Amendment to Panchayati Raj Act: Political exigency or fiscal prudence?

[ Nani Bath ]
As per the 73rd amendment act of the constitution, 1992, those states having a population of less than 20 lakhs have an option of not constituting panchayats at intermediate level. The state of Arunachal Pradesh exercised that option when, on 15th March 2018, its Legislative Assembly passed the Arunachal Pradesh Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Bill 2018 to end the Anchal Samiti, the intermediate level of the existing three-tier panchayati raj system.
The state has a long history of working with the three-tier panchayati raj system, since the introduction of NEFA panchayati Raj Act, 1967. It is no wonder that even the AP Panchayati Raj Ordinance, 1994, and subsequently the Act of 1997 provided for three-tier system of panchatyati raj. The then government, perhaps, didn’t want to break the tradition, even when there was an option to do away with the intermediate level.
The Pema-led government decides to break the tradition by offering two fiscally prudent reasons for the introduction of two-tier panchayati raj system: One, it “will standardize use of fiscal resources and will enable faster execution of plans and policies.” Two, it will reduce “expenses for conducting polls and functional costs on Anchal Samities.”
In Indian context, decentralization of power has been the principal motive of organization of village panchayats. In Arunachal Pradesh, some scholars have argued, Panchayati Raj was introduced with a motive of bringing uniformity and integration in otherwise diverse political practices and structures of different tribal communities, and to infuse democratic elements in the indigenous tribal institutions.
The first election to the Panchayati Raj institution was in 1969 with 5 Zilla Parishads and 39 Anchal Samities. The Arunachal Pradesh Panchayati Raj Ordinance, 1994 was passed to replace the NEFA Panchayati Raj Regulation, 1967 by a comprehensive law; and to conform to the provisions of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992. The Ordinance, however, was reserved by the Governor for the assent of the President of India. The same Ordinance was returned to the State Government in September 1996 with the following suggestions: (i) constitution of Gram Sabha; (ii) reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes; and (iii) direct elections to Panchayat bodies.
The Arunachal Pradesh Panchayati Raj Bill, 1997 incorporated the suggestions made by the President but no provision was made again for reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes. The state government maintained that Arunachal Pradesh is hundred per cent tribal state and no indigenous scheduled caste population inhabits in the state. The Central government reserved the Bill on the issue of reservation of seats to Scheduled Castes.
In the meantime, the Government of India introduced the Constitutional Amendment (86th Amendment Bill, 1999) in the parliament. It sought exemption of the state from the requirement of reservation for the Scheduled Castes. The Bill was passed by the Parliament in 2000 and it became 83rd Constitution Amendment Act, which was formally notified on 30th April 2001.
Based on the Act of 1997, three elections were conducted – 2003, 2008 and 2013. The last election was held on 16th May 2013.
Given the proximity of dates of next elections, it’s an appropriate time for the State Election Commission to issue election notification. It is constitutionally required that “an election to constitute a Panchayat shall be completed before the expiry of its duration.”
There is no sign of any notification from the Commission. There is no indication from the state government either. This gives us an indication that the state government is purposefully indulging in a delay tactics so as not to conduct the panchayat elections in its stipulated time. An amendment to the PR Act may be a part of the government’s grand strategy.
A Bill becomes an Act upon assented by the governor. Thereafter, a gazette notification to this effect is issued. Since the AP Panchayati Raj Act, 1997 has been amended, the corresponding changes will have to be made in the relevant Rules. It would involve both time and resources.
Our focus is now shifted to the preparedness of the State Election Commission. But again, the Commission is almost handicapped unless the Executive branch has the readiness and intent.
There are rumours floating across the state that the incumbent state government is actively considering premature dissolution of the present assembly which ends on 1st June 2019. There may be intense pressure from the BJP MLAs for withholding the panchayat elections till the completion of general elections to the Legislative Assembly.
They fear that those panchayat leaders who are denied party tickets might switch their loyalty to their political opponents. There is also a possibility that the defeat of party candidate(s) may expose their vulnerability and the ‘enemy camp’ will be benefitted politically in the process.
Those Congress leaders, who joined BJP in “anticipation of some 50,000 crores of rupees”, are already dismayed because of PM’s “balti mein ched hain” speech in his recent visit to Itanagar.
Even the government in Delhi seems to be buying the idea of advancing the Lok Sabha polls to the end of 2018 coinciding with the assembly elections slated for the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Rationale behind is that if the BJP’s electoral performance in these states remain poor, it would have adverse affect on its performance in the parliamentary elections.
Mood of Arunachal’s voters and legislators constantly ‘sink and swim’ with that of national mood ever since the state was introduced to the parliamentary democracy in 1977-78. Our leaders know it well.
BJP MP from the state, Kiren Rijiju, who is facing strong anti-incumbency wave, might be pulling all his ‘resources’ together to ensure parliamentary elections only when his party (BJP) has its own ‘BJP government’ in the state.
It makes little difference, for common people like us, whether we travel by two-tier or three-tier in the Donyi-Polo Express, as the facilities provided are same and ‘third class’. We only hope that the chief minister, who looks extremely progressive if one goes by his initiatives, would select his team through progressive ways and means. The State would not be surprised if activists like Payi Gadi get his attention. (The writer is a professor of Rajiv Gandhi University)