Not being kept in loop: Odisha’s sarpanches on CM’s power decentralisation move

Several sarpanches who were given powers of district collectors alleged their administrative or financial roles were not spelt out clearly 

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Thursday 14 May 2020

The sarpanches of Odisha’s gram panchayats, who were given the powers of district collectors by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to bolster fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, have found themselves in a fix.

Many of them alleged that their administrative or financial roles were not spelt out clearly and that they were not being kept in loop regarding several decisions.

Patnaik, in a video message on April 19 2019, had said:

Extraordinary situations demanded extraordinary solutions. Empowering gram panchayats and urban local bodies will track and monitor migrant workers returning from other states in large numbers.

Odisha was the first Indian state to make such an announcement. While the move was hailed as extraordinary, sarpanches alleged they are unsure about what they can or cannot do.

Subsequent government circulars have discouraged them from work, they claimed, making the “CM’s announcement about decentralising power redundant”.  

The sarpanches were empowered under Section 51 of Disaster Management Act, 2005 and Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. It was aimed to help manage quarantine centres meant for returning migrant workers.

Such provisions are also listed under Section 44 (1) of Odisha Gram Panchayat Act, 1964, following the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act. It allows the gram panchayat, within the limit of its funds to undertake, control, administer and be responsible for “preventing and checking the spread of epidemic or infectious and other dangerous diseases”.

However, several orders issued by authorities in the last fortnight have reportedly undermined the CM’s decision.

For example, a circular dated May 11 issued by the state Panchayati Raj and drinking water secretary Deoranjan Kumar Singh to all collectors and project directors of district rural development agencies said: “Sub-collector, district level officers and block development officers will monitor the quality of food, proper cleaning, light arrangement and overall smooth functioning of the TMCs (temporary medical centres).”

While copies of the circular were marked to private secretary to the special relief commissioner; all block development officers/ district panchayat officers; and all branch officers of the panchayati raj and drinking water department, sarpanches were kept out of loop.

Orders by some district collectors were found to be on similar lines. Angul district collector Manoj Kumar Mohanty’s order regarding restriction of movement near TMCs / quarantine centres was reportedly issued without consulting any sarpanch.

Tribhuban Panda, sarpanch of Dundelmal gram panchayat in Kalahandi, wanted to renovate toilets in a school that was turned into a quarantine centre before migrants’ arrival.

When he called the local hardware store owner to procure the material, the latter said he would do so if the junior engineer of the block asked him to.

“It is another matter that the store owner supplied the material after I made the junior engineer make a call to him. But any self-respecting sarpanch would think twice before taking an independent decision,” Panda said.

Several sarpanches claimed administration officials had been doing all monetary transactions — from purchase of groceries for quarantine centres to material for construction works. When something goes wrong, people blame sarpanches, they claimed.

Requesting anonymity, a sarpanch in Ganjam district claimed he received “frantic and abusive calls” from people in the night blaming him for low-quality food at a quarantine centre, even though he had no role to play.     

“Forget about our powers. The district- and block-level officers ignore us though we are the ones who truly know our men,” he said.

The Panchayati Raj and drinking water department had issued an order on February 17, restricting sarpanches from making any expenditure without permission of the block development officer.

Manas Ranjan Mishra, convenor of Bhubaneswar-based Citizens’ Action Group, said the orders issued government departments were in conflict with the CM’s announcement for greater decentralisation.  

“The rights and power of sarpanches in COVID-19 containment and management of quarantine centres in their respective gram panchayats must be spelt out clearly. All communications relating to the same must be duly copied to them to avoid any confusion or misinterpretation,” Mishra said.

He added that every gram panchayat should be provided with financial allocation based on the number of migrant workers registered and expected to return.

“Adequate funds must be ensured for capital and running costs. At every point, a gram panchayat must have adequate financial reserves for the next two weeks,” he said.

At least 14,647 TMCs / quarantine centres have been set up in 6,798 gram panchayats to accommodate migrant workers returning from other states. Following the CM’s announcement to bring back migrant workers stranded in other states, a total of 76,234 workers reached the state as of May 12.

The state recorded 611 cases positive to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 as on May 14, 2020. Ganjam district 252 cases, the highest in the state.  

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