Urban Local Bodies are critical in the fight against Covid-19

India has been on a nationwide lockdown since 24 March to contain the spread of novel coronavirus. Since the announcement of the lockdown, several Corporators in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) have been swamped with calls requesting cooked food, grains, protective gear etc. The number of distress calls received by individuals and NGOs too has been steadily increasing.  Its sudden announcement has created a significant degree of anxiety and concern among people. There is anxiety about supply of essential goods and services during this period. There are concerns for the large numbers of Indians who lack steady incomes, stable shelters, and access to food and water. The sudden nationwide shutdown of public transport left migrant workers with no time to return to their home states. Unaddressed, the chaos being faced by displaced and stranded migrant workers is currently becoming a major crisis in many parts of India. 

Many relief measures have been pledged by governments (central and state) and private actors (ranging from large charities to smaller local networks). On March 29, the Chief Minister of Telangana, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, made a commendable statement about migrant workers being partners in the state’s development and pledged relief measures. The next step is to ensure the timely and efficient delivery of the various resources to those in need, which requires active networks and communications at the local level.

In light of this situation, in Hyderabad, we at Hyderabad Urban Lab alongside many other collaborators in the city are putting together a “Civic Response Team” which can connect public offices, private organizations and individuals in order to deal with situations at a local level.

As a first step, we reached out to the 150 elected Municipal Corporators in Hyderabad. The effort was led by Ayesha Minhaz, Indivar Jonnalagadda, and several volunteers. The goal was to establish communications with the Corporators, find out resources they have, and challenges they are facing. In this note, we build on our conversations with 100 Corporators, to highlight the need to strengthen urban local bodies and empower Corporators as first-responders in the fight against COVID19.

Why Are Corporators Important?

  1. Corporators are the first-responders of our democracy. Take Boudhnagar Corporator B. Dhananjana Bai, for example, she told us: “People have been calling me non-stop. It starts at 7 am. They even come to my house with concerns!”  Corporators have everyday social relations with many of their constituents, and they have direct access to local political cadres who can be mobilized for various tasks. They are  able to proactively recognize and address needs, like Seethaphalmandi Corporator Samala Hema, who is collaborating with the State Deputy Speaker and other Corporators, to distribute rations to those without White Ration Cards.
  2. Corporators know the neighbourhood and its infrastructure.They have an idea of the existing infrastructure and resources and given the capacity, can repurpose them for the present situation. For example, we spoke to a number of Corporators such as A. Rupha (Monda Market), Jagadeeshwar (Madhapur) and B. Navatha Reddy (Chanda Nagar) who do not have night shelters in their ward, but have created makeshift shelters at function halls, old municipal offices, etc.
  3. With COVID we need know-how at the local level. We cannot always rely on command chains that stretch up to the state or central government. As Moula Ali Corporator Mumtaz Fatima pointed out, “Distribution is not a problem, procurement is”. Empowering Corporators with resources, and connecting them to those with know-how can make things more efficient and effective. Although the responsiveness and alertness of corporators might differ, as our survey surely discovered, there is a lot of potential in the office, if they also have the capacities.

What Corporators Are Already Doing

A majority of the Corporators we spoke to were already involved in many relief activities. Many responded to our call with interest and welcomed further support. While the initiatives differ in emphasis and scale in different areas, we found that the following processes were already being managed by Corporators:  

  • Coordinating with the Deputy Commissioner and the police in general to manage the lockdown.
  • Gathering funds and other resources from private individuals and mobilizing local party workers and volunteers to distribute food, medical supplies, and other services where needed.
  • Co-ordinating the existing programs of the city, state, and central governments such as the Annapurna Canteens, and working with ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers 
  • Repurposing existing structures to create temporary shelters and other infrastructures

What Challenges They Are Facing

Similarly, while the problems being faced by Corporators are unevenly distributed based on their location in the city, we found some common challenges across the board:

  • An urgent need for new Annapurna canteens to be set-up, and additional ones in areas with higher numbers of migrant workers.
  • Requirement of supply of dry ration in areas where poor, non-ration card holders live.
  • Concern over the availability of masks and sanitizers.
  • A requirement of volunteers especially to help to distribute food to the migrant workers 
  • Need to counsel and talk to the migrant workers (some of them want to go back).
  • Need help to draw chalk markings near markets and kirana stores to ensure social distancing. Some of them expressed lacking know-how and resources. 
  • Responding to anxieties of citizens (fear of outsiders and recent travellers, anxiety about sanitation programs like fumigation). 

How can they help civil society initiatives?

From activists on the ground, we are hearing that there is a need for the government to work with and facilitate civil society groups to support relief works.

They have also raised a number of other pressing concerns. For a region as big as GHMC, 150 canteens, especially in times of lockdown aren’t sufficient. There needs to be an increase in the number of canteens. Mobile canteens are needed too. Efforts have to be directed towards ensuring that garbage collectors, transgender people, disabled persons, homeless people, pavement dwellers and other vulnerable people have adequate access to food/rations until lockdown. Like COVID medical bulletin, GHMC should issue ration disbursement bulletin daily or at least every alternate day. In fact, this should happen at the state level too as there is panic among people about the availability of food grains. Repeated announcements will ease anxieties.

Even during this medical emergency, sanitation workers in several areas are continuing to collect garbage with bare hands. This is extremely dangerous. Please provide them with masks, gloves, soap and detergent. Also, please issue an advisory that they stop using WHISTLES. This will be risky for them.

Many challenges being faced by activists and relief workers could be addressed by a dedicated response unit managed by the government. Many activists rely on social media to find resources and help. We are suggesting that instead, if we make Corporators accountable at the Ward level, and make them a node connecting Civil society initiatives with governmental programs, it would be easier to optimize the use of governmental and non-governmental resources.

Propositions

Considering our survey findings, the suggestions from activists, and our conviction that we need strong local institutions and infrastructures to make the efforts to contain the coronavirus successful, we strongly recommend immediate measures to:

  1. empower and support our Corporators.
  2. make them a node connecting the governmental and non-governmental relief work taking place at the ward level.
  3. enable them to seek volunteers to meet various needs such as drawing chalk markings for social distancing; managing food distribution; addressing citizens’ anxieties 

We extend this appeal to the Government of Telangana. We also encourage everyone (individuals and organizations) to get to know your local representatives (municipal or panchayat). Encourage and support them. Volunteer your skills. Even though we are confined to our houses for the moment, this is an opportunity for us to strengthen local democracy and make the best use of our civic life.

Note by Ayesha Minhaz and Indivar Jonnalagadda

Survey Volunteers: Vanshika Singh, Yamini Krishna, Tekumal Santhosh, Shakeel ur Rahman, Solomon Vijay Kiran, Mohd Abdul Sayeed, Sadeem Shaik, Lakshmi Swathi Gandham, Sanjana Bajaj, Gayathri, Raghavendra Yadavalli, Ahmed

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