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For Better Panchayats

Govt must improve panchayats, not appropriate their powers

Following objections from several quarters, the state government has withdrawn the January 7 circular which made it mandatory for village panchayat secretaries to route all applications for construction licences and occupancy certificates for buildings with more than four dwellings and more than 200 metres of commercial spaces to the respective block development officers for necessary approvals from higher officials.

There was immediate backlash from the panchayats following the issue of the circular as it sought to take away the powers vested in them. The government claimed that it had no intention to take away the powers of village panchayats, but the plea was hardly convincing as the circular directed impacted the autonomy and jurisdictional authority of the panchayats, making it inferior to the offices of block administration. The government’s defence that they had to do so in accordance with the directives of the High Court and the National Green Tribunal on collection and disposal of solid waste in the panchayat areas did not hold much credence. Rather than making the process for obtaining construction licences and occupancy certificate simpler, the government had, by issuing the circular on January 7, sought to make it more complex as the applications received by the panchayats were to be sent not only to the block development officers but also to the directorate of panchayat and finally to the government before the final approval was accorded.  The claim of the government that it did not want to put extra pressure on local self-governing bodies was untenable. Panchayat Minister Mauvin Godinho, who announced the withdrawal of the circular, said the withdrawal was being made to give the panchayats a second chance to set up the required infrastructure for solid waste management in their areas. Most panchayats are in financial distress and hence unable to set up the infrastructure for scientific disposal of solid waste. It is not enough for the Panchayat Minister to say that the government has given the panchayats a second chance to establish the infrastructure for scientific disposal of solid waste. He must help the panchayats overcome financial and administrative difficulties in order to achieve the goal.  The government policy is to empower local bodies with devolution of powers and finances. The government had gone against the spirit of its own policy by appropriating the powers of issuing construction licences and occupancy certificates. Panchayati raj institutions have been created to distribute and decentralize the powers of governance, so that ministers at the apex are not able to favour any sector or segment in a quid pro quo deal.

The issue of creating the necessary infrastructure for scientific disposal of solid waste should be treated as a standalone issue. The government must equip the panchayats with all that they require in order to reach the goal. When the government itself is struggling to set up waste disposal facilities for years how does it expect the rural local bodies to set up such facilities speedily and that too with little funds at their disposal? With the “not in my backyard” attitude prevalent in the state, a waste management facility cannot easily find a site. The government should help the panchayats in identifying sites and financially supporting the construction of the facilities. Though the government has withdrawn the January 7 circular, it has left room for reissuing it saying the withdrawal was for the time being. The government must remain wary of not trampling upon the authority of the Panchayati Raj institutions. These institutions may have their weaknesses and faults, but such weaknesses exist even in the state ministry and administration. The Panchayati Raj institutions cannot be bypassed merely on the grounds of their weaknesses and constraints, such as delay in action and corruption. What is needed is to address the weaknesses and constraints, rather than taking away the authority of the institutions. If the thinking behind the circular was to bypass the panchayats because they were not quick in decision making or were ridden with corrupt practices, the government should have addressed these problems. Since the government did not address these problems in the panchayats and instead took away their powers of granting construction licences and occupancy certificates, it created room for suspicion whether the same problems were not afflicting the panchayat department.

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