Panchayati Raj’s relevance questioned as govt forms committee for rural development schemes

On 15th May, the state government issued a notification stating that a committee for rural areas to select the beneficiaries for rural schemes, including Sikkim Garib Awas Yojna had been formed, effectively pushing the Panchayati Raj to the edge. The notification read: “In view of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and its extension and due to […] The post Panchayati Raj’s relevance questioned as govt forms committee for rural development schemes appeared first on The Sikkim Chronicle - Sikkim News.

Panchayati Raj’s relevance questioned as govt forms committee for rural development schemes

On 15th May, the state government issued a notification stating that a committee for rural areas to select the beneficiaries for rural schemes, including Sikkim Garib Awas Yojna had been formed, effectively pushing the Panchayati Raj to the edge.

The notification read:

“In view of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and its extension and due to the guidelines issued on social distancing, there is no possibility of conducting Gram Sabhas to select beneficiaries pertaining to various rural development schemes”.

The reason for this was chalked up to the impossibility of conducting a Gram Sabha due to the current medical crisis, and the committee would consist of Block Development Officers (BDOs) as Chairman, members of all the Gram Panchayats, Assistant Engineer (AE) of the respective blocks.

Except, the notification failed to mention that the Panchayats around the state haven’t been laid back in their approach to the pandemic. Various initiatives like rural awareness drives, cross border monitoring of people, distribution of relief materials etc., were undertaken by the various village administrations in place. They identified stranded labourers and below-poverty-line families, to provide for and protect them against the deadly threat of the coronavirus.

Since the issuance of the notification, several individuals began voicing their concerns about this decision, including Nawin Kiran Pradhan, Vice Convener of the Sikkim Subject Committee and Ganesh Rai, Vice President of the Sikkim Democratic Front, where the latter urged panchayats to boycott the meeting of this new committee to protect the spirit of 73rd Amendment.

In Sikkim, Panchayats have held a certain amount of respect since most of the state falls under the rural category. The most notable is the Dzumsa, which is a traditional village administration or local governance that has been around in the Northern part of Sikkim for many years prior to Sikkim’s merger and whose Heads are recognized as Zilla Panchayat Members of the Territorial Constituencies under Sikkim Panchayat act, 1993.

The confidence boost from people highlighting their issue resulted in many writing letters to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking the Central Government to address the issue and repeal the notification.

Panchayati Raj
Letters to the PMO

They’re using the pretext of CoVID 19 to suppress the Panchayati Raj System in Sikkim: Passang Sherpa

The most vocal, although, in some Panchayat members’ opinion was Passang Sherpa, a political and social activist, who held a press conference on June 1st to address this issue and highlight the plight of the Panchayats.

Passang Sherpa explains that this problem is not a new one, and it reportedly started after the formation of the new government in Sikkim. “The rights of salary disbursement for teachers and other workers were with Gram Panchayat but it now has been shifted to the BDO. Certain rights, like passing some tenders, have also been transferred. The Panchayat has been sidelined even in relief distribution despite panchayat being the representatives of people. Now, almost all of the village administration has been taken over by the bureaucracy.”

To him and to many, by the looks of the decisions being made by the government against the constitutional rights of the Panchayats, seems as if they are to wipe out the whole Panchayati Raj System in Sikkim.

“It is the Panchayat that knows who is hungry, whose kitchens do not have ration and who is the poorest of the poor in the particular village.”

He believes that instead of empowering the village administration more during the COVID-19 crisis, by directing funds to them, the government instead directed each BDO to ask their respective wards to donate INR 50000 for the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. The process, however one looks at it, is rather counterproductive.

He states that the Panchayats are not happy. “They feel that this is against Article 243 and 73rd Amendment of the Constitution. In the context of India, the foundation of Indian democracy lies in local self-governance; the stronger they are, the more vibrant democracy at a national level will be. That was the entire point of the 73rd Amendment.”

