Managing survival

April 24, 2020

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UNDER pressure from various quarters, the lockdown has all but ended. As we prepare for the days to come, governments have a massive task ahead of them: planning for impending crises in the provision of food and other basic sustenance amidst an uncertain economic and public health environment.

In any case, citywide lockdowns are hard to enforce. People, especially in economies like ours, are forced to come out for survival, while others still gather for leisure. Similarly, private and goods transport vehicles were misused to move people between and within cities. Add to that the brouhaha of relief goods distribution by public institutions and private donors, and the entire exercise seemed futile.

It may help to adjust our scale for policy formulation and enforcement. We lack capacity to enforce these measures on a citywide scale, and ensuring equitable supply of essential goods throughout the city (let alone a province) is near impossible. The Sindh government shifted its focus to union councils and, in a subsequent improvement, to neighbourhoods. That may be the most efficient spatial unit to manage survival in this context.

Local administrations, aided by other departments including the police, have an important task. For one, the closest administrative unit to neighbourhoods is the police station. In the absence of autonomous, representative neighbourhood governments, SHOs and local government employees (eg neighbourhood council secretaries) probably have the best local knowledge about their jurisdictions. The administration can work with area police stations to enforce highly localised regulations and, in the event of an outbreak, a harder neighbourhood-level quarantine.

This is a massive exercise in administration and coordination.

Once we settle for neighbourhoods as our spatial unit, the first task is to ensure regular supply of essential goods to each such unit. There are two parallel tracks here: many people will receive cash grants from the government, which they will use to buy food and other things. Others may not have the documents required to receive a grant, or for some, the grant will run out quicker than we may think. For them, we have to provide the material required to survive in a way that does not put them at further risk.

This is a massive exercise in administration and coordination. The local administration can notify a small number of retailers in each neighbourhood, and then ensure a constant supply of essential goods at fair prices to each retailer. The district machinery already does so in sasta bazaars; to respond to context, we can devolve the exercise to notified, small neighbourhood retailers. Individual sellers can stay in touch with the neighbourhood contact person in the local, while higher levels in the administration — district, division, and finally provincial — can monitor the supply chain and address shortages at their respective levels.

It is essential to address rent-seeking behaviour and the inflationary impact of cash handouts at times like these. For this, the number of sellers authorised to function has to be exceptionally small — maybe one or two for each neighbourhood. Their operations (including purchasing, inventories, pricing) must be monitored closely. To discourage gathering in bazaars, push hoarders out of business, and ensure notified retailers have adequate stock, all other businesses must be shuttered or sell only at notified prices. Notified sellers and their hours of operation can be advertised using TV, radio and flyers.

By operating at a highly devolved level of the neighbourhood and allowing enough time, we can hope that traffic to these retailers will remain manageable. The political question of which shops are notified can be add­ressed by drawing lots, using area utility stores where possible, or allowing local administrations to set up temporary retail points in each neighbourhood.

The issue of relief goods is also more complicated than we acknowledge. It is important that these operations also be run at the neighbourhood level, but some coordination is needed at a higher spatial level like the district. This will ensure every neighbourhood receives required amounts of goods and private donors do not cause spatial inequities or increased risk of infection. The area SHO, locally active community groups, local government employees, revenue officials and prayer leaders can be effective resources for these operations. With their assistance, each neighbourhood’s needs can be approximated and resources (donations and volunteers) directed more effectively.

This is going to be a gargantuan task for local administrations across the country. As with tree plantation, the government can sanction temporary posts for people who have lost jobs to help supplement the effort. These are difficult times — but also opportunities for the administration to show its worth.

Furqan Ashraf is a civil servant.

Faizaan Qayyum is a PhD student in planning.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2020