A view of the Police Bazar circle in Shillong.
Even as India’s recorded number of COVID-19 cases crossed the three million mark, Meghalaya has managed to stave off high casualties and widespread outbreak of the disease. The state has documented eight deaths and, despite the recent spike in the number of cases, only three other states and union territories have a lower case count so far, earning praise from a WHO representative.
Meghalaya’s strong pandemic response over the past few months makes a convincing case for empowering local institutions. Despite the state’s limitations in terms of health infrastructure and financial resources, Meghalaya’s success can be attributed to the collective efforts of the state government and the work of community-driven, traditional institutions.
In Meghalaya, ‘formal’ government systems (the state legislature and judiciary) as well as Autonomous District Councils (ADCs), formed to give greater autonomy to tribal communities, take care of general affairs and have the power to make laws. But it is the state’s village-level traditional institutions that administer at the grassroots level and work directly with communities on day-to-day activities such as settlement of local disputes, management of lands and forests and provision of basic services.
Meghalaya was exempted from the 73rd constitutional amendment Act, which mandated the devolution of governance through the Panchayati raj system, as the state already relied on a strong grassroots governance structure. Performed by traditional institutions, this system has a far longer history and position of legitimacy among the state’s people. These institutions, in the form of Dorbar in Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Nokma in Garo Hills, are village-level assemblies around which the life of the community is organised.
Over time, interventions by the British and the Indian state influenced how these traditional institutions operated. They are presently recognised under the laws of ADCs, which defines their roles and functions.
Governance and COVID-19
The Meghalaya government’s state-level interventions have included early preparedness efforts, provision of proper quarantine centres for returnees from other states, logistical support to those who are home quarantined as well as assistance to those who remain outside the state. They have also been actively collaborating with traditional institutions for more effective administration and supervision.
The community-owned traditional institutions have a similar mandate, but at the local level. They rely on community participation as volunteers make up task forces. Containment zones are under vigilance by these task forces, who ensure that people stay indoors, shops are closed, and vehicular movements restricted.
Meghalaya has also, so far, recorded approximately 30,000 returnees from outside the state with an average of 210 people returning daily. Although there are several state government-run quarantine centres for returnees, traditional bodies, along with the help of local volunteers, are also running community-driven quarantine centres to ensure safe and comfortable stay for migrants returning from other states. They operate around 650 community quarantine centres in the state with logistical support from the state government and ADCs.
Several of these institutions have also taken it upon themselves to conduct regular meetings and consultations to stay informed of all cases in and around their areas. With people’s support, traditional institutions have also formed COVID-19 management committees to help state agencies track the situation and strictly enforce COVID-19 protocols. They have also been proactively spreading awareness about the disease and what people can do to prevent contracting it. In some areas, traditional heads have identified poor families who have been deeply affected by the pandemic, and have requested the government to procure food items for them.
While the role of ADCs during this pandemic has been marginal, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) had sanctioned Rs 10 lakh each to all 30 members of KHADC, to help affected people in their respective constituencies for three months.
Empowering community-driven institutions
Traditional grassroots institutions are strong authorities in their regions, having governed tribal communities and their lands since ages. People defer to them and the decisions they make. Traditional bodies have always been community-driven institutions, and they now act as a bridge between the modern state and tribal communities.
However, they are still not legally recognised as a form of local government, except under the laws of ADCs. This is insufficient because their capacity to access financial resources and thus work more effectively is constrained. Some traditional institutions manage developmental activities by collecting money in the form of donations from the community or through fines imposed in the area. Additionally, even though traditional institutions are occasionally consulted by the government for various schemes, they are rarely involved in any major decision-making.
It is important that dialogues are held to understand their expectations. There is also a need to institutionalise capacity building of traditional governing bodies, so that they are equipped with facilities and trained to address issues at the local level.
Traditional institutions still face challenges to exist alongside ‘formal’ agencies as they are often overlooked unless required during times of crisis. Management of the COVID-19 situation in Meghalaya has shown that despite a widening gap between traditional institutions, ADCs and the state government, the former has been able to stay more community-driven and people-centric. Even the state government has acknowledged the importance of their ongoing support and strong community participation facilitated by these traditional institutions.
Such decentralised form of governance driven by people’s support is significant as it centres their needs and strengthens an existing political culture. Going beyond COVID-19, strong local self-governments are critical for resilience building and disaster management.
Tsomo Wangchuk is a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, New Delhi, where she has worked on a project focusing on Meghalaya’s land management systems.