Under the Eleventh Schedule, added by the Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992, s. 4 (w.e.f. 24-4-1993), there are 29 subjects that come within the purview of the Panchayat. These are:

  1. Agriculture, including agricultural extension.
  2. Land improvement, implementation of land reforms, land consolidation and soil conservation.
  3. Minor irrigation, water management and watershed development.
  4. Animal husbandry, dairying and poultry.
  5. Fisheries.
  6. Social forestry and farm forestry.
  7. Minor forest produce.
  8. Small scale industries, including food processing industries.
  9. Khadi, village and cottage industries.
  10. Rural housing.
  11. Drinking water.
  12. Fuel and fodder.
  13. Roads, culverts, bridges, ferries, waterways and other means of communication.
  14. Rural electrification, including distribution of electricity.
  15. Non-conventional energy sources.
  16. Poverty alleviation programme.
  17. Education, including primary and secondary schools.
  18. Technical training and vocational education.
  19. Adult and non-formal education.
  20. Libraries.
  21. Cultural activities.
  22. Markets and fairs.
  23. Health and sanitation, including hospitals, primary health centres and dispensaries.
  24. Family welfare.
  25. Women and child development.
  26. Social welfare, including the welfare of the handicapped and mentally retarded.
  27. The welfare of the weaker sections, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
  28. Public distribution system.
  29. Maintenance of community assets.]

The government has mentioned that this transfer of powers is for an interim period, but Sherpa asks – “If it was for a provisional period, why has the disbursement of salary and other rights been redirected to BDO? They’re using the pretext of CoVID 19 to suppress the Panchayati Raj System in Sikkim”.

Now the question remains, was the former government any better? “Not exactly, says Sherpa. “Even during the SDF regime, the panchayats were subjected to political pressure. They compelled panchayats to work in favour of the ruling party instead of people, as panchayats fought elections on party tickets. The system of the party-based panchayat was introduced by SDF.”

He said that he had welcomed the decision of the SKM government to abolish the party based panchayat system by bringing an amendment in the last assembly session.

But unfortunately, the independence that Panchayats enjoyed, devoid of a political party was short-lived.

On his announcement to form an independent team to prepare a separate socio-economic report, he said that the state government denied permission.

“We understood their intention. They might be fearing that their anti-people agenda will be exposed if we go on the ground. If we look at inter-district closure of traffic, it is so that we can’t reach the public but we are still preparing the report and reaching out to people by other means of communication.” The only change now is that there will be no meeting with all the party heads for the formation of a committee to distribute work.

Every student interested in politics or history must always remember that the Panchayat system is in place for a reason. Except it is quite strange that their problems rarely ever find the surface of big debates in Sikkim. Sherpa agrees that not just media, but even political parties and intellectuals are Gangtok-centric.

“This is why we wanted to go to the remotest of places and get their views. We must realise that while we formulate any programs and policies for the future of Sikkim, we must keep the poorest of poor Sikkimese in mind and see if that policy envision a better life for him. Only then it will be a just policy.”

Choden Bhutia, President of the 20th Chujachen constituency, agrees that the state government’s decisions have affected the Panchayati Raj.  “We are given 29 subjects, a President is in place for every Gram Sabha but after the 15th May notification, we were surprised.

When a primary school in our ward had problems, they used to come to us and we’d solve them. We did not speak before but now they are taking away the rights to select beneficiaries by the Gram Sabha using COVID-19 as an excuse. If we don’t speak up now, tomorrow and the Panchayati Raj after ours will never exist”.

To take this matter further, Bhutia has sent a letter to the Governor of Sikkim, Ganga Prasad:

Shri Ganga Prasad
His Excellency
The Governor of Sikkim

Subject: Concern over the degrading state of Local Self Government in the state

Your Excellency,

We the representatives of Local Self Governments (Rural & Urban) would like to bring to your kind attention about some decisions of the government which we find as an attempt to weaken the local self-government in the state.

As you are very much aware that Sikkim has been performing outstandingly in the country in the devolution index of the country and has secured up to 2nd position in the country next only to Kerala. With the advent of a new era after 25 years of SDF government, we were expecting that the present government under Shri P.S. Golay’s leadership would act more efficiently to strengthen the local self-government thereby empowering the people at the grassroots. However, on the contrary, and to our greatest surprise, the present government has taken numerous decisions within a year which we find are directed towards weakening the local self-government in the state. We would like to enumerate some of them hereunder:

1. As per Sikkim Panchayat Act, 1993 and the subsequent notification of the government bearing Notification No. 3/RMDD/P dated 24.04.2006, the “Overall responsibility and functioning of Primary Schools and Lower Primary Schools except appointment and transfer of teachers is the responsibility of Panchayats.” Accordingly, the earlier government had transferred the responsibility of the disbursement of salary of the teachers to Panchayats but this govt withdrew this decision and gave it to the BDO.

