Thursday , 21 February 2019

Shutting Out Unpleasant Voices In Gram Sabhas

The Panchayati raj aims to devolve power to the people. However, in a circular issued last week, the state panchayat director has directed sarpanchas and panchayat secretaries not to allow discussion under ‘any other subject with the permission of chair’ during gram sabhas. Voices have been raised in panchayats that have termed the circular as an attempt to shut out people’s views. It had been an old practice to allow people participating in gram sabhas to raise local issues after the issues on the official agenda had been discussed.

According to the panchayat department, there was no provision for discussion on ‘any other subject with the permission of chair’ in gram sabhas in the rules framed under the Goa Panchayat Raj Act 1994. It is surprising that it took the government and the panchayat department 23 long years to realize that allowing discussion under any other subject was wrong. Does this mean all the resolutions adopted by the gram sabhas under the head were illegal? Will the government order undoing of all the past resolutions and decisions made regarding the issues discussed under that head?

People used to raise issues of local interest during the gram sabhas with the permission of the chair. The issues that had no permission of the chair therefore could even otherwise not be discussed. However, this is no more to be allowed. According to the new directives, those seeking to raise any issue during the gram sabhas would have to give it in writing at least three clear days before the meeting. There can be a catch here:  the matter would be taken up for discussion only if the sarpanchas and panchayat secretaries allow it to be included.

Gram sabhas are an assembly of villagers; a number of issues are raised there that the sarpanchas and panchayat secretaries may not like to discuss. Fears have been expressed that the panchayat department circular, in the name of systemizing raising of “any other subject” in the gram sabha, in practical terms gives absolute right to the sarpanchas and panchayat secretaries to decide on the agenda. They would certainly never place any issues regarding their questionable approvals on the agenda. So, no one will be able to ever raise it before the villagers. Discussion of issues of questionable approvals given by the sarpanchas during gram sabhas has helped villagers keep a check on corruption.

We have not been told by the panchayat department why they have woken up suddenly to the illegality of discussion of ‘any other subject’ after official business in gram sabhas. Could it have anything to do with the repeated raising of issues such as the expansion of coal handling at the Mormugao Port or the nationalisation of the state’s six rivers? If the idea is to filter out uncomfortable voices that would be anachronistic and unacceptable by people at large. Also voices, when suppressed, will find expression in different ways, maybe in worse ways.

The panchayat department, while striking off ‘any other subject’ and asking people to submit their issues to the panchayat three days before the gram sabha, has laid down no rules or guidelines to assure villagers that their issues would be included. The sarpanchas and panchayat secretaries can always cook up grounds for rejecting any issue that threatens a public discussion on their questionable decisions. Or they can go on excluding such issues indefinitely on the ground that “more pressing issues” came up. Most of the sarpanchas hold power by their teeth, and they can always get some of their supporters to put up a number of issues that are of profit to their political capital and image building. Their supporters’ issues could crowd out the malcontents’ issues! Panchayati raj aims to celebrate the will of the people. The sarpanchas should welcome views on issues so development takes a fair, equitable and sustainable road. With curbs on expression the very aim of the Panchayati raj would be defeated.

While the government has used the lack of provision for discussion on ‘any other subject with the permission of chair’ in gram sabhas under the Goa Panchayat Raj Act to stop it, it has a lot to answer about not implementing all the provisions of the Act according to the letter and spirit of the legislation. Among the glaring shortcomings on the part of the government is shortage in deployment of panchayat secretaries. Under Section 113 of the Act, it is necessary that all the panchayats have full-time panchayat secretaries, but they do not have them. Devolution of powers to panchayats has also remained unsatisfactory despite the law.

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