The Importance of Gram Sabhas

By Tomazinho Cardozo

The 73rd Constitutional Amendment has virtually converted the gram sabha of every village panchayat into a supreme decision-making body in the affairs of the development of villages.

In fact this body can check the progress in the village thoroughly, can suggest various innovative ideas for the all round growth of the village and can help the elected members in carrying further the programmes envisaged by the panchayat body for the betterment of the people. It is for this reason that the architects of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment have made the gram sabha a very powerful organ of the village development by making the decisions of the gram sabha binding on the functioning of the panchayats.

The gram sabhas, being the supreme decision-making bodies in the village administration, unfortunately are not allowed to function as per the democratic principles in many village panchayats. When the members of the gram sabha raise issues which concern the future of the village, and in most cases the issues raised by the members go against the interests of the elected members, the blind and selfish supporters of the elected members create confusion. They start making noise; they ask irrelevant questions in chorus so that the serious issue raised by the member dies in that chaotic situation. The anti-social elements having vested interest many-a-time threaten the members of the gram sabha who take the lead in questioning the elected members. If the sarpanch is politically strong, many a time the police also have played dirty by warning the members of the gram sabha and not the supporters of the sarpanch. This attitude of the elected bodies and of the law enforcing authorities has been responsible for killing the spirit of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment.

The most common complaint against many of the sarpanchas, dy sarpanchas and panchas is that they go all out to harass the villagers who have not voted for them in the previous elections. Whenever these villagers go to the panchayat office for some work, their works are intentionally delayed. Lot of illegalities take place in the villages with the blessings of the sarpanchas and panchas. The sarpanchas and others immediately take action and promptly issue notices for the illegal constructions done by their opponents, but if similar illegalities are committed by their supporters they do not act at all in spite of written complaints to that effect. These authorities mercilessly commit the murder of the existing laws by allowing illegalities committed by their supporters on one hand and threatening the demolition of the similar illegalities, if committed by their opponents, on the other hand. Such attitude has created panic in the minds of many villagers as the administration is carried on as per the whims and fancies of the elected persons not as per the rules laid down by Panchayati Raj institution. It is high time that the government takes a serious note of such situations and rectifies it immediately failing which the pseudo-dictators – sarpanchas and panchas - will administer the villages in the guise of democracy.

This undemocratic attitude of the elected members is on the increase because there is no independent authority to check these malfunctions of the elected members. The higher authorities such as the Block Development Officer at the Taluka level or the Director of Panchayats at the state level are in fact the relevant authorities to deal with such cases. But unfortunately they have proved ineffective in cases where the sarpanch is connected to influential politicians, particularly the politicians belonging to the ruling coalition. Hence many a times it becomes extremely difficult for an ordinary citizen of the village to get justice.

Foreseeing the possibility of the abuse of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, the visionaries of the Panchayati Raj, while drafting the 73rd Amendment, had made a specific provision in it, which is recorded in the Goa Panchayati Raj Act. The provision states, "The government shall constitute vigilance committees to oversee the quality of work and other activities for each gram panchayat. The terms and conditions of appointment of the members of vigilance committee shall be such as may be prescribed." The vigilance committees, if constituted, would have helped in streamlining the village administration. Unfortunately, this basic provision was immediately amended and the corresponding amended provision states, "A gram sabha may constitute one or more vigilance committees, as may be necessary to supervise panchayat works, schemes and other activities, which shall submit its report to the gram sabha in its meeting." The amended provision is no more binding and hence many gram panchayats have not constituted the vigilance committees at all.

The effective functioning of the gram panchayats needs checks and balances otherwise the 73rd Constitutional Amendment will be rendered meaningless and futile.