Meaningful action, not an electoral game expected of state government
AN organized statewide opposition from shopkeepers in municipal markets compelled the government to put the Goa Municipalities (amendment) Ordinance, 2020 in abeyance. The shopkeepers had raised serious objections since the ordinance was promulgated by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari on December 20, 2020. The opposition continued to build up. With no remedial action coming from the government, the traders announced closure of shops on January 7 which has been deferred pending negotiations. The assurance to defer implementation of the ordinance was made by Chief Minister Pramod Sawant to a delegation of traders under the banner of All Goa Merchants’ Federation that called on him demanding that it be withdrawn. Another body of traders, All Goa Merchants Association United Forum, has sought a meeting with Sawant to discuss the ordinance and sort out the issues. The shopkeepers, who operate leased shops in municipal markets, feel that some of the provisions in the ordinance were detrimental to their interests and would drive them out of business.
There are indeed provisions in the ordinance that make the shopkeepers feel insecure, such as the one relating to inheritance. There is a legitimate grievance about very high rates of transfer. The government must hear the contention of the traders and bring about changes to make them feel more secure. If the government goes ahead with the existing provisions, they could be subverted with violations. It is true that the municipal bodies, starved of funds due to prevalent old rates and non-payment of rent by a large number of traders, have been finding it difficult to carry out development. However, the state government must not lose sight of the reality that while municipal bodies must get due rent from shops, care has to be taken that Goans do not lose out to outside bidders in the auction of the shops as envisaged. The municipal bodies must get higher and uninterrupted flow of revenue. The government has to fix responsibility on all and ensure that there was timely action against violations, so that corruption on the part of the officials the municipal bodies and rent evasion and other violations on the part of shopkeepers are curbed.
Why did the government promulgate an ordinance to make changes to the laws governing shops belonging to municipalities? What was the hurry? Was there any emergency to help the municipal councils increase their revenue and end illegalities like sub-letting that have been going on for decades? As the law was to affect the traders the government should have taken their views into consideration before making it. It has become routine for the government to come up with laws and policies without adopting a consultative process and then keep them on hold following protests. Surprisingly, the government decided to put the ordinance on hold after a single meeting with a traders’ body that was dismissed by another traders’ body representing the majority as a defunct entity. Now that there are going to be negotiations, the government should strike a balance between the interests of the municipal bodies and the traders concerned.
Is the government really serious in helping the civic bodies raise revenue and end Illegalities in leasing, sub-letting, rent realization and fixation or was it trying to use the issue for political gains? Why did the government promulgate the ordinance to amend the Goa Municipalities Act when elections to 12 municipal bodies were due? The whole affair of promulgation and putting on hold of the ordinance smacks of politicking. The BJP has won a majority in the Zilla Parishad elections and plans to lead in the municipal elections too. There is some plausibility in the view that the government showed eagerness in keeping the ordinance on the hold to send out a message to the shopkeepers and their dependants that a vote in favour of the BJP would lead to withdrawal of the ordinance or a substantial dilution of its stringent provisions. The ordinance is like a Damocles’ sword hanging over the traders operating in municipal markets. If the government wants to prove it is not using the ordinance for political ends, it should show it by promulgating an amended ordinance before municipal polls.