Goa disbands panchayats

By Mayabhushan Nagvenkar
Published: Wednesday 30 September 2009

A RECENT decision of the Goa government to amend the Panchayat Raj Act, 1993, has been opposed by civil society groups. The Goa Panchayat Raj (Amendment) Bill 2009 empowers the panchayat secretary, a governmentappointed official, to bypass the elected sarpanch and members of the gram sabha while executing government orders. This contravenes the very purpose of the law meant to devolve power to the people, said the groups who demanded the bill be withdrawn.

The bill, recommended by a committee headed by minister for Panchayati Raj, Babu Azgaonkar, was passed during the monsoon session of the legislative assembly. Opposition parties who are against the amendment had staged a walkout.

"There are instances when the state government helped companies acquire village land for real estate projects cloaked under public purpose clause. The amendment bill will push such projects through without any opposition from the panchayat or the gram sabha," said Sabina Martins of non-profit Goa Bachao Abhiyaan (GBA). Soter d'Souza, director of the Centre for Panchayati Raj, a non-profit, called the amendment unconstitutional. The government does not want to devolve power; the amendment will allow government officers to execute orders through the panchayat secretary, which may not be in the interest of villagers, said d'Souza. Oscar Rebello, another member of GBA, said, "We'll fight to ensure the power of the gram sabha is not diluted."

The minister, however, claimed the proposed amendment would ensure development is not held to ransom. "In many cases people with genuine grievances are suffering because of enmity with panchayat members. This is where the amendment would be helpful," Azgaonkar said. Civil society groups and villagers' unions have already formed a pressure group, All Goa Panchayat Forum, to force the government to withdraw the bill. "The government cannot play with the powers of important local governance bodies like panchayats," said Joseph Sequeira, sarpanch of Calangute panchayat.

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