Panchayat Raj: Government Faces Litmus Test9 June 2011
Srinagar: Coalition Government in Jammu and Kashmir is facing a litmus test with regard to ongoing Panchayat elections in the state, primarily in the backdrop of reports that certain influential quarters in the political executive are hampering devolution of powers to the newly elected rural local bodies. According to sources, cutting across the political divide, legislators have started lobbying against any devolution of powers to the Panchayats fearing “erosion of authority and political marginalisation.” A couple of Panchs and Sarpanchs, who spoke to Greater Kashmir, said they are keeping their fingers crossed over the Panchayat Raj. “As on date, we just stand elected. But in the days to come, we shall come to know how much the state government will empower us. Mere holding of elections is no certificate for effective governance delivery at the grassroots level. It has to be ensured with the real devolution of powers,” said the Panchs, wishing anonymity. “People have braved odds to elect us. We just cannot afford to disappoint them, especially when we have promised them sky. The government must seriously ensure empowerment of Panchayats to alleviate the sufferings of people. There is a sharp focus of almost everyone-particularly the elected Panchs, Sarpanchs and the voters-on the coalition government which has been continuously beating the drum of “empowering Panchayats at the grassroots level for effective governance delivery.” The spotlight on the Panchayats is also in the backdrop of hype that New Delhi and the state government created over these polls, with the United Progressive Alliance chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, going to the extent of describing them as a “fitting reply to militants.” Otherwise the entire exercise is going to be a big embarrassment for New Delhi and J&K Government.” According to political observers, decentralization of powers is a must if people are to be involved in a democratic set-up. “Decentralization of powers has taken place in many states where Panchayat elections have been held. J&K has to take effective and time-bound measures to ensure devolution of funds and functions to Panchayats. A Panch should not mean a person who can be easily beaten by a civil servant as has been the case recently,” said a political analyst, wishing anonymity. The observers believe that passing of the 73rd Amendment Act of 1992 with regard to Panchayat Raj must be considered in letter and spirit. “There are some of extremely important provisions in this Act which, if implemented in letter and spirit, would ensure strengthening of institutions at the grassroots level, but unfortunately there has not been much progress on this front,” the political analyst asserted. “This is notwithstanding demands of restoration of autonomy in the state. Empowering Panchayats could be the first step towards ensuring greater autonomy.” It is understood that the 73rd amendment contains provisions of Gram Sabha which may exercise such powers and perform such functions at the village level as the legislature of a state may provide by law. The amendment also provides for reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and has a provision for reservation of seats for women belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. The state has also to constitute the State Finance Commission for devolution of funds to Panchayats and periodic review of their financial position. A number of online news portals suggest how states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Tripura, Orissa, UP and West Bengal have placed many departmental functionaries with the Panchayats. A web portal says the Government of Madhya Pradesh has transferred 18 departments wherein administrative control of class III and IV employees has been vested with the Panchayats. “The Government of Kerala has transferred Agriculture, Health, Veterinary and Primary Education departments to the Panchayats,” it says. ‘FEAR OF THE UNSEEN’ The Panchayat polls in J&K have also led to a peculiar problem wherein a majority of legislators are understood to be feeling that the Panchs and Sarpanchs might marginalize them. But a former legislator calls the perception as the “fear of the unseen.” “There is a clear-cut distinction between the roles of legislators and that of Panchs and Sarpanchs. So none should feel threatened by the powers that they have,” the legislator, wishing anonymity, told Greater Kashmir. He said the legislators seem to be threatened “because of the monopoly they happen to enjoy in their respective localities.” “If there is a threat factor, it is completely illogical. In Kashmir, the legislators have been enjoying a considerable degree of monopoly in their constituencies wherein almost everything is done with their permission, including award of construction contracts and appointments. Since this monopoly is unwarranted, the legislators might be raising this bogey of threat,” the legislator said. “However, it needs to be understood that once this monopoly is over, it would mean real empowerment of people which is the essence of Panchayat Raj. Here the Chief Minister in particular and coalition members in general are facing the real litmus test. They have to ensure that this empowerment takes place rather then acknowledging the bogus threat factor.” CONSIDERING AMENDMENTS: SOZ The Pradesh Congress Committee Chief, Prof Saif-ud-Din Soz, says in the days to come, they have to make people aware of Panchayat system and guide the Panchs and Sarpanchs on their responsibilities. “The Panchs and Sarpanchs will be important instruments in ensuring effective developmental process on ground. We shall have to empower them in the backdrop of 73rd and 74th amendments to Panchayat Raj which ensure their empowerment and make them more powerful.” Soz said all the provisions of 73rd amendment are meant for empowering Panchayats and making them more democratic. “An MLA represents wide constituency and his authority will not be eroded by a Panch or Sarpanch. The Panchs and Sarpanchs will help in the development process,” he said. He said the 74th amendment is for Municipal Committee, which shall come into force at a later stage. “We are yet to incorporate 73rd amendments. In the coalition government it was appreciated that some provisions are very good and will be adopted. And in that direction some steps were taken,” he told Greater Kashmir. He said a cabinet sub-committee had been constituted to see how best the amendments can be incorporated. “They have made some recommendations which shall be implemented. I don’t think there is any conflict between the coalition partners on implementing the provisions, few if not all. But the discussion between the two is very much needed,” he said.