Some lessons from the DDC elections

B D Sharma
The recent DDC elections in our UT were conducted in a very orderly manner in spite of the prevailing law and order situation, the pandemic and the early onset of winter. The authorities have every reason to be satisfied in making this operation a success. Since these elections have been conducted for the first time in the UT so it must have left the Government, the UT Election Commission and the political parties with a lot of experience as also in noticing some shortcomings. The concerned quarters must have taken note of them and would certainly be taking remedial measures in due course of time. Some feedback from the common citizen can always be useful and should also be encouraged as it can provide some fodder to the authorities to chew upon and ponder over.
The initial preparation for these elections had been made by the Chief Electoral Officer in his capacity as Election Authority. It was, however heartening when the UT was blessed with an independent Election Commission/Authority before the elections and in also having a very senior officer in charge of this position. The Government has rightly established this independent institution because the elections to the local bodies are going to play a very vital role to strengthen our grassroot democracy.
During these elections the UT Commission seemed to be much dependent on the staff of CEO but in future all the human resources and the infrastructural facilities should be made independently available to this Commission to transform it into an effective instrument. In case of the organization of Chief Electoral Officer, fifty percent of the funds are made available by the Govt of India. But in the case of this Commission, whole of the expenditure for all the purposes, has to be borne by the UT Government. The State/UT Governments usually remain under financial constraints, so problems can be encountered in toning up the UT Commission. But it will be in the interest of free and fair elections of the local bodies that every effort must be made to make available all the funds/facilities to it for its efficient discharge of duties.
Though no reports of large scale rigging during the recent elections had been reported yet instances of violations of the model code of conduct, like taking part in canvassing in favour of a few candidates by some Govt employees, taking up of development works by some officers to facilitate few candidates’ election here and there and resorting to corrupt practices by some other candidates did pour in. Some political leaders did also complained that they were obstructed to visit certain areas for canvassing.
The Election Commission of India has worked out an elaborate mechanism for the enforcement of model code of conduct for the elections conducted by them. Our nascent Election Authority, however, does not have the same elaborate mechanism, so it needs to be provided with some statutory teeth so that it is in a position to check the malpractices and also ensure level playing field to all the players.
The formation and the structure of the DDC leave much to be desired. Every district has been provided with fourteen constituencies irrespective of the extent of rural area and the size of population therein. Consequently a district has some constituencies with only one Panchayat Halqa and about two thousand voters each. Some of the other districts, on the other hand have constituencies with more than thirty Panchayat Halqas and with more than thirty thousand voters each. This has created a very anomalous situation. A sense of providing equity might be in consideration while taking this decision of providing equal number of seats for each district. But it is beyond comprehension as to how providing equal number of DDC members to each district, irrespective of its size and population, would bring equity and justice. The basic requirement for delivering justice and equity to each district is the grant of adequate developmental funds, the provision and ratio of which is made on the basis of the size of population, the extent of area, the topographical features and the backwardness etc. of the district.
So it will be in the fitness of things if for the future elections, different districts are delineated into seven to seventeen segments depending upon the size of rural population and the area of the district. Thus, the districts with small rural area/population like Srinagar, may get seven constituencies and the larger districts like Jammu and Baramulla may get more say, seventeen segments. This will reduce the present state of anomaly. Secondly the cardinal principle of having odd instead of even number of members in a body where the head has to be elected by these members, shall also come into operation. This will facilitate smooth election of the Chairpersons and Vice Chairpersons.
Suggestions have also emanated from some quarters that the Chairperson and the Vice Chairperson of the DDC should either be directly elected by the people (voters) or by casting of votes by an electoral college consisting of all the Panches, Sarpanches and the Chairpersons of the Block Dev Councils of the district. A lot of merit is found in the latter option. Firstly , the jurisdiction of a DDC member and that of the Chairperson of the BDC is found overlapping. Both of them shall have their own priorities and there will be a lot of conflicts and pulling and pushing by both of them. This will cause a lot of hindrance in prioritizing and execution of works. Consequently, the pace of development will be effected adversely. Secondly, the DDC is a natural extension of the Panchayats and the Block Dev Councils in the three tier structure. The DDC therefore should derive its power and authority out of the Panchayats and BDCs only. In the same vein, the activities of the Panchayats and the Block Development Councils in the coming days, are not going to be confined to the construction of lanes and drains only under Rural Dev Deptt. The Panchayats and BDCs are going to be part and parcel of the DDC and will be active players in the holistic development of the district. They will also be acting as eyes and ears of the District Development Councils on the ground. So it will be in the fitness of things if the Chairperson of DDC grows out of the soil of Panchayats and BDCs.
Thirdly and logistically, the elections of Panches, Sarpanches and the members of the DDC shall have to be conducted at the same time in future. In such a situation the illiterate and simpleton rural voter would be provided with three different ballot papers at the same time. The voter will experience difficulty in locating the symbols of his preferred candidates in the three ballot papers placed in his hand. Each voter shall thus take a lot of time to mark and cast his vote and the pace of polling will thereby be abysmally slow hindering declaration of results of election of the Panches and Sarpanches on the day of poll. In addition, in the state of confusion and quandary, the voter is likely to commit a mistake and cast his vote in favour of a candidate not of his choice. In this way, the sanctity and purity of the elections could also get compromised. So in my opinion, it will be more appropriate if the Chairperson and Vice Chairperson are elected by the electoral college consisting of Panches, Sarpanches and the Chairmen BDCs of the district. In the process, the evil of defection and cross voting shall also be minimal because the temptation for the same is more probable in the case of limited number of fourteen members of DDC holding the key and the critical number of them being independent and free birds.
The recent amendments of the Panchayati Raj Act has rightly done away with the nomination of the Chairperson of the DDC or District Planning and Development Board as it was then known. Now the Chairperson and the Vice Chairperson of the DDC will be elected by its fourteen members. However in the process the District Body has been divided into two entities , namely the DDC and the District Planning Committee. The DDC will have an elected Chairperson but the Planning Committee shall have a nominated Chairman in the form of Member of Parliament in whose Constituency the district falls. Many people have raised eyebrows over this development. On the one hand the undemocratic method of nominating a cabinet minister as Chairperson has been done away with but on the other hand another undemocratic tool has been employed to pave the way for nominating the MP as Chairman of the one-half of the split District Body.
Since the process of planning and development is an integral organic whole so it is appropriate if it is handled by a single body at the district level. Secondly, there can be the possibility of the two Chairpersons being not always on the best of terms. In addition, it will be very difficult to delineate and define the areas of responsibility of the two bodies so the directions emanating from the two Chairpersons can often be contradictory. This will have a bearing on the pace of development in the district. Government may think of adopting the Karnataka model where the Chairperson of the DDC acts as Chairperson of the District Planning Committee also. A relook on this whole gamut of issues needs to be carried out in order to make this institution an effective instrument of carrying out smooth and brisk development at the district level.
The new setup is likely to assume the responsibilities soon. Since fresh mode of governance is being introduced so all the stakeholders should play their roles to make it a success. The Government seems to be keen to take all the measures as it has made lot of efforts in introducing this system. In the ultimate analysis, the Government and the political parties need to be commended for the successful conduct of these elections. It is indeed a great leap forward from the days when the direct elections used to be held for the Panches only and that too by way of the primitive method of raising of hands in the village assembly. A lot of strides have since been made in making Panchayati Raj institutions strong and vibrant and it is hoped that they will play a pivotal role in the development of all the areas of the UT as also in ameliorating the condition of the common man.