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Panchayat elections: Nauseating display of greed masquerading as grassroots democracy

11 Jun 2017 07:36am IST
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11 Jun 2017 07:36am IST

Sujay Gupta

 

Scene 1: The party was on at this village tavern in Verna. It went well into the night as four bottles were downed with plentiful plates of snacks and then came the big meals, chicken, pulao and other curries. At the end of the night a bill was raised, a whopping amount of Rs 17,000, with no expectation of immediate payment. A few days credit here and there would do especially since the assumed host of the evening was a candidate for the panchayat elections, to be held on Sunday (today).

The next day the candidate is seen campaigning till he had to take a break for some fund raising. He went to the home of another middle level but influential politician and asked for about Rs 2 lakh either as a grant or a loan. When asked why he needed so much money for a panchayat election, he took out a wad of bills from his pocket, including the Rs 17,000 one from the previous night for whiskey and chicken he fed people, not all of who might even vote for him.

Scene 2: Somewhere in Verna again. A first time contestant turned up at a village home to canvass, with twenty odd supporters. The man in whose home the canvassing party arrived spotted two women in the group who were known to him. Surprised that they were campaigning for this particular candidate, when the ladies had absolutely no interest in public activity of any sort, he asked them about their presence. They replied that they hardly know the candidate, but he had dropped in the other day and offered about Rs 300 a day to move from house to house with him. The story doesn’t end here. The next day, a prominent party backed candidate arrived at the same home with his supporters. And the same women were in this group as well. This time the women had a better deal, Rs 400 per day!

Scene 3: We cut to Benaulim. There is an air of festivity in the village with a sudden shower of cash. Two five hundred rupee notes (Rs 1000) each have been given to 500 odd voters in a particular ward by  a person backing one candidate, a spend of Rs 5 lakh. The money is being ploughed back in bars and markets.

Scene 4: The electronic shops in South Goa didn’t quite expect this sudden spurt of business, with Holi long gone and Diwali still far away. LCD TVs, tablets, phones, refrigerators were bought and distributed like confetti. The buyers were panchas and even sarpanchas seeking re-election as well as fresh candidates.

In this panchayat election in Goa, an ugly, nauseating and farcical display of political greed and desire is being passed as an exercise in strengthening grass-root politics and people power. The festival of local self government aimed at ensuring decision making at the village level while will steer the course of planned development and growth in Goa’s villages, is in reality, just another festival of power. The sanctity and seriousness of panchayat level elections has been reduced to a game of investment and return on investment. There is actually no shame left anymore when you hear a couple of candidates speaking to others in a village square that spending money is well worth it if they get elected.

This is worrying. The reason why people are coming forward to contest elections at the level of panchas doesn’t augur well for Goa. And this gets alarming when you realise that there is no real need, or pressure from the people of Goa, to take local elections as a foundation stone of grassroots development, leading to the overall development of the taluka and state. The danger here is that we will be voting a new crop of people to govern us locally, who will not go through nor be interested in, capacity building for their role as grassroots leaders. And they will govern in the dark with a sole interest in making money through projects, under the ‘guidance’ of an MLA or any other political leader. And if this is the trend, the devolution of finances, rather than following a process, will follow the political tide. And uninformed local leaders will have no idea how to make the system, and the laid down laws of local self government, work other than politics dictating and steering the course.

Our tryst with local self government has nowhere reached the destined heights of satisfaction. Ten years after the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, a Parliamentary Committee to review the progress of the devolution of real powers to India’s villages stated clearly “this period has witnessed a willful violation of Constitution in terms of devolution of rights to Panchayats and that the Ministry of Rural Development had failed to assert itself effectively”.

And two of the violations which are glaring even in Goa are the misuse of women empowerment and reservation. In the name of women empowerment, politics is played. It is either used by the party in power to reserve seats for women where political opponents are strong. The other manner of misuse, is make the wives of powerful local satraps win and function as puppets who merely sign while their powerful husbands rule in their wife’s names, often sitting on the sarpanch’s chair and taking decisions.

Another misuse is the reservation of wards by rotation for different groups. Reservation of seats has been used, yet again, by those who hold the strings of power. A seat is reserved, only to get an established player out. And frequent rotations of reserved wards ensures that a rare good candidate does not get a long run.

While opportunities are being lost in this manner, it is also no surprise that even the elected members of panchayats are not empowered. And this is reflected in the absolute lack of discourse on real issues of the grassroots and the challenges before local self government institutions. It will come as a shocking surprise, if we hear of a single candidate in the entire election process, who has actually presented a blue print and a vision for the ward and the village with time lines and fund requirements and execution plans.

There has been no debate in making panchayats self-reliant, no discussion on how the powers and role of panchayats should not overlap with zilla parishads, no underlining the fact that from devolution of finances, to controlling and spending them, panchayats need autonomy. And this is simply because this debate which should flow from the top to down doesn’t even commence at the top, either by the government or political parties, and sadly, not even by the social class, academicians and other stake holders.

The only fragment of local self governance that the panchayats gleefully do is calibrate and control the process  of giving permissions for construction, and NOC’s for other activities including land related ones. And that is the charm and the magnet which draws people. The crassness that has been reported in the four “scenes” in the beginning of this column is the manifestation of the desperation to be in local self government to make money. A disclaimer here is that not all eggs are rotten but very many are rotten enough to start the process of atrophy in the system of grassroots governance. The rot, by now, has clearly has set in.

And therefore, as the panchayat elections are held today, can we least step back and ask ourselves why we are voting and will this vote change the way we are meant to be governed. Will this be the last time we vote without demanding accountability and without working towards empowering our grassroots leaders who are one of us? Are we going to raise a voice against village level corruption which has eaten into the very core of governance? Are we going to ever tend to this decayed tree which has grown and its corruption tainted branches have reached the very top?

What we see doesn’t give us much optimism. The debris of democracy will be the empty liquor bottles and chicken bones in a bar, on election eve, and in the new electronic items that we receive as dowry, at our wedding with grassroots corruption.

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