Where’s the connection?

Government, MLA, ADCs, Dorbar Shnong, & Community

By Patricia Mukhim

“From stories about the vaccine causing high magnetic flow to other social and religious reasons people have been fed with myths galore. Those entrusted with countering this misinformation, are, however not equipped with social communication skills. People are more inclined to listen to a volunteer or social communicator from the village/locality that they look up to and trust.”
With due apologies to doctors, when they communicate they do so from a position of one having superior knowledge and can rarely come down to the level of the common person.
On Thursday the UNICEF organised a meeting where the Joint Secretary Health, Government of India, Lav Agarwal, briefed media personnel of India’s North East on Covid 19 and its implication for the region. Agarwal did not hide the reason for the interface. Government of India is worried and rightly so that while cases in the rest of India have come down, in the North East infection rates are high in most states and so too the death rates. The question is why this? Amongst other reasons for the rise in infection, which is carelessness about adopting Covid Appropriate Behavior (CAB), Agarwal also explained to media personnel the reasons for vaccine hesitancy – a topic we are well aware of and dealing with on a daily basis. Reasons for vaccine hesitancy can be attributed to WhatsApp which has become the source of all information during the lockdown when people have time on their hands.
From stories about the vaccine causing high magnetic flow to other social and religious reasons people have been fed with myths galore. Those entrusted with countering this misinformation, are, however not equipped with social communication skills. People are more inclined to listen to a volunteer or social communicator from the village/locality that they look up to and trust. With due apologies to doctors, when they communicate they do so from a position of one having superior knowledge and can rarely come down to the level of the common person. That’s also because doctors are not trained in social communication which isn’t so simple. Behavioral change requires training in behavioural science. Only then can we understand what triggers people’s mistrust of a certain government policy or government promoted action such as vaccination. Researchers will admit that people will believe what they want to believe and will argue for that belief till they are blue in the face. This is confirmation bias. There is also fear of the vaccine reaction and messages that the vaccine would cause infertility or cause death within two years.
It would have been easier to dispel myths and fears if the Dorbar Shnong – the institution closest to the people – were to take it upon themselves to convince people to be vaccinated. But this is only happening in some villages and localities and not in others. The Dorbar Shnong have always touted that they work voluntarily (trei mon sngewbha) and are not paid for their work. Yet they spend quality time from the early morning hours to announce to their residents all the notifications released by the respective Deputy Commissioner each day. They announce the locations where vaccines are to be given and also exhort people to get vaccinated. They remind residents about Covid protocols and urge them to maintain physical distancing.
The only responsibility that the Dorbar Shnong did not take up this time when the second wave hit the State was to set up institutional quarantine centres within the Shnong for those testing positive but are asymptomatic and those returning from Covid zones across the country. Every returnee should have been treated as a potential carrier of the Covid virus even if tested negative at Umling. Considering it takes about 48 hours for the RT-PCR test results to arrive, those testing Covid positive would have already spread the virus to their family members and the friends they meet. Ideally every returnee should have been told to go to a Corona Care Centre to await the results and to remain in that Centre for at least 10 days. But this did not happen because the edifice of trust and cooperation between the Dorbar Shnong and the District Administration had eroded and there was no one to repair that fracture by the time the second wave hit us. And this is the point of contention here!
In the rest of the country where the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) are in place and elections to these local bodies are regularly conducted, they are empowered to administer and manage the health centres at the grass roots level amongst other governance responsibilities assigned to them. The PRIs are also provided with adequate funding for development and administrative responsibilities. That is not the case with the Dorbar Shnong although the office bearers are also elected, albeit by voice vote. So what are the sources of revenue of the Dorbar Shnong? Other than what the residents pay for services such as water supply and garbage collection, residents don’t pay any taxes in the areas beyond the Shillong municipality. The taxes paid by residents within a Municipality go to the Government coffers and are used to sustain the Municipal boards.
The Dorbar Shnong cannot access government funds because they do not tick the boxes that the PRIs do. The PRIs are formally elected, constitutional bodies; the Dorbar Shnong do not fall under any formal constitutional framework. In the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, the roles and functions of the Dorbar Shnong are not spelt out. Hence each Dorbar is guided by its own Constitution and no two Dorbar Shnong have a similar Constitution. It is to bring uniformity in the functioning of the Dorbar Shnong that the Village Administration Bill (VAB) was framed by the District Councils. But whereas the VAB of the Jaintia Hills District Council was passed by the Governor, that of the Khasi Hills and Garo Hills District Councils are still hanging fire for reasons best known to successive Governors. This leaves the Dorbars in a limbo and poses huge governance bottlenecks.
The Dorbar Shnong being the go-to institution that people rely on for most of their needs and the only link between the Government and the people, a time has come for the Centre to grant them the same stature as PRIs. It has to be noted that the District Councils do not fulfill the role of a peoples’ institution because they have never been able to mobilize isolation/quarantine centres under respective Dorbar Shnong. The pandemic has revealed the chinks in the armour. The Dorbar Shnong must realise that they are dealing with modern problems and drop that “traditional” word before institution. The Dorbar Shnong is a governance mechanism which can work well if it coordinates with the Block Development Officer (BDO), but as an equal and not as subordinate of the BDO. The BDO’s office could be the connecting link between the Dorbars and the respective Deputy Commissioner’s office.
The fact is also that the Dorbar Shnong do not know where exactly they figure in the hierarchy of governance. On the one hand they are averse to being under the government; on the other hand they are already implementing the MNREGA scheme. The Dorbar Shnong are also not accountable to any authority. Although they derive their mandate (sanad) from the respective Syiems one has never heard the Syiem calling out a Dorbar Shnong for any act of omission and commission. It has been the judiciary that has pulled the reins on the arbitrary acts of some Dorbar Shnong. So where exactly do the Dorbar Shnong figure in this governance hierarchy because they also do not want to be part of the District Councils?
I am raising this topic because we will be facing the third Covid wave sooner than later. If we don’t have an approach to handling this wave by providing institutional quarantine centres under each Dorbar Shnong which will also create a system whereby those under quarantine are supervised, then we may have high infection rates yet again. The meals and the meal times as also the ambience have to be such that the inmates will not want to escape from and run home.
Let’s admit that the very idea of ‘home quarantine’ was a fatal flaw that cannot be repeated. Institutional quarantine which is partly payable by the inmates is the way forward. During the first wave some of the inmates at Corona Care Centres called to say that their lunch was served at 4 pm and their dinner close to midnight. These faultlines have to be addressed.
And what about the role of the MLA as one of the connecting pillars between the people, the Dorbar and the Government. Why didn’t the MLAs come forward to facilitate a system where all those vested with authority by the people sit across the table and discuss strategies to meet the pandemic exigencies. How the MLAs have dealt with pandemic will determine whether they are re-elected in 2023. So they better get busy not just providing rations and meals to their constituents but also in ensuring that the institutions of governance at all levels are better connected.

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