ELECTIONS to the 190 village panchayats in the state are expected next month. The process of delimitation of wards of panchayats has started and is likely to be concluded in a few weeks. The process for delimitation should have started at least six months before the elections, giving the authorities enough time to follow a proper process and invite objections or suggestions from the public so as to rule out the possibility of malafide intentions. Unfortunately the authorities did not take a decision on the issue for unknown reasons, giving scope for allegations of transgression in the electoral process. Quickly though, the authorities might have to address some objections raised to the delimitation process on the ground that there are no uniform principles or pattern followed in it. Panchayat elections often generate one controversy or the other, thanks to ad-hoc processes adopted over the years by the authorities – be it for delimitation or reservation of wards. The functioning of the panchayats too is often mired in controversy. There is little check on the arbitrariness of the sarpanch. There is no close monitoring to ensure the panchayats function within rules and norms. One of the reasons is that the political leaders often protect and patronise and sometimes share the loot with the sarpanchas. Providing corruption-free governance at the grassroot level is only limited to rhetoric.
Besides, the focus of the panchayats has not been on planned and sustainable development. Despite the knowledge of prevalence of illegalities and failure to deliver good governance at the panchayat level the state authorities have done little to curb the rot. An amendment to the Panchayati Raj Act to bring in transparency and accountability has been pending for nearly a decade. As a result, panchayats have over the years turned into institutions of corruption, where ‘services’ and sarpanch’s signatures are sold for a price. Sarpanchas are rarely caught by the anti-corruption agencies of the state for accepting bribe. They are rarely proceeded against for corruption, even though several of them misuse their powers to indulge in extortion. With corruption and arbitrariness of sarpanchas and other panchas going unchecked, the functioning of panchayats must be made transparent and accountability fixed on them with the compulsion for delivery of time-bound services.
As there are accusations that the party in power misuses powers vested in it with regard to the delimitation and reservation of wards the delimitation and reservation of wards should be handled by a state election commission (SEC), an independent body, free from direct government control. In most states of the country, an SEC is charged with the duties of delimitation and reservation of wards together with the conduct of elections. Goa is among states in which powers for delimitation and reservation of wards are vested in the director of panchayat or municipal administration. It would be in the interest of fair play and transparency to vest the entire electoral process of panchayats (and municipal councils) in an SEC.
The panchayats have been seeking devolution of more powers and funds as envisaged in the 73rd amendment to the Constitution. The government needs to grant them more powers and funds so that they could plan and develop the areas within their jurisdiction according to local needs and local conditions. However, while giving them more powers and funds the state also has to fix the accountability of the sarpanchas so they function within the set parameters and discharge their duties honestly, efficiently and transparently.
Strangely while the government wants to conduct panchayat (and municipal) elections on a non-party basis politicians try every trick to ensure that panchayats remain under their control. Panchayat elections, though not fought on party basis, help political parties build their grassroot support and also help them gauge their strengths and weaknesses. It is a common knowledge that most of the candidates at the panchayat level have patronage of political leaders. Panchayats have over the years become a stepping stone for men and women pursuing a political career. There is a tough competition therefore among the younger political aspirants in panchayat elections. The government should end these proxy games and hold elections on a party basis, which would also be a referendum to the ongoing policies and programmes of the ruling party or coalition. In view of the panchayats becoming breeding grounds for corruption, it might help if the sarpanchas and panchas belong to a political party. Whatever good or bad the sarpanchas would do would reflect on the political party. If there are charges of corruption against a sarpanch, the state party leadership could ask him or her to step down pending inquiry. Today sarpanchas behave like autocrats with no one to check them.