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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 42, October 11, 2014

Panchayats and Disaster Management: Future Perspective

Saturday 11 October 2014

by Mahi Pal

The worst calamity that took place in Kashmir has warned us of the need to take into account the future possibilities of such kind of disasters seriously. It has become even more important when climate change has become a living reality. India is vulnerable to a number of natural as well as man-made disasters on account of its unique climate and socio-economic conditions. It is highly vulnerable to floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and forest fires. Out of the 35 States and UTs in the country, 27 (77 per cent) are disaster-prone. The roles of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and urban local institutions in both disaster risk reduction and in the management of a post-disaster situation have been well recognised as these are the cutting-edge institutions and know where the shoe pinches. However, these institutions have not been fully utilised in disaster management. This paper deals with the way the Panchayats could be put into service in this regard.

 No doubt, there is an institutional arrangement for disaster management provided by the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (hereafter referred to as DMA) which gave constitutional sanction to constitute the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. Similarly, State Disaster Management Authorities in the States/UTs under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister or Lt Governor or Administrator, and the District Disaster Management Authority under the chairmanship of the District Magistrate in each District are constituted. The DMA also seeks to constitute Disaster Response Fund and Disaster Mitigation Fund at the national, State and district levels.

However, the challenge before us is to ensure the role of local democratic institutions like panchayats and municipalities in disaster management. This paper argues that the sustainable solution of the disaster to a great extent depends on integrating the risk manage-ment planning into the country’s development planning with the participation of vulnerable groups emerging from the grassroots. How the Panchayats and Municipalities can perform this task is also discussed here.

Desired Role of Panchayats in Disaster Management Act, 2005

The local governing institutions (that is, Panch-ayats and Municipalities) are so marginalised that they have been reduced to ‘local authority’ from institutions of self-government. The expression “local authority” in the Chapter IV of the Disaster Management Act (DMA) shows that no thought was given to the 73rd and 74th Amendments while piloting this Bill. Articles 243G of the 73rd Amendment Act and 243W of the 74th Amendment Act have not only made these bodies as institutions of self-government, but also made them democratically elected bodies. Local authorities are those bodies which are dominated by nominated civil servants and not by the community. On the other hand, Panchayats and Municipalities are bodies elected by the local community and answerable to the local community through the institution of the Gram Sabha (Village Assembly) or an equivalent body in the urban areas comprising all voters.

Hence, in the light of the elevated role given by the Constitution to these institutions, these bodies are to be designated as institutions of self-government. It is surprising to note that the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution were enacted more than a decade before the DMA came into existence; even then the provisions of these Acts have not been reflected in the DMA. There are ample evidences to show that the local self-governing institutions have played critical roles in tsunami-affected Tamil Nadu and Kerala, cyclone-ravaged Orissa, flood-affected Bihar and earthquake-affected Gujarat.

Further, Chapter IV of the DMA refers to the formation of a District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA). The Zila Parishad Chairperson will be the co-chairperson of the DDMA while the Collector, District Magistrate or Deputy Commissioner shall be the chairperson of this body, while the Prime Minister and Chief Minister chair the National and State level Disaster Management Authorities respectively. Taking the same principle, the chairperson of the Zila Parishad should head the district level disaster management authority because they are also elected by the people and have organic linkages with elected representatives of the Block and Gram Panchayat bodies as well as with villagers.

