PRAFULLA DAS

THE FEAR OF THE SPREAD OF COVID-19 HAS led the people to join hands with the Naveen Patnaik government in tackling the pandemic. The government, too, realised very early that the fight could not be won without participation of grass-roots leadership. Given the spread of the outbreak, it was impossible for the government machinery to depute officials in every village.

With dedicated teams of officials by his side, the Chief Minister, in a first of its kind exercise, involved the panchayati raj institutions (PRI) in managing the situation as the number of positive cases kept increasing every day.

When Odia people returning to their villages from other States tested positive, Naveen Patnaik bestowed sarpanchs with the powers of a District Collector. Santilata Nayak, a woman sarpanch of Manitara gram panchayat under Buguda block in Ganjam district, even declared a shutdown in her panchayat to contain the spread of the virus. The sarpanchs of Madhupalli and Mandara in Polasara block in the same district followed suit. Since then the government has encouraged sarpanchs to take the lead in this fight. The Chief Minister said, “Sarpanchs have been working devotedly in the management of quarantine centres and other COVID care institutions.”

He has also accorded front-line warrior status to sarpanchs for their dedication in managing and strengthening Odisha’s fight against the pandemic at the grass-roots level and announced Rs.50 lakh compassionate assistance for family members if any sarpanch died in the pandemic.

Empowering sarpanchs is touted to be a game changer as far as handling the pandemic in rural Odisha is concerned. With limited financial power and limited administrative support at their disposal, sarpanchs are making a difference on the ground. “Community and PRI participation in COVID-19 management is the greatest achievement of Odisha,” said Chief Secretary Asit Tripathy.

More than two months into the pandemic, no major public unrest was reported at quarantine centres. The returning migrant workers were put up in quarantine centres managed by sarpanchs, who were heading a 10member team comprising panchayat executive officer, gram rozgar sevak and prominent villagers. A nodal officer worked as a link between the sarpanch and the Block Development Officer.

Odisha had remained untouched by coronavirus until March 15 until a youth who had returned from abroad tested positive. The number of cases kept rising with more and more returnees joining the list of infected persons. Naveen Patnaik, who had prepared the State machinery for the emerging crisis well in advance, kept adopting different strategies to contain the spread of the virus. He increased the number of temporary medical centres (TMCs) set up for quarantine of returnees at the panchayat level.

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June 5, 2020