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Panchayats and penalties

THE NATIONAL SC/ST Commission's observation that funding should be withdrawn for panchayats to which elections have not been held should serve as a wake-up call for the Tamil Nadu Government to complete the polls which are long overdue. Imposition of such a penalty may not be the answer in view of the hardships it would inflict on the already cash-strapped panchayats. But there is no mistaking the extremely serious view taken by the SC/ ST Commission of the systematic subversion of the process of electing village panchayats once every five years. Polls for the reserved panchayats of Pappapatti, Keeripatti and Nattarmangalam villages in Madurai district and Kottakatchiendal in Virudhunagar district have not been held as the caste Hindus did not want Dalits to represent them in local bodies. After successfully stalling the 2001 elections in these villages, caste Hindu groups have continued to thwart every subsequent attempt by the State Election Commission to complete the poll process. The murder of the president of the Melavalavu reserved panchayat and six others in 1997 cast an ugly shadow on elections to local bodies in Tamil Nadu. While the perpetrators of the killings have been convicted and are now serving a life sentence, the Dalits in other reserved panchayats often do not file nominations for fear of reprisal and those who dare the upper castes are subject to intimidation and threats. While the specific nature of the resistance at the grassroots level is serious enough, many State Governments themselves have been guilty of postponing elections to the third tier in violation of Constitutional provisions and have even appealed to the courts to achieve their objective. Therefore, it is essential that the SC/ST Commission as well as the State Election Commission recognise this larger scenario while attempting to restore to the Panchayati Raj institutions their rightful place in the Constitutional scheme.

While on the one hand, elections to reserved local bodies are being systematically sabotaged, on the other hand, their autonomy as independent administrative units is also undermined frequently. A case in point is the decision by the Centre in 1999 to vest the District Rural Development Agency with control over development activities at the district level, disregarding the requirement to integrate their functions with the Zilla Parishads as per the 73rd and 74th amendments and the Parliamentary Standing Committee's suggestion to the same effect. In fact, the Constitution's XI Schedule identifies 29 areas including primary education, health, minor irrigation and control of local resources, which the States must devolve to the panchayat institutions. The more recent move by the Central Rural Development Ministry to constitute District Vigilance and Monitoring Committees (DV&MCs) to oversee rural development, with Members of Parliament as chairpersons could likewise undermine the Constitutional status of the Zilla Parishads. It is noteworthy that the Zilla Parishad, an elected body, is now overseen by a wholly nominated mechanism as the DV&MC. It is ironic that the rationale for setting up additional bodies is explained in terms of the need to improve the efficiency of PRIs when excessive political interference is often cited by members in the higher echelons of the administration as the root cause of their inefficiency.

Even a decade after they were accorded Constitutional status, the traditional political institutions of Panchayati Raj are yet to establish their identity as full fledged organs of devolution and decentralisation. This state of affairs is indeed a sad commentary on the nation's collective political will and commitment to uphold the principles laid down in the Constitution. Still worse, it reflects poorly on the journey towards greater decentralisation of powers and responsibilities at a juncture when States are clamouring for a more equal and rational reallocation of resources from the Centre. It is time the States recognised that what they demand vis-a-vis the Centre is precisely what they must honour in relation to the PRIs.

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