Local Governance Lessons from the Lockdown

In her delightfully insightful column, our Executive Editor explores what helps us adopt appropriate practices in a crisis and build relevant self-governance methods

It was probably the third day of the lockdown. Our household was still getting used to life amidst the coronavirus pandemic. After my father had prepared breakfast and my mum had mopped the house, it was left to me to do the dishes and clean the kitchen. I was happy to do this. After about two hours of scrubbing the grease from utensils, cleaning the kitchen counters, collecting the trash and organising the appliances, I retreated to my room.

“Can you believe Aisha didi does this multiple times every day?!” I exclaimed to my sister. All the times that someone had pointed out a dirty spot on an otherwise clean plate or had nonchalantly increased her workload for the day came to my mind. I wanted to thank her and hug her and apologise to her all at the same time. But with no energy or strength left, I just slumped into my bed and began to read.

While the physical tiredness had drained me, mentally, I felt more alert. I had just spent a significant amount of time washing a tray with many nooks and crannies that clearly had not been paid any attention to in a while. As I scrubbed the filth off it, I felt a strange connection with my house. Here was a tray that had served an important role in the process of preparing our meals every day, and yet, we had completely ignored it. As an object of significant utility in our home, it had been thoroughly cleaned for the first time in what seemed like a long while. I felt accomplished and proud to have been the agent to do that, and got a certain kick from the whole process.

The transition into the lockdown life hasn’t been easy, of course. The first few days were a struggle. Struck by the anxiety of getting enough supplies and being able to get all the chores done properly, we had a few tense deliberations. We were scrambling to hit the right balance in order to achieve optimal efficiency. So, we prepared lists, timetables, house rules and tried to equitably distribute tasks and responsibilities. We didn’t know who would be best suited for which task; who would be able to take more responsibilities; and most importantly, who would be better able to handle the days to come. I spoke to some friends who said they had prepared plans to avoid fights as well. Being a family of five, we too had to set some ground rules in order to avoid such an eventuality.

What has been interesting to observe, however, is that while all our timetables, rules and lists of responsibilities have come undone, a natural rhythm has emerged. Despite having rules on paper, what we really need in this moment has been realised through practice. And an almost seamless adoption of it has been done by the household, without needing much deliberation. A certain degree of organisation and self-governance has allowed us to come as close to a sense of normalcy (and peace) as we can right now. This obviously has been enhanced by our privilege – the fact that we have a house to live in, food to eat, and loved ones for support.

As I go through this experience of understanding household governance, I cannot but help think about the way this situation is being governed in the country. With migrant labourers walking hundreds of kilometres just to get home and daily wage earners who have to queue up either for food, or the dismally managed transportation system, important questions of how prepared we are to handle such situations have emerged.

In this context, many local bodies and the civil society have played an important part. Not just in India, but the world over – mayors in Italy have been using drones to survey the public spaces and have also gone viral for shouting at their citizens to stay at home; civil society volunteers in Wuhan have reportedly knocked on every door in the city to check if the residents are alright and need any medical assistance. Even in India, we are seeing Resident Welfare Organisations taking charge to ensure that nobody steps out of their house, while also facilitating the provision of basic needs such a fruits and vegetable as easily and systematically as possible.

The pandemic scene has presented an important and much-needed opportunity to draw out lessons on community living and local governance – something that Gandhiji had envisioned as the basis of our political system after independence.

This idea has been dissected, celebrated, appropriated, and rejected by various scientists and thinkers across different phases of history. The debate around common property resource management gained traction in the development circles in the 1960s, as awareness about depleting non-renewable resources spread worldwide. The early discussions largely rejected community-management as a viable strategy, quoting the problem of the free-rider – that in a joint-welfare project, where a person cannot be excluded from the benefits, people would rather free-ride than participate in the project or follow the rules. Around the 1980s and 1990s, however, the idea of community-based development started gaining traction, with researchers pointing to the social, historical, political, and other reasons for the success or failures of different community-led projects. The general consensus was that a detailed and nuanced understanding of the context of each local was crucial to plan policies around common property resources and their management.

For instance, while some localities had people bursting crackers or celebrating the lockdown like a carnival, others have also been able to create their own governance strategies to deal with this period and appropriately assess their needs and activities.

What has enabled the second set of actors to adopt the appropriate practices and build relevant governance systems for themselves? While a detailed and nuanced answer would require a deeper study in the post-coronavirus world, there are some key factors that seem to emerge from our immediate experience, that can help understand the success behind certain governance practices.   

The first is ownership/stake: How much the result of an activity matters to you influences your motivation to participate in it.