Participation of Vulnerable Groups in Disaster Management through Panchayats 

If we see the outcome of disasters, we find that economically and socially deprived segments of the population, namely, women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, suffer the most. Hence, it would be desirable if these sections of the community are involved in the decision-making of various activities both in the pre-disaster phase comprising prevention, mitigation and preparedness, and the post-disaster phase comprising response, rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery. Panchayats and municipalities provide adequate space to these segments of society in disaster management. Here, the numbers of elected representatives of SCs, STs and women have been given to show the strength of these sections in the local bodies. The Panchayati Raj system has a three, tier structure, namely, Gram Panchayat at the lowest level, Panchayat Samiti at the intermediate level and Zila Panchayat at the district level. The space provided to SCs, STs and women is shown in the table given below:

It may be seen from the above table that adequate space has been provided to these segments of society under the local self-governance system in the country. For example, at the Gram Panchayat level, out of the total elected representatives more than five lakhs are from the SC category, more than three lakhs from the ST category and about 10 lakh are women. At the Block level, 32,779 from the SC category, 11,510 from the ST category and 58,112 are women. At the District level, 2699 are from the SC category, 1691 from the ST category and 5763 are women. Putting all categories together, about 5.5 lakhs are from the SC category, 3.35 lakhs from the ST category and 10.48 lakhs are women working as panchayat leaders at different levels of the Panchayati Raj system in the country.

This is the level of participation of vulnerable sections of the rural community in rural governance. Their share in the Municipalities is in addition to that mentioned above. Represen-tatives of these categories also hold the offices of the chairpersons and vice-chairpersons in these bodies. Thus, elected representatives of these categories will take care of marginalised groups and also the entire community in the pre-disaster phase comprising prevention, mitigation and preparedness and in the post-disaster phase comprising response, rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery.

Shift from Relief-centric Approach to Development-oriented Plan under the Panchayati Raj System

In order to solve the problem of risk management on a sustainable basis the relief-centric approach of Disaster Management has to be integrated into the country’s development planning. The Panch-ayati Raj Institutions provide the institutional arrangement for solving at least man-made disasters on a continuous basis. Article 243 G of the Constitution says that Panchayats prepare plans for economic development and social justice and while doing so they may also take into account the 29 subjects listed in the 11th Schedule of the Constitution. This list contains varieties of subjects such as agriculture, animal husbandry, constr-uction of roads, implementation of poverty alleviation and rural development programmes, education including technical education, welfare of women, children and weaker sections including the disabled, public distribution and maintenance of community assets. In the urban areas, the Panchayats’ counterparts Nagarpalikas, as per Article 243W of the Constitution, also prepare plans for economic development and social justice including 18 subjects listed in the 12th Schedule of the Constitution. This list, among others, contains subjects of urban planning, fire service, welfare of weaker sections, sanitation, urban forestry, urban amenities, etc

Further, Article 243ZD of the Constitution says that there shall be constituted a District Planning Committee at the district level in every State to consolidate the plans prepared by the Panchayats and Municipalities in the district and to prepare a draft development plan for the district as a whole. In the composition of the Committee, not less than four-fifths of the total number of members of such Committee shall be elected representatives of Panchayats and Municipalities.

Every District Planning Committee (DPC), while preparing the draft development plan, will also take into account the common interest between the Panchayats and Municipalities, including spatial planning, sharing of water and other physical and natural resources, the integrated development of infrastructure and environmental conservation. It will also look into the extent of financial or otherwise resources available.

It is clear from the above discussion that Panchayats in rural areas, Municipalities in urban areas will prepare plans for economic development and social justice and the plan so prepared shall be consolidated at the district level by the DPC taking into account, among others, environmental issues. Hence, the Panchayats and municipalities and DPC should have been given the principal role in the pre- and post-disaster management activities. It was expected that in view of the reality of the situation, these bodies will be empowered to do the activities which integrate relief to development planning these institutions are expected to prepare at their respective levels.

For carrying out such a task, the capacity-building of these institutions has to be doubtless enhanced both at the institutional level in terms of infrastructural accessibility like Panchyat offices, availability of personnel and accessibility of technology, and at the operational level building their capacity as to how to blend the disaster plan with the development plan of the village, block and district levels. The role of the National Institute of Disaster Management is crucial in this regard.

Dr Mahi Pal is the Director (P and P), Ministry of Rural Development, New Delhi. Since he belongs to the IES, the views expressed here are personal. He can be contacted at mpal1661@gmail.com