Bitter fight between election commission and state government ends; questions over bureaucratic interference in Panchayat matters remain
The West Bengal state election commission is set to notify the panchayat polls. Polling will take place in three phases on July 2, 6 and 9. This move follows months of bickering between the state election commission (SEC) and the state government on the number of phases to hold elections and whether to deploy Central paramilitary forces.
It all started when the state government unilaterally notified the dates of polling in two phases in March this year without consulting SEC as required in the West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act. Based on its perception of political animosity and possibility of large-scale violence, SEC wanted the polls to be held in three phases and with a tight security of 800 companies of Central armed police forces. With the Mamata Banerjee led government unrelenting, SEC moved Calcutta High Court on April 1. A single bench upheld SEC's position; on an appeal by the state government, a division bench diluted the requirement for Central forces in its judgement dated May 14—it asked the state to arrange for armed police for only “sensitive” booths.
In the ensuing drama that unfolded over two months, something crucial was forgotten. Over the past two years, the panchayati raj institutions (PRI) in the state saw a steady erosion in their power and authority. The government through an order in November 2011 set up bureaucratic committees to monitor panchayat activities.
“Unlike the left front, Trinamool Congress (TMC) has little control over its party machinery down to the village level. The ruling government therefore trusts the block development officers more than panchayat pradhans who have become subservient to the lower bureaucracy,” says Debraj Bhattacharya, project co-ordinator at the Institute of Social Sciences in Kolkata, a research organisation working on participatory democracy. The institute has been documenting panchayat best practices in several Indian states. In districts where ruling TMC has control and discipline, as in East Midnapore, the ruling party's functionaries are vocal about bureaucratic interference, he adds.
The other reason is CPI(M)-led Left Front controlled 13 of the 17 zilla parishads (district councils). After the ruling Trinamool Congress won the state assembly elections in 2011, in districts like West Mindnapore the Left controlled panchayat office bearers ran away fearing retaliation and block development officers (BDOs) took over completely.
“Beneficiary lists for 44 development programmes, like Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) and public distribution system (PDS), are now routinely prepared by the BDOs with the help of local TMC leaders,” alleges Om Prakash Mishra, professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata and general secretary of the state Congress committee. “We are worried if security can be ensured for opposition candidates and if the ruling TMC will allow nomination papers to be filed,” he adds.
'The previous Left front government did not give full autonomy to the local panchayats but the present government does not believe in decentralization itself,” says Buddhadev Ghosh, senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences. He cautions that “democracy cannot prevail with a benevolent despot in chair”.
West Bengal was the first state to experiment with devolving power to the gram panchayat, the lowest tier of democracy, way back in 1978. It was a model for the Constitutional Amendment of 1992 that gave birth to the panchayati raj system.
Meanwhile, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti, a trade union of rural labourers is demanding reforms in local governance—to hold gram sabha meetings regularly, greater devolution of power and funds to panchayats and the right to recall to check corruption and keep a control on office bearers. “Even without the bureaucratic monitoring, Panchayats have very limited powers of decision-making. We are campaigning in rural Bengal to change this,” says Anuradha Talwar, an activist from the trade union.
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