Panchayats take the lead in the fight against COVID-19 in Odisha

Published : April 27, 2020 15:00 IST

At Serpalli panchayat in Malkangiri district, cooked food being provided to the poor.

The Naveen Patnaik government has adopted a novel people-centric approach to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in Odisha. It has extended full support to all gram panchayats to take the lead in dealing with the emerging situation at the grassroots level.

The role of gram panchayats, which was strengthened over the years, became crucial as Odia people working in neighbouring States started returning during the lockdown and lakhs of such people are expected to return from far-off States following the lifting of lockdown restrictions.

Initially, it was found that those detected positive for COVID-19 had returned to the State from other countries. Subsequently those who travelled to other cities within the country, including those who took part in the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, were detected positive.

Until April 14, when the State’s total number of cases stood at 60, Bhubaneswar alone reported 46 cases, forcing the government to launch a special drive for testing in the capital city by involving the city municipal corporation, resident welfare associations and other community organisations. The city has not reported any case since then.

The scenario, however, changed when those who recently returned from neighbouring West Bengal and their close contacts tested positive for coronavirus in Balasore, Bhadrak and Jajpur districts of the State. Of the total 108 cases detected in the State until April 27, as many as 44 cases in these districts had West Bengal links.

Keeping the emerging situation in view, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on April 19 expressed confidence in elected people’s representatives and delegated the powers of District Collectors to sarpanchs as part of his government’s proactive scientific road map for the return of Odia workers from other States.

“Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary response. We will be able to handle the COVID-19 situation by empowering gram panchayats and urban local bodies. It will help provide service to people returning to the State and strengthen our fight against COVID-19,” said Patnaik.

On April 22, sarpanchs of 6,798 gram panchayats in the State took the pledge that Patnaik administered through video-conferencing. “I take pledge to sincerely work towards containing the spread of novel coronavirus in my panchayat for the public good. I will ensure keeping the people coming from other States in quarantine and look after their stay, food and treatment,” read the pledge.

Since most of the people testing positive were asymptomatic for coronavirus, the State government has made putting the returnees in isolation at gram panchayat level mandatory. A sum of Rs. 2,000 will be given to them on completion of 14-day quarantine.

A dedicated portal, covid19.odisha.gov.in, has been launched for the registration of Odia people who wish to come back to their native places. The government has also initiated discussions with Gujarat and other States to facilitate the return of stranded workers.

According to the State’s estimate, about 7.5 lakh Odia people are working in other States. But all of them may not return since economic activities have started resuming in different parts of the country, the officials feel.

The government, however, is keeping itself ready to cope with the return of the natives in the coming weeks. Quarantine facilities have been created at the gram panchayat level across the State with more than two lakh beds. More such facilities are being created to increase the bed capacity for five lakh people, according to D. K. Singh, Secretary of Panchayati Raj & Drinking Water Department.

D.K. Singh said that a nodal officer had been appointed for each gram panchayat to coordinate the work with the sarpanch, the panchayat executive officer and the gram rozgar sevak, and work as a link between them and Block Development Officers who coordinates with the higher-ups.

Gram panchayats have also been given the charge to provide free food to the poor and destitute and those being kept at the quarantine facilities. Money is being provided accordingly without much hassle, said D.K. Singh.

Ensuring the active participation of women, 50 per cent of the posts in three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) and urban local bodies are reserved for women. This gives the PRIs extra advantage to work in coordination with lakhs of members of women self-help groups (SHGs) who are engaged in the fight against COVID-19.

SHG members are not only engaged in running free kitchens, but also in making masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. Lakhs of masks made by them have been supplied to different departments and sold to the public at a cheap rate.

In fact, the gram panchayats in Odisha have always played a significant role during many natural disasters in the past. They are taking the lead at the ground level this time too. This adds to the administration’s confidence in tackling the pandemic. A good sign was that COVID-19 has claimed only one life in the State so far.

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