Refurbishing the Act

Panchayati Raj Act has to undergo redoing. Hindsight shows that controversy of sorts dogged it from the very beginning. While NC leadership managed to see the Act through in the legislature without two significant amendments, called 73rd and 74th amendments, coalition partner the Congress vigorously baited for the Act inclusive of the amendments. With each passing day, controversy deepened and postures hardened. The PCC chief Soz and Union Health Minister Azad, both strongly defended their complimentary position that the Act was toothless as long as it remained divested of the two important amendments. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah argued that in exercise of the provisions of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, the State enjoyed the privilege of proposing amendments to the Act according to its needs and practicability. Finally, in the course of Congress convention in Srinagar early this month in which Congress (I) General Secretary Rahul Gandhi strongly defended incorporation of the two amendments, stakeholders realized that a compromise formula had to be forged to break the stalemate. The ten- member joint committee of NC and Congress deliberated on the issue and finally made its recommendations of a formula, and submitted the same to the Chief Minister for consideration and necessary action.
On the behest of the Government, the State Chief Election Commission notified elections to the 143 seats of Chairmen of Block Development Councils, 77 for Kashmir and 66 for Jammu, for 7 November 2012. This was to be the second tier of implementation of Panchayati Raj Act; the third and the final would be election of members to Urban-Rural Development Boards.
Now that the emergency meeting of the State Cabinet has accepted the recommendations of the Joint Committee, the lengthy constitutional process has begun. The cabinet cannot either postpone or withhold notified election to BDCs, therefore, the only way out is to bring in an ordinance because the assembly will not meet before February/March 2013. The ordinance will suggest amendment to the Panchayati Raj Act, which obviously means that the recommendations of the Joint Committee as approved by the Cabinet become the terms of reference. The ordinance must receive endorsement of the Legislative Assembly within six months, which is likely to happen by February or March 2013.
Although minute details of the agreed formula are not available yet in all probability, focus is on much hyped issue of reservations for SCs, STs and Women. The existing Panchayati Raj Act has no provision for reservations for any category. The NC has not been in favour of reservations and wanted all eligible candidates to fight election to all the 143 seats of Block Development Councils. On the other hand, Congress has been strongly in favour of reserving blocks according to population composition. According to sources, the Government would determine percentage of reservation for SCs, STs and women before going in for amendment in the State Panchayati Raj Act. While the women expect to get 33 per cent reservation accounting for 47 blocks, the SCs would get 8 per cent reservation (11 blocks). The reservation for STs would be determined as per their population based on latest census figures. Sources said nearly 50 per cent blocks could be reserved for SCs, STs and women. At the same time, there was a provision for reservation to SC and ST women from the quota of 33 per cent reservation for women.
Amendment 73rd and 74th to the Union Panchayati Raj Act had kept in mind that deprived segments of society should be empowered. The State Government is not against this important consideration and wants that all sections of society provided with equitable justice. However, some commentators are disposed to attribute political considerations playing a role in the process. For example, some groups of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes do not hide their political propensity. Since Panchayat elections are not supposed to be political elections, the apprehension is that political parties would find stakes in these groups and then try to influence them. It will defeat the spirit of Panchayati Raj. We hope that the new formula have been framed in a manner that these and other concerns of stakeholders have been taken into cognizance. Elections to BDCs and RUDBs have already met with delay; more delay will be there with the issuance of the ordinance. Nevertheless, herein lays the strength of democracy. It is heartening that at the end of the day, good sense prevailed. Coalition partners eschewed hard-line postures and found a solution to the controversial issue. Better late than never is the axiom that will bring consolation. We are strengthening Panchayati Raj Act and the delay is to be taken in constructive meaning. Let not militants think the Government jitters. They are still to understand what the power of people means.

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