Monday, May 9, 2011

Mockery of Panchayat Raj System-I

Mockery of Panchayat Raj System-I


POLITICIANS in Goa entrench themselves only by disempowering the people. The next assembly elections in Goa would be fought on only one issue–decentralisation of power to the people. Candidates opposed to decentralisation would bite dust.
Since Goa has scored very poorly on its’ performance on Panchayati raj institutions and has expressed reservations for past 10 years to devolve the mandatory constitutional powers to these bodies, the time has come to face the reality instead of doing a half-hearted job.
Decentralisation of Power
Let us admit it–no political leader in Goa is interested in sincere devolution of powers to the people under 73rd and 74th amendments. They claim that they are all very efficient, virtuous and the gram panchayats are all corrupt and beyond reforms. Having scored so poorly on panchayat raj, the CM could call an all party meeting to recommend dissolution of all 189 village panchayats and cancellation of elections to these bodies in 2012. This could be followed by the repeal of Goa Panchayat Raj Act, 1994. Such a drastic decision would come as a big relief to all the political parties and the 40 MLAs. Anyway with more than 60 per cent Goa to be reported as urbanised in census 2011 and an unrealistic regional plan 2021 prepared under an outdated town and country planning act in the process of being imposed on Goa there would be very little interest in the gram panchayats.
On December 19, 2011, the Chief Minister could declare Goa as a–‘state free from the ‘burden’ of gram panchayats’. Would Goa and Goans deserve this? Was this the dream of our freedom fighters? If there is one state in India which could have emerged as a model in the whole country in peoples’ micro level self-governance then it is Goa because of the tradition of self-governed village communidades–the two millennia old ancient gaunkaris which the Portuguese couldn’t destroy. Despite several political upheavals, economic and material exploitation by the state, the 225 communidades of Goa had survived. The Code of Communidades, 1961 and expert commentaries by Mr Rui Gomes Pereira and Mr Olivinho Gomes bring into focus the intricate but simple structure, a variety of functions and the democratic importance of these age old shareholding institutions.
The transition from communidade system to the gram panchayats in 1963 was abrupt in Goa. The government, tied down with demands for land reforms couldn’t reconcile the interests of pre-existing communidades. On the contrary, in 80 villages having khazan paddy fields, the government introduced another statutory institution in 1975–the Agricultural Tenants Association. Collapse of coastal agrarian economy begins from this point.
MLAs as Feudal Lords
Almost every politician who ruled Goa took the name of Mahatma Gandhi, the universally praised champion of peoples’ self-governance and gram swaraj. But in reality they did everything to paralyse and neutralise the gram panchayats. They did not permit the gram panchayats to emerge as nurseries of new leaders and new leadership. There were many exceptions–a panch or sarpanch getting elected as MLA and becoming a minister. But none of the chief ministers of Goa had come from these grass roots level institutions. After the 73rd amendment, there was a scare among political parties in Goa. They were afraid to see the power equations unsettled.
A senior MGP politician had told me before discussion on the Goa Panchayat Raj Act, 1994,–‘why should we strengthen the gram panchayats? If we do that then every sarpanch would act as chief minister of the village and they would not listen to us’. Actually politics in Goa after 1999 has reached such a nadir that MLAs consider their constituencies as their own ‘zones of political and social influence’ and try to do everything to suppress any challenge to their political base. Like the feudal lords of yesteryears they see to it that they have ‘control’ over the gram panchayats in their area at any cost. MLAs from all political parties shamelessly campaign and participate in village panchayat elections. The political parties also claim victories of ‘their’ candidates during panchayat elections.
Resorting to RTI
For past 10 years I appealed the government to translate the Goa Panchayat Raj Act and the rules in Konkani and Marathi and make the copies available to all 1328 elected members and interested villagers at a very nominal cost. “There would be problems,” the government said and the officers nodded.
The official report 2007-08 on Goa by the Government of India’s Ministry of Panchayat Raj makes some disturbing observations–’The Goa Panchayati Raj rules also makes it clear that any member of the Gram Sabha shall have the right to obtain the information relating to any developmental work undertaken by the panchayat as well as certified copies of the proceedings of the meeting of the panchayat and gram sabha. This provision is observed more in its breach than in its adherence. There are occurrences where the members of the gram sabha have to resort to Right to Information to get information from the gram sabha. The sarpanch and village secretaries refuse information to the members and sometimes use force to evict them from the meetings as well as panchayat building premises. It is absurd to take resort to law to get information from the gram sabha, by the members.
All the village panchayats secretaries have been appointed as the Public Information Officers (PIOs) under the Right to Information Act, 2005, for their respective village panchayats. Also the block development officers have been appointed as PIOs for their respective blocks. The village secretaries are seen more as partners of the panchayat members than as servants of the public. There are even cases where secretaries provide false information to the gram sabha.
The state government should feel ashamed of these comments. The average size of an assembly constituency in Goa is 25, 000. Swing of a few votes make difference between victory or defeat so MLAs are not prepared to dilute their political base. The village area covers 90 per cent of the state and has 189 gram panchayats representing a million villagers. The most populous panchayat is Taleigao in Tiswadi taluka in North Goa district with a population of 18,000. The least populous panchayat is Mencurem-Dhumase in Bicholim taluka with a population of 1330. The average area of a panchayat is 18.45 sq km Nagargao is the biggest panchayat with an area of 93.97 sq km located in Sattari taluka of North Goa district. Chicolna is the smallest panchayat with an area of 1.89 sq. km. located in Mormugao taluka of South Goa district. The average population of a panchayat in Goa as per 2001 census is 5107.

Next article would discuss the significance of Government of India report

(to be continued).

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