A bill to blunt the people

Thursday, Jan 21, 2021 07:15 [IST]

Last Update: Thursday, Jan 21, 2021 01:42 [IST]

A bill to blunt the people

Ganesh K. Rai

With the objective to constitute and organise Panchayats as units of self-government in Sikkim, and in accordance with the provisions laid down on Part-IX of the Constitution inserted in the Constitution (by the 73rd Amendment) Act 1992, “The Sikkim Panchayat Act 1993” came into existence, which was notified on 18th October 1993. The objectives of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act 1992 are to empower people to take their own decision at the village level and also provide the people opportunities in socio-economic development by enhancing their participation at the lower levels by giving them opportunity in decision making.
The first election as per the Sikkim Panchayat Act 1993 was held in the year 1997, the second in 2002, the third in 2007, the fourth in 2012, the fifth in 2017 and the sixth is due in 2022. During the journey of 27 years, the Sikkim Panchayat Act 1993 has undergone numerous amendments. Some of the amendments were done in order to further strengthen the Panchayati Raj institutions in the state while others were done to keep the leash by the state government with which to restrain the institutions of Panchayati Raj whenever its activities either encroached upon the government’s or whenever clash of interests came to the fore.
I am writing this piece to especially shed some light on the recent amendment to the act by the state Assembly which was held on 11th January 2021, and which pertains to the section 11 of the Act that spells out the functions of Gram Sabha. As per the Constitution(73rd Amendment) Act 1992, Gram Sabha is a body consisting of persons registered in the electoral rolls relating to a village comprised within the area of Panchayat at the village level.  That means any voter of a Gram Panchayat unit is a member of Gram Sabha. The objects and reasons of the amendment bill have been mentioned and I produce here verbatim - “Whereas it is deemed necessary and expedient to bring in parity the function of the Gram Panchayat in circumstances of emergency situation, whereas powers are vested on the administrative heads to coordinate and take decisions for grant and sanction of benefits to the beneficiaries selected by a committee." The bill (which will have become an Act with the assent of the Governor till the publishing of this article) has the provision of the committee formation which will be headed by the senior most government nominee which will exercise the power and function of Gram Sabha during emergency situation for the selection of beneficiaries of various schemes.
I would like to stress here that the section 11(b) of the principal Act mentions, "that if Gram Sabha fails to identify the beneficiaries within the reasonable time, the prescribed authority shall, in consultation with the Gram Panchayat, identify the beneficiaries." This provision in the principal Act is good enough in order to identify the beneficiaries only if Gram Sabha fails to identify the beneficiaries due to some unavoidable circumstances.
With the passage of this amendment bill in the state Assembly, we have been observing resentment in the present and former Panchayats with the government. Some of them have raised their voices in social media, calling this amendment anti Panchayat and anti-people. The Panchayats who are with ruling party strangely find this amendment to be in public interest. It has been a culture in our state that ruling party sympathisers support every decision of the government even if that is not in the best interest of the people which I believe is due to the fear of losing government’s favour. Therefore, I don’t find it surprising if some of the Panchayats support this amendment because with the change in government, there has not been any change in the functioning of the new government which is functioning exactly like the previous one.
With what I know and with my experience as a Panchayat, I know that those who are raising their voices against the bill are right because when the provision for the selection of beneficiaries is already laid down in the principal Act on the condition that if Gram Sabha fails to identify the beneficiaries within reasonable time, I don’t understand what was the need for the government to initiate this amendment? Isn't this a deliberate attempt of the government to weaken the local self-government in the state by curtailing the power of elected representatives and replacing their crucial function by the government appointed nominee?
What could have prevented the government from nominating either a Zilla Panchayat member or a Gram Panchayat President as the head of the committee? These are the serious concerns which the ruling dispensation needs to clarify in order to clear the doubt that compels one to believe that the present government is totally against the Panchayati Raj institutions.
The bill was passed hurriedly without any due discussions as legislators didn't get enough time to study and make their comment on the bill since the bill was placed and passed on the same day. To my utter surprise, this bill promulgated The Sikkim Panchayat (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 which was notified on 14-10-2020 but as per the section 82 of Rules of Procedure of Conduct of business in Sikkim Legislative Assembly, "a bill seeking to replace an ordinance should carry a statement explaining the circumstances which has necessitated legislation by Ordinance."  This procedure was also not followed while tabling the bill.
Few decisions of the past by the present government such as withdrawal of teachers' salary disbursement of junior and primary schools by panchayats, Sammelan for local self-government and annual awards to Panchayats have been discontinued, elections of many vacant seats of Gram and Zilla Pancahayat have not been conducted, instead of the state government increasing grants to the Gram Panchayats, the Gram Panchayats have been made to shell out 15% of their fund to the Zilla Pancahayat, etc. These decisions have raised many an eyebrow which clearly established the fact that the intention of the government is nothing but to weaken the Panchayati Raj institutions in the state.
Mahatma Gandhi has rightly said that "More the power to the Panchayat, better for the people." Having served Melli Dara Paiyong Gram Panchayat for a decade and as a Gram Sabha member, I raise my strong objection to this amendment bill since it appears to me beyond a shed of doubt as a brazen attempt to further centralise the power by the state government and snatch whatever little authority the local self-government have been granted so far. I urge all the former and present Pancahayats to unanimously raise their voice against this bill and make people aware that such anti-people bill will weaken the people and by extension, our democracy.
(The writer is a former Panchayat President of Melli Dara Paiyong Gram Panchayat Unit, Melli Dara, South Sikkim)
* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SIKKIM EXPRESS.

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi