EVEN as the government proposes to amend the Goa Panchayati Raj Act to ensure at least a year’s term for the sarpanch, the sarpanch of Old Goa, Nilkanth Bhomkar faced a no confidence motion within 24 hours of his election. The motion was moved by a group owing allegiance to Power Minister Pandurang Madkaikar, whose wife Janita lost election to Bhomkar. Madkaikar alleges that the returning officer was hand in glove with the Bhomkar panel to get Janita-led panel defeated. In that case Madkaikar should have sought action against the official rather than moving a no confidence motion against the sarpanch. Madkaikar’s direct involvement in the affairs of the Old Goa panchayat does not augur well for grassroot democracy. Panchayat elections are not fought on party lines. Panchayats are self-governing bodies. Madkaikar’s interference suggests he wants to hold the panchayat as his family fiefdom.
It is disturbing to note that Madkaikar misused his influence as a member of the cabinet to put pressure on the panchayat director and also took up the matter with Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar. Madkaikar’s critics in the panchayat allege he tried to get the election of Nilkanth Bhomkar declared null and void. He also allegedly tried to ‘intimidate’ the officer presiding over the election of the sarpanch. Probably realizing that the Chief Minister and the panchayat director might not get their hands dirty in the Old Goa panchayat politics, Madkaikar got a no confidence motion moved against Bhomkar. In the past, there have been cases of no confidence motions against sarpanchas not being taken up for discussion and voting for months. Sometimes, the aggrieved group had to seek court intervention. The haste shown by the panchayat director in fixing the discussion on the no confidence motion in Old Goa on June 24 indicates he has done it under the pressure of the minister.
As the game of musical chair has begun in panchayats it would be appropriate for the government to put a stop to it by changing the law to provide for a fixed tenure for sarpanchas. The earlier it is done, the better it would be in the interest of the grassroots level democratic system and for the development of rural areas. Frequent changes of sarpanchas lead to changes of priorities in which the development of areas takes a beating. A fixed tenure will also eliminate the scope of ‘dwarfing’ – that is, the game played by the local MLA to prevent any sarpanch from becoming too entrenched and too popular to challenge his power and his hold over the constituency. There have been cases in which the local MLA distributes the tenure among two or more of his henchmen; one fellow has to get out in a no-confidence motion to give place to another. That is another way of not allowing any strong rival to his power from emerging in the area. Of course, in the amendments, the provision for a no confidence motion cannot be done away with. Despite the fixed tenure for a state ministry, there is a provision for no confidence motion in the Assembly. However, when the law is amended to give the sarpanchas a fixed tenure, there should also be an amendment to lay down the grounds on which a no confidence motion can be moved against a sarpanch. Such a motion should not be allowed on flimsy grounds.
The monsoon session of the Assembly will begin in the latter half of July. The government should introduce the amendments to the Panchayati Raj Act to stop the game of musical chair in the panchayats. Stability is a pre-requisite to development at the grassroots. The government can make the legislative changes even more fruitful. The panchayats have been demanding more powers. The government should give them more powers to plan for their development and people’s welfare and other affairs. The administration at the panchayats has been far from satisfactory. The weaknesses and lacunae should be removed. The appointment of a secretary for every panchayat has been an outstanding issue. While the panchayats deserve to be given more powers, the government needs to build up an apparatus to monitor the use and misuse of those powers. Sarpanchas have often been accused of demanding bribe for granting approval to businesses in their areas. This has been very common in the coastal panchayats where lots of tourism-related businesses are set up, change hands or expand every year. There should be a strong mechanism to prevent and penalize extortions for approvals and misappropriation of public funds by sarpanchas.