Relief force

April 01, 2020

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URGENCY is the need of the hour. To fight a pandemic that is spreading like wildfire and to mitigate its impact on their citizens, governments need to fashion responses that make the best use of precious time and resources. Raising a youth volunteer force called the Corona Relief Tigers, a measure formally announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his address to the nation on Monday, cannot be described as meeting that criteria. Moreover, while the premier may have the best of intentions, the move also sends the wrong message to an opposition that feels alienated by the PTI government. Indeed, the PPP has already expressed its reservations, with Senator Raza Rabbani saying in a statement that the move would politicise the national effort against Covid-19. He suggested that the centre take a leaf out of the Sindh government’s book and form mohalla committees including members of different political parties and NGOs working in the areas where relief goods are required to be distributed.

Providing relief during a pandemic through mass distribution points is a difficult task as Sindh is discovering, with hundreds converging on the sites despite the authorities’ best efforts. Mr Rabbani’s advice to the centre is eminently practical. On-the-ground resources such as community organisations can be quickly harnessed in the relief effort. For the federal government to now reinvent the wheel — albeit with a more catchy name — will take up unnecessary time and effort. As it is, there is little clarity about how it can organise such a massive operation from the top down. Mohalla committees are a more granular mechanism that would have the local buy-in critical to countering accusations of favouritism and ensure a more systematic distribution procedure. That said, our society has been ill served by a succession of democratic governments that have balked at devolving power to the grass-roots level. The coronavirus pandemic, in a few terrible weeks, has highlighted the importance of such third-tier governance. Local elected bodies, empowered and properly funded, would have been the logical conduit for not only the relief effort but also for carrying out awareness campaigns to prevent the spread of infection. Instead, there are no local governments in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan at present. Meanwhile in Sindh, the PPP through legislative action has abridged and diluted third-tier governance to meaningless tokenism. One can only hope this unprecedented emergency will herald a change in approach.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020