Here I am. There I go

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Fate of votes A woman casts her vote during a Panchayat election
Fate of votes A woman casts her vote during a Panchayat election
Photo: AFP

THE FATE of the threetier Panchayat bodies in Uttar Pradesh is locked in a battle for supremacy between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). After every Assembly election, an unwritten law prevails in UP, where the heads of Panchayat bodies — the District Panchayat Chairman and Block Pramukh — are chosen from the ruling party.

In the last Panchayat election in October 2010, out of 71 districts, the then ruling BSP had ‘won’ in 55 districts. These 55 elected chairmen of the district Panchayats are now either desperate to join the ruling SP, or in the process of being unseated through a no-confidence motion. So far, 20 elected district Panchayat chairmen and 50 block pramukhs have been removed by no-confidence motion.

The UP Panchayatraj and Kshetra Panchayat Act 1994, which determines the tenure of elected Panchayat heads, is also amended by the government in power to suit its interests. Till 2007, the tenure of the district Panchayat chairman was three years. After being voted to power in 2007 Mayawati amended the Act and reduced the tenure to two years, to unseat the elected Panchayat chairmen with allegiance to the SP.

Before the February 2012 Assembly election, the BSP government, in November 2011, amended the Act again to increase the tenure to three years. But Governor BL Joshi did not give his assent to the bill. The succeeding SP government promptly withdrew the bill. In any case, the tenure of most heads of the district Panchayat would end by January 2013. Yet, the present government is desperate to unseat them.

Besides the no-confidence motion, other members of the Panchayat body are often intimidated into voting against the chairman. “Though it’s undemocratic and unlawful, the elected representatives of the panchayat bodies are being paid back in the same coin. They captured the office with the backing of the state machinery and they are being removed by the same machinery,” says HN Dikshit, former Panchayat minister and a BJP leader, adding, “The remedy lies in another amendment to the Constitution for fixing the tenure of the elected representatives of the Panchayat bodies and bringing in a process to make the no-confidence motion more stringent and transparent.”

For the government, the task of manipulating the election or removing the district Panchayat chairman and block Pramukh is made easier by the indirect election to both the offices. Members of the district Panchayat elect the chairman, while members of the Kshetra Panchayat elect the block Pramukh. In all, 2,600 members of district Panchayats elect their chairmen in 72 districts; 63,000 Kshetra Panchayat members elect the block Pramukhs in 821 blocks.

As soon as the SP was voted to power in March 2012, most of the elected representatives of the Panchayat bodies were willing to join the ruling party. But the SP district-level leaders and MLAs opposed the move as they were in favour of accommodating cronies and family members rather than accepting turncoats from the BSP. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav declared that no chairman of the district Panchayat or block Pramukh elected during the BSP rule would be admitted in the party. Thus began the game of no-confidence motion.

Notwithstanding the fact that Panchayat bodies have become pawns in the hands of competitive electoral politics, the lure of lucre is a big draw. After the 72nd amendment accorded Constitutional status to Panchayat raj institutions, for empowering and strengthening the rural local bodies, state governments have delegated important financial and administrative powers to the district Panchayats. Besides receiving huge funds under MNREGA, sanitation schemes and other rural development schemes, the state government, through its State Finance Commission (SFC), devotes 4 percent of the total state revenue to the rural local bodies. The Panchayats also get funds from Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF), a centrally-sponsored scheme for the development of economically- backward areas.

In the October 2010 Panchayat elections, all parties in UP had announced that they wouldn’t contest on their election symbol. However, that didn’t stop hoardings with party banners dotting the countryside; feasts, liquor, money and clothes being freely distributed to the potential votebanks; and candidates campaigning in fleets of cars and SUVs. The hoardings claimed the blessings of Mayawati, Rahul Gandhi and Mulayam Singh, with their photos. The State Election Commission for Panchayats and urban local bodies was flooded with complaints of misuse of official machinery, but it chose to maintain a studied silence.

Most Panchayat heads finish their term in January 2013. Yet, the government wants to unseat them

“During the days of Jawahar Rojgar Yojna (JRY), launched during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, the Pradhans graduated from bicycles to motorcycles. After MGNREGA, they have moved to SUVs. These Pradhans now have money and they spend it to gain muscle power and political connections. The stakes were never so high in the Panchayat elections in UP,” says Rakesh Ranjan, who runs an NGO for environment and rural development in eastern UP’s Deoria district.

HE ADDS, “Even before MGNREGA, Pradhans were involved in all rural development and welfare schemes and they got their cut. But money in MGNREGA comes daily and it is much more than what they received in any other scheme.”

Official sources revealed that in the current year, as much as Rs 9,000 crore was allotted for UP under MGNREGA. According to the Panchayat Raj Department, the allocation under MGNREGA to a big village with a population of 25,000 could be as much as Rs 3 crore a year, and Rs 15 to Rs 20 lakh for a small village.

Swami Prasad Maurya (BSP), leader of Opposition in the UP Assembly and the former Panchayatraj minister, condemning the removal of the Panchayat representatives said, “It is not the people who are behind the removal of the elected representatives, but the goons of the ruling SP.”

Balram Yadav, the current Panchayat Raj minister, denying the charge said, “The government has no role in the removal of the elected representatives of the Panchayat bodies; it’s for the local people and their representatives to decide about them.”

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