‘We Could Have Helped in Better Covid Control,’ Ex-GMC Councillors

Saturday, 31 October 2020


‘We Could Have Helped in Better Covid Control,’ Ex-GMC Councillors

Barasha Das | June 20, 2020 17:50 hrs

For DJ Handique (name changed on request), it has been a predicament that he is finding difficult to tackle. For one thing, it took him by surprise that one Covid-19 positive case was detected in the vicinity of his residence. No travel history, nothing.

What shook him up truly was his residence being marked as a containment zone as well even though the official notification from the deputy commissioner’s (DC) office clearly placed his residence outside the demarcated boundaries. Multiple visits to the DC’s office bore no fruit towards the removal of the tag. 

Handique reached out to his former ward councillor who expressed helplessness in the matter having remained out of power for close to two years now ever since the dissolution of the last Guwahati Municipal Corporation Council which completed its tenure on 31st July 2018. The elections to constitute a new council have remained pending ever since for reasons unknown.

With the coronavirus pandemic surging, experts are of the opinion that it will peak in the coming months of July and August. The central government however declared Unlock 1, rather than continuing with the lockdown that was imposed when cases were at the minimum.

With the influx of people from other states into Assam, and the number of positive cases currently rising by more than hundred per day, media and politicians have started speculating whether the current situation can be referred to as the community transmission stage.

Despite such fears, Guwahatians have treated the situation with laxity; crowds around street food vendors, youngsters roaming around in groups, traffic and chaos on the streets of Guwahati and reportedly, even kitty parties have already become a regular feature just like normal times prior to the pandemic outbreak even as the district administration is trying its best to grapple with the situation. And making a rather large number of mistakes in the process; Handique’s containment zone is just one case in point.

Clearly, Guwahati is facing a lack of good monitoring and awareness creation at the ward level. There is just no one to oversee crowd control, social distance and hygiene maintenance. 

In such a situation, a question that automatically arises is: Could the GMC Council, if it was in place, have monitored the situation at the ward levels better and the city’s Covid Control programme could have been thereby more effective?

Taking a leaf out of Meghalaya managing a grassroots problem at grassroots level

Reportedly, Meghalaya has established a “Behaviour Change Model for living with COVID-19” whereby every citizen will be treated as an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. Apart from testing and isolating people who would be travelling to the state, the model also aims to provide psychological help, make behavioural changes to adapt to the situation and provide training for the same.

For the behaviour change model to work, the health workers such as ASHA and Anganwadi workers as well as other trainers will be employed to spread awareness and training to individuals. Also, village headmen and local volunteers will be helping with spreading awareness and developing hygiene habits among the citizens. Moreover, officials, teachers as well as representatives of different organisations like taxi associations, market unions etc are currently being trained as trainers, who will then be training the masses.

The dead GMC Council

Guwahati has 31 wards. The tenure of the GMC Council ended on 31st July, 2018 and ever since there has been no Council in the biggest metropolis of the northeast. Nor a Mayor! As per the 74th Amendment Act, Section 3(f) of the Indian Constitution, re-elections are to be conducted within six months of the previous council’s expiry. It is close to two years now. 

Given the inability of the authorities to impose the COVID-19 protocols amongst the Guwahatians, concerned citizens have raised the issue wondering whether having the councillors in place could have helped implement Covid control protocols better.

G Plus spoke to few of the former councillors of Guwahati for their opinion on the issue. This is what they have to say:

Mrigen Sarania (former Mayor of Guwahati from 2016-18, BJP member): “In Guwahati, the Nagarik Samitis under the police stations are deployed to manage home quarantine issues and other COVID-19 protocols. But having the councillors would have made a greater impact as it is a government assigned position and people are more willing to follow orders of councillors rather than of public representatives. These committees which are appointed for the job have people who have volunteered or were already with the Nagarik Samitis. But they have their own vested interests. Also citizens easily take up their issues with the councillors rather than with any random volunteer. Further, ward councillors and area members could have taken up awareness programs at the true grassroots level.”

Rajkumar Tewari (former councillor from Ward 9, BJP executive member): “I am a party worker of the present government. Yet I feel this is a major mistake made by the government. Guwahati is facing a major crisis. Earlier, there 31 councillors and 90 area members who knew their own areas well and also knew almost 70 to 80 percent of the citizens personally. But the MLAs would never know his citizens so closely. So the Council could have done a far better job in managing the whole war against coronavirus. 

“Also, ministers and MLAs are mostly senior people. So they are to maintain social distancing and stay at home. How will they go out for field work? Had there been area sabha members and councillors, who are generally a younger energetic lot, they could have done a much better job in tackling all situations, especially in this pandemic.

“The lockdown was not properly planned, at least in Assam. It was announced prior to the actual crisis. We could have easily celebrated Bihu as usual. After all, Holi was celebrated with the usual fanfare and there was no transmission. Had the government sealed the borders, the pandemic could have been prevented. People were allowed to come in and, at the same time, the lockdown was lifted although the preparations made are good. The Nagarik Samitis which are now formed should have been made at the beginning and the members should have been chosen not as per party affiliations but on the work they can do.” 

Ashima Bordoloi (former councillor from Ward 14, Congress member): “Definitely, ward level committees would have been better to fight the coronavirus pandemic because for any developmental work decentralisation is very important. If there is division and delegation then control and management is better. The ex-councillors can be appointed for the work like the village headmen in the villages. 

“The council elections should have been conduced long back but the government is delaying the process. Proper planning should have been done as it is a totally unforeseen situation. The lockdown has been lifted at a time when its continuation was of utmost necessity. The government needs to put tremendous effort on awareness. Ward level committees with the help of councillors could have proven to have better effect. Instead of one controlling power, the system should have been decentralized and there should be meetings and monitoring from time-to-time.”

Balen Bharali (former councillor from Ward 12, BJP councillor): “In other districts, I have been told that councillors, both current and former are being activated to tackle the crisis at the ward level. But in Guwahati, the ex-councillors have not been approached for help. Rather, the booth-level workers of BJP are doing the job. As per constitutional provisions, re-elections should have been held within 6 months of the expiry of the previous council’s tenure. Since the election has not been conducted in Guwahati till date - and it is going to be two years now - the ex-councillors and area members could have been called to support the cause. But I still believe a Council could have handed the situation better.”

Reasons of delay in the GMC Council elections

The erstwhile Council’s tenure expired on 31st July, 2018. As such, the re-elections should have been conducted by 31st January, 2019. But approaching 2 years, the GMC Council remains void. 

Mrigen Sarania, former Mayor said, “The GMC council elections have a history of not being regular. After the then Council’s tenure ended in 1983, the next elections were held in 1995. It was a gap of 12 years. The next election was held in 2003 and then in 2013. Because of these lapses many developmental works have also been lagging. And this is a major drawback.”

“As per my information the government is considering dividing Guwahati into 60 wards from the present 31 wards. Earlier, 60 wards did exist but this was later changed to 31 wards. The process is underway. Also, the GMC elections were earlier conducted at the district level. But the same will now be conducted by the State Election Commission. This will add power to the Council. All these have added to the delay. Even then, elections should have been conducted by now,” Sarania added.

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