YOU MIGHT HAVE missed it because it got very little space in the media. National dailies with editions in Chandigarh bung the news on the inside pages of their city supplements.
Forty 'jamhoori jathebandis' — it is interesting how ragtag bunches describe themselves — brought a few thousand farmers, labourers, employees and trade unionists on September 13 to Chandigarh, and then held a rally with a deferential respect for police barriers and water cannons on standby.
Ostensibly, these were intellectuals, civil liberties activists and student leaders sharing a platform to protest the arrest of civil society leaders, but in reality, their fulminations were targeted at a range of issues — from Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi to black money to demonetisation to state of the farmers to contract system of recruitment.
A serious engagement with elections to village local bodies has been missing from our politics and media.
Not one of the leaders, while addressing thousands of people who had trudged long distance from various corners of Punjab, made a reference to the Panchayat Samiti and Zila Parishad elections scheduled for September 19.
It is a little more than puzzling as to why an election in which 1.27 crore people are supposed to step out and vote in a few hours, is ignored to this extent by those who claim themselves to be the real voice of the people? Of course, Punjab's Panchayat Samiti and Zila Parishad elections have made news only for some low scale violence, skirmishes and inability of political parties to find candidates.
A serious engagement with these elections to bodies considered the bulwark of democracy has been missing from our politics, media, editorial understanding and the smorgasbord of issues that pro-people voices are currently engaging with.
Panchayat elections in distant West Bengal had made more news in Punjab newspapers than the September 19 elections here itself. The date for election of sarpanches and panches was not announced because of delay in the reservation process, but there has been little political commentary on that either.
Editorial comment and understanding has been sorely missing about the situation emerging as a result of the new rules framed by the state government, as per which Punjab will now have district-wise reservation of sarpanches than the previous practice of block-wise reservation.
Apparently, the Punjab Reservation of Offices and Sarpanches of Gram Panchayats and Chairman and Vice-Chairmen of Panchayat Samitis and Zila Parishads Rules, 1994, were amended to make the rotation process of sarpanches in conformity with Section 12(4) of the Panchayati Raj Act, 1994.
Few are actually aware of the role of these Panchayat Samitis and Zila Parishads. Ask any of the farmer leaders about the role assigned to a Panchayat Samiti by the Panchayati Raj Act, 1994.
Whatever headlines the Panchayat Samiti and Zila Parishad elections have gathered so far have been because of scuffles and attempts to prevent opponents from even filing their papers. Most of the "unopposed victories" have been on account of murder of grassroots democracy, as genuine cases of consensual election have been rare.
This ennui among the political leadership as well as farmer unions, employee leaders, trade unions and progressive sections of society could be ascribed to the unfortunate trend of political parties muscle flexing their way through local elections, but there is another more serious and disturbing reason.
Few are actually aware of the role of these Panchayat Samitis and Zila Parishads, and their failure to enthuse their cadre and the electorate is largely because they have little understanding of the domain that these bodies straddle.
A simple reading of the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 can shock even the most complacent. Enumerating the "Functions and duties of Panchayat Samiti" under Clause 119, the Act says "it shall be the duty of a Panchayat Samiti to provide for and make arrangements for carrying out the requirements of the area under its jurisdiction, in respect of the following matters:
Multiplication and distribution of improved seeds; distribution of fertilizers; popularization of improved techniques and improved implements; achieving self-sufficiency in green manure; encouraging fruit and vegetable cultivation;
reclamation of land and swamps and conservation of soil; providing credit for agricultural purposes; propagating and assisting in plant protection methods; tree planting; growing of village forests;
land improvement and soil conversation; construction and maintenance or minor irrigation works; implementation of community and individual irrigation works; planning and implementation of poverty alleviation programmes and schemes;
maintenance of veterinary and animal husbandry services; improvement of breed of cattle, poultry and other livestock;
implementation of housing Schemes and distribution of house sites in villages; establishment, repairs and maintenance of rural water supply schemes; prevention and control of water pollution; construction and maintenance of public roads;
construction, repair and maintenance of primary school buildings; regulation of fairs and festivals including cattle fairs; promotion of health and family welfare programme; promotion of school health and nutrition programmes; monitoring the old age and widow’s pensions and pensions for the handicapped; regulation of offensive and dangerous trades and practice; distribution of essential commodities; and establishment, maintenance and promotion of libraries.
Shorn of all jargon, the Act clearly mandates that the Panchayat Samiti will regulate the way we live and breathe and die. And yet there is little enthusiasm among civil society activists about this third tier of democracy. This is a situation that suits the rulers the most, incumbent or any potential rulers of tomorrow.
It must be clear that this list is not exhaustive and does not represent even half of the specified duties and responsibilities entrusted to Panchayat Samiti. Also, that going beyond this list, the Act also has provision that the "State Government may entrust, conditionally or unconditionally to a Panchayat Samiti, functions in relation to any matter, to which the executive authority of the State Government extends or in respect of functions which have been entrusted to the State Government by the Central Government and the Panchayat Samiti, shall be bound to perform such functions."
Shorn of all jargon and legalese, the Act clearly mandates that the panchayat samiti will regulate the way we live and breathe and die. And yet there is little enthusiasm among politicians or civil society activists about this third tier of democracy, the one that is closest to the people.
This is a situation that suits the rulers the most, as well as any potential rulers of tomorrow. So, an Amarinder Singh is happy with it, as is a Sukhbir Singh Badal. If the Aam Aadmi Party is also not raising a ruckus about it, it is more because of a lack of understanding about the power of the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India.
Any move to empower the people in a real sense has to begin from the basic unit of the Panchayati Raj System, which is the Gram Sabha, and not the panchayat. The Gram Sabha means the collective of the eligible voters of any village. This Gram Sabha is the body endowed with the maximum power under the Panchyati Raj system.
But since any politician will find it difficult to force such a collective to toe his or her line, they prefer not to stress the need for an active Gram Sabha. As a result, the Gram Sabha is the most ignored cog in the system, and one without which the system fails.
Punjab's farmer unions and the many shades of Left could have paid more attention to the inherent power of the Panchayati Raj system and could have worked towards strengthening the institution of Gram Sabha but they have been found missing in the field. It is not always because of any mala fide approach, but could be ascribed either to a lack of understanding about the working of the Gram Sabha or on account of their approach to democracy.
It must be noted that the Gram Sabha is not an elected body, and yet, it is the most democratic of the institutions in independent India. People elect panches, sarpanches. They elect MLAs, MPs. No one elects Gram Sabha. People are the Gram Sabha when they sit together. What can be more representative of all the people than all the people representing themselves?
Any awareness about the importance of panchayats, panchayat samiti, zila parishad is predicated on how well run is the institution of Gram Sabha. If newspapers in Punjab have not sent out dozens of reporters in the field even hours before 1.27 crore people are expected to step out and vote to elect representatives in elections seen as the foundation of democracy, then those fighting on behalf of the rural population need to look inwards.
The elections will happen, in any case, by hook or by crook. Panchayat Samitis and Zila Parishads will be constituted. The elections to Panchayats will also follow very soon. But we would have defeated the very purpose of the Panchayati Raj System.
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