Panchayat Raj in the Indian subcontinent is as old as any other system of local self-Government in the world. The respectable elders would gather and settle disputes of the village community. Mahatma Gandhi laid a lot of stress on introducingPanchayati Raj system during the freedom struggle. Pt. Nehru laid the foundation of giving it a practical shape in the form of Community Development Programme and National Extension Service in the fifties to fulfil Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of Village Swaraj. Rajiv Gandhi also laid a lot of stress on the improvement of working ofPanchayati Raj institutions when it was noticed that only 15 paise out of one rupee were reaching the poor.
In our State pioneering efforts in the field of rural development were made ahead of many other states. Maharaja Hari Singh in conjunction with many other reforms he had initiated,enacted the Village Panchayat Regulations as early as 1935. Later Village Panchayat Act came in force in 1958. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed strengthened the institution of BDO. It even threatened the pre-eminence of well-entrenched Tehsildar at the lower level of administrative hierarchy. Bakshi also created magnificent infrastructure at the Block level. Block office buildings, made on a uniform pattern became a hub of various activities concerning rural development. These unique buildings stand apart even today, some sixty years later.
A new Panchayati Raj Act was framed in 1989 which is a modern and progressive piece of legislation. It envisages a three tier local-self-governance at Panchayat, Block and District levels. For this purpose constitution of Panchayats, Block Development Councils and District Planning and Development Boards have been proposed. The election of Sarpanch has to take place through secret ballot by allthe electors of Panchayat. The election of Panches has also to take place through secret ballot as against through raising of hands by the electorate. The annual action plans have to be formulated in the village assembly called HalqaMajlis.Streamlining the working of PanchayatiAdaaltshas also been stressed. There are some defects also in this Act. Thus the Chairman of the District Board has been prescribed to be nominated by the Government grossly undermining the more judicious way of election.
The enforcement of this law on the ground has been very tardy. The unfavourable security situation is avery valid reason for this sluggishness but we were not also proactive inthe implementation of the Act. We framed the rules under this Act in 1996, after seven long years of its enactment. Then the election at the Panchayat level were held in the year 2001-02 and there too we stopped at the process at Sarpanch level without noticing that the vacancies in Block Dev. Council and District Board were looking at us with eager eyes to fill them up. Then we woke up in 2011 and held another round of elections to the Panchayats but the Block level and district level entities still were kept waiting for their fulfilment.
The elections are again due now and the Government has come up with an amendment in the Act whereby election of the Sarpanch is proposed to be held by indirect method i.e.Sarpanch would be elected by the Panches and not by the voters of the Panchayat directly through secret ballot. The Legislature passed this amendment in both the Houses and sent it to the Governor for his assent. However, according to reports in the press, the Governor has returned the bill seeking some clarifications. Earlier the two main opposition parties had opposed the amendment but when their point of view was not accepted, they staged a walkout. The Government has stated that the Panchayats were not functioning smoothly as the Sarpanch and the Panches are elected independent of each other and they generally remained at loggerheads. Under the circumstansces they were not able to take any decision. This affected adversely the functioning of Panchayats and consequently the development in the rural areas has come to a standstill. Once the Sarpanches are elected by the Panches, there would be a lot of synergy in the Panchayat body and this will facilitate in the smooth functioning of the Panchayats. There is a lot of truth in the assertion of Government. It is a fact that many Panchayats are afflicted with avoidable controversies but the problem has not been analysed in its entirety. Instead of finding administrative and managerial solutions to the problem, the very fundamentals of judicious process of election of Sarpanches, in which the whole body of electorate is involved, has been targeted. We are again reverting back to the old and less representative mode of electing Sarpanches. In my opinion, the independent election of Panches and Sarpanchs is not the only cause of inefficient functioning of Panchayats. There is a plethora of other reasons which are afflicting the system. Some of them are quite minor and are in the form of the parochial caste and group affiliations, the political divisions in the villages, vested interests of some Panches/Sarpanchs in taking up a specific work, disputes over allotment of work, standing on false prestige, ego clashes etc. So it is too simplistic to ascribe one reason for the ill-functioning of Panchayats.
The Government should study the problem in its entirety. Employees of the Rural Department, both supervisory and field workers can play a key role in remedying the whole set of malady and they need to be activated. They should be directed to involve themselves fully in the functioning of Panchayats. They should ensure that elected representative are made aware of the fact that they are performing a sacred duty and should ensure justice to all irrespective of caste, creed or colour. Due process of law should be enforced in allotment of works, in identification of beneficiaries of different programmes/schemes and preference given to disadvantaged and deprived sections of society by the Panchayats in a transparent manner. The meetings of Village Assembly are convened more frequently and maximum decisions taken therein. Unfortunately the Government created a large number of administrative units in the Rural Department and Revenue Department some time back without providing a matching infrastructure, staff and other facilities for these units. Consequently the VLW has to look after the work of a number of Panchayats and he cannot fully involve himself thereby adversely affecting the smooth running of Panchayats. The field functionaries of other departments like Revenue, Social Welfare, Agriculture and Health etc. should also be actively associated in day to day working of Panchayats to oil their machinery. The political interference in the functioning of Panchayatsbe avoided.
The other justification being given in the Government quarters in favour of this amendment is that the elections to the higher echelons of Government are also indirect and there is no anomaly if the election of a Sarpanch is also conducted indirectly. It is a fact that in the British model of democracy the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister is elected indirectly by the MPs and MLAs respectively and the electorate have no direct role in their election. But while superimposing this model for the election toSarpanches we should not lose sight of the fact that havoc was created by MLAs in the change of Governments in the last quarter of nineteenth century. A stringent law to deal with the defections and split of Legislature parties has come into being but the Legislators could not still be restrained to play the game of Aaya Rams and Gaya Rams. The loyalty to parties has become so fragile that the Congress party is reportedly asking its intending candidates to file affidavits of loyalty before they are given mandate in the coming Punjab Assembly elections. There is lot of possibility of this nefarious game at the Panchayat level. On the one hand, the Panches have no political affiliations as Panchayat elections are generally fought on non-party basis and role of issuing whips is altogether obliterated. Secondly there is no law to deal with defections at this level. Even if we enact a law in this regard still its enforcement will not be practicable. Then the number of Panches in a Panchayat is 6, 8 or 10 and election of a Sarpanch would be with a thin margin. In the absence of any checks and controls over Panches, the change in support wouldoften be frequent. Consequently,frequent no confidences and removals of Sarpanches are likely to take place. Horse trading would be order of the day. In the circumstances, disorder may be created in the whole Panchayati Raj apparatus. Hence the Government should, in all its graciousness drop the amendment which envisages the change in procedure of election of Sarpanch. The present provision of electing the Sarpanch by the whole body of electorate is not only more representative but also helps to produce better quality of leadership for Panchayats.
(The author is a former civil servant)