In the case of the current coronavirus pandemic, of course, this begins with the right information and awareness of your surroundings. Those who believe that the vibrations from banging utensils together would kill the virus will naturally want to perform as diligently as possible. On the other hand, at a time of physical distancing, any opportunity for social connection would not only be grabbed with both hands, but also dancing feet and the paraphernalia of a celebration. When most believe that the supreme leader would take care of everything, why should they deprive themselves of a little fun? They are, after all following the rules every other day.

In a study published in 2005, political scientist Arun Agarwal wrote about a village he had visited in Kumaon, which had not been very interested in conservation schemes because of the abundance of forests around them. After about a decade, when he visited again, he found that many villagers had been made responsible for the forests under the government’s forest protection programmes, as a result of which, they developed an amicability towards the ideas of resource preservation and began to ardently propagate it.

From my own experience of the last few days, I too have observed the influence, direct impact and responsibility have. At first, we had tried to divide activities based on the strengths and availability of the family members, but we found that eventually everyone took on chores that they felt most affected by. For instance, my parents took on the responsibility to cook, given my father’s foodie and borderline gluttonous nature, and my mother’s love for baking. My sister and I, on the other hand, decided to ensure that the house was clean and tidy, given her allergies to dust, and mine to untidy spaces. With the natural emergence of this system, all of us developed an internal drive to ensure that the work gets done, and done well.

The second factor I noticed emerging was freedom/confidence: Whether or not we have space to experiment and build our own practice determines how likely we are to sustain an activity.

Novelty is not uncommon for individuals to seek. On top of that, when you are engaged in a certain activity, the lessons you gather over time eventually want to find a channel to be tested and implemented. How far a system allows you to move around, experiment with new ideas, and implement them decides how long it can sustain your participation. 

Two villages in the southern parts of India, for instance, shared a community-managed irrigation system. The upper catchment had poor quality of soil, and was therefore given more importance historically. David Mosse, a development practitioner and social anthropologist, went to study this system and found that over time, the upper catchment had in fact become much more sophisticated than the one at the tail-end, and had also turned into a symbol for the articulation of hierarchical relations between the two villages – especially since the upper catchment was occupied by upper caste residents. 

What had started as a system to ensure equality had ended up generating further discrimination. While a good system would have allowed the participants to react to the change in circumstance, and take corrective measures, the rigid model had become blind to the changing context, and instead turned counter-productive.

Systems are often not the ones to blame in these circumstances. What is required is for the participants to remain constantly engaged with their own circumstances, so they can appropriately respond and realign.

At home, we have already discovered new micro-systems for organising and managing the house, outside of the regular chores. With keen and direct participation, we are able to experiment with new ways of doing things – whether it is the order in which we arrange our books or utensils, or learning to bake our own bread (which has the added benefit of having the aroma of freshly baked treats engulf your house). The freedom to experiment and the freedom to evolve has allowed more pleasure to be gained from these activities, which keep us at them.

The third, which follows directly from the previous aspect, is reward/feedback: Whether or not your actions and efforts are adding value to the collective quest will determine their continuance.

This is where the question of the individual vs the society – the free rider – comes back.

Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, writes about internal contracts in her book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Using the example of Alanya, a city in Turkey, she describes the need for internal contracts between actual users of a resource. With a limited area for fishing, the fishermen in Alanya only had a few spots where the best catch was available. The fishermen were able to ensure the availability of these spots to all through a rotation system, where at regular intervals, spots would be reallocated to different fishermen. Anytime a fisherman failed to follow this system, the social contracts held with other members of the community acted as a coercive force to correct the defaulter’s actions.

The community itself was able to correct their own behaviours, which was taken in stride as there was a certain reward to giving up some freedoms. The fact that hours of cleaning, cooking, organising and managing the house allows us to live near-normal a life makes all the efforts worth it. In fact it even enhances the rewards, sometimes.

My father truly relishes what we cook these days: “Isn’t this food much tastier than what we regularly have?” he claims at almost every meal. Sure, there is some level of self-praise there, but we have certainly been having some memorable meals these days. They are mostly simple preparations – lentil soups and vegetable curries – with slightly fancier versions sometimes – homemade pizzas or salads. But we all participate in its preparation in some way or the other, and once it is ready, sit down and eat it together – unlike regular days, when we all run on different schedules. We also laugh more, when we sit together. Maybe it’s the exhaustion/exhilaration of accomplishing chores together, or maybe it is the lowering of expectation, since our house is all we have these days. My sister was almost apologetic one day for laughing at the most ridiculous things. “This lockdown has really lowered my sense of humour,” she remarked, laughing at one of dad’s ‘dad’ jokes. But we have certainly learnt to appreciate and understand one another better, and that appreciation has resulted in a better managed household in these Covid-19 times.

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