Over six lakh voters cast their votes on Sunday to elect their new representatives in 186 village panchayats. The voter turnout of 80.33 per cent was as good as the previous one in 2012 (80.31 per cent). The high voter turnout, despite rains and agricultural season, shows villagers’ stake in electing panchas of their choice. In contrast, the election officials were found lax. In some cases, they were accused of ‘helping’ particular candidates. In a major goof-up, the secretary of Rachol village panchayat was posted on election duty in the same panchayat, which is against the norms. The State Election Commission’s arrangements were found wanting in many respects. They failed to deploy lady police personnel at the polling stations, despite the fact that female voters were more in number than male voters. The absence of lady police personnel was acutely felt in the Manora-Raia panchayat where two women came to blows over the issue of jumping queue and the male policemen deployed there had to remain silent spectators.
Despite the fact that elections were being held in the rainy season, the number of pandals to protect voters from rain were too inadequate. The decision of the electoral authorities to combine the voting in two wards in Salcete resulted in the voting process being delayed, while voters in two wards of the Bethoda panchayat were made to travel around seven kilometres to cast their votes due to inter-changing of their polling booths. Despite the mistake being brought to the notice of the returning officer, nothing was done on the plea that a written complaint was not lodged by the people who noticed the discrepancy. A polling booth in Loutolim was not easily accessible, especially for senior citizens, as one had to climb two dozen steps to reach it. Voters who turned out to cast their votes at a polling station at Rumdamol Davorlim went back without casting their vote after waiting in the queue for hours as the polling process was too slow. Absence of wheel chairs at polling stations forced people to bodily take physically challenged people, who had turned out to vote, into the polling booth. These troubles to voters could have been avoided by the election authorities by taking proactive measures and studying ground situation.
That much is at stake in the panchayat elections could be gauged from the fact that three people were caught distributing money for ‘buying’ votes in the Usgao village panchayat. There were also complaints of polling officials ‘directing’ voters to cast their votes in favour of particular candidates. There were also complaints of polling officials using the wrong process in folding of ballot papers, which indicated that the polling officials were not trained properly. Or if they were properly trained, did they deliberately engage in the wrong process? There were issues raised by some voters that the secrecy of vote was compromised as the serial numbers were printed on the ballot papers as well as counterfoils. The presence of the serial number on the ballot papers could enable the vested interests to find out who a particular person has voted for in connivance with the electoral officers who could leak out the serial numbers.
Now that elections have been conducted all eyes are on the results. Panchayat elections, though not fought on party lines, would indicate whether the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition has been able to consolidate its position or not. The new panchayats would be formed by next week. The government has to act fast and ensure the new panchayats have their tasks clear cut and function within the set parameters. The failure of the government to amend the Goa Panchayati Raj Act for decades to enforce accountability and transparent functioning has led to panchayat members resorting to all sorts of illegalities and corrupt practices. The earlier the act is amended, the better it would be in the interest of common people who are made to pay for even basic services at times by unscrupulous politicians at the grassroots level. Given the fact that there was huge uproar over the delimitation and reservation of wards in panchayats, the government should make amendments to the act to hand over the powers to the State Election Commission. Panchayats have become infamous for corruption, where clearances and approvals are not given by the sarpanchas without quid pro quo. There needs to be a strong, special mechanism to take cognizance of corruption cases in panchayats, so that people could use the evidence of audio or video recordings of bribe demand by corrupt sarpanchas and officials or just file complaints against them for criminal prosecution.