2. Decentralisation will be incomplete if the 3Fs viz. function, functionaries and fund are not transferred to the Panchayats. The government, in a Cabinet Meeting, held on 8th May 2020 has taken the decision to reduce the funds granted by the 5th State Finance Commission by 10% which is yet another attempt to weaken the local self-government.

3. Sikkim has had the tradition of holding Local Self Government Sammelan (Panchayat Sammelan) once a year and best performing Panchayats/Councillors were encouraged by the government by recognising their hard work and dedication. The discontinuation this year of this practice of empowering local self-government is another glaring example of the attempt to weaken the local self-government

4.  A Notification by the government bearing notification No. 620/RMDD dated 12.02.2007 has clearly mentioned that the BDO will act only as a facilitator but the recent notification of the government vide No. 03/RDD dated 15.05.2020 to constitute beneficiaries selection committee under the chairmanship of BDO and Panchayats as members and Sr. VAA/VAA/Jr. VAA/Sachiva In-charge as member secretary is another attempt to derail the local self-government and bring it under the control of bureaucracy.

Therefore, we being the elected representatives constituted under 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Act request you to kindly direct the government to withdraw the notification of dated 15/5/2020 and ensure that such decisions are not taken in future by the government to weaken the local self-government in the state.

She stresses on the fact that the Panchayat members have gotten their training and know all the Acts (pertaining to village administration). “We are the village’s government. To provide solutions to the villagers, we keep data of everything necessary. Every year, during the Gram Sabha we know who the poorest of the poor are, who needs aid for housing and what needs to be developed. Most of the BDOs are new, and even if they aren’t, they will not know every single GPU and its problems.”

The members of the various panchayats who have written to the Prime Minister are worried that all their powers will be transferred to BDOs and other officers. Bhutia retains this anxiousness by asking “If they take all these powers, what remains the value of a Panchayat?”

Tsewang Phurba Sherpa, Gram Panchayat of Lingchom, North Sikkim who explained that earlier, before the formation of the new Government, tickets to Panchayats were given through a party-based system: some tickets were given by the SDF Party while some, by independent candidates. 

While he himself was contested and elected as an independent candidate, with the SKM Party forming the new government, various committees like the Block Level Committee (BLC) were set up, only as per the 73rd Amendment Act and the 74th Amendment Act in the Indian Constitution all schemes from the State Government and the central Government, due to Panchyatats being the village government, have to keep them in mind while introducing such schemes, but with the formation of the new government, duties for schemes like the above were distributed from the MLA level only.

In such an event, it will be likely that the Area MLA will distribute duties and benefits to village leaders and the ones who had supported him and the party earlier bringing about favouritism.

“While I do feel that the Government’s notification was unfair since the Panchayat is an elected representative of the public mandate, the Government may have an ego with the Panchayats who were elected through tickets from the SDF Party, but independent candidates like me, are also suffering. 

When we were elected, we had many plans and ideas that could aid in bettering our constituencies, but when such incidents happen we also become discouraged. Is the role of the Panchayat only of making documents and tribal certificates? This has made many Panchayats like me feel valueless,” says Sherpa.

“In Sikkim as well, the climate is of favouritism and nepotism, and with the Panchayats doing their duty aid and benefits would be provided for people who are in genuine need of it. However, in my constituency Kabi-Lungchok, MLA Karma Loday Bhutia has been supportive and has even now given the due importance to Panchayats with relief distribution and selection of beneficiaries despite their support of SDF or SKM Parties,” he added.

There has been no development or update from the State Government since their notification of May 15, Sikkim Chronicle repeatedly contacted the RMDD Secretary to get an official statement from the Department so that such feelings of discouragement among others cleared up, but there has been no response. Additionally, neither has the PMO or the Governor’s office replied to the letters of these Panchayat leaders.

One might argue why this topic is brought up at all, what with the pandemic keeping governments busy but it is important to think of the long term effects of every administrative move. For example, in the recent issue of the crossing of borders by 5 people has people suspecting misused power and loopholes for the bureaucracy.

Similarly, an issue that stems from one of the core facets of governance as a whole that isn’t being addressed by any higher authority makes one wonder – do administrative and governmental bodies find it easy to dismiss the Panchayati Raj? Or do they really not care about village level problems?

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