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Indian Polity

What is progress? When has a government achieved its goals? What is the true indication that a government is not just planning, but also putting into action those plans? The half-hearted execution of a plan by a government that the people chose is not a sign of achievement. The government must ensure that even the last man sitting in the remote corner of the last row should have access to the benefits of the plan. This is why it is crucial that strong local bodies are formed to enable genuine feasibility and execution. The Cholas were the pioneers in the formation of local bodies as part of a well-organised hierarchy to oversee the implementation of progressive plans.

“The voice of the people is the voice of god; The voice of the Panchayat is the voice of the people,” is the quote attributed to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Panchayati raj ensures that the voices of the people are heard loud and clear. But, drawing up a path for a brilliant organisational structure like the Panchayat raj, and then travelling along the path is not a simple task.

Realising that seamless administration is impossible without power sharing, the British, in 1884, passed the Madras Local Boards Act. With this, the British formed unions in both small towns and big cities and began to appoint members to ensure better administration. To a certain extent, this brought about positive changes in basic parameters such as health and hygiene.

With the advent of gram panchayat laws in 1920, people over 25 years of age were bestowed with the right to vote and choose their panchayat members.

Even though Gandhiji was constantly laying emphasis on the importance of autonomously ruled villages, the idea received constitutional recognition only in 1992.

It was only after the 73rd Amendment in the 1990s, that the Panchayati raj law came into force. This was the law that brought about massive turning points such as the initiation of grama sabha, a three-tier Panchayati raj methodology of governance, reservation for the downtrodden and women, consistency in economic development, local body elections once in five years, the formation of the State Election Commission, Finance Commission, and the power to draft the rules and responsibilities of the Panchayat.

The regions which were better equipped with basic facilities and which were more developed than the villages were brought under one coordinated body, namely, the municipality. The district capitals were further slotted into a combined parameter, namely, the corporation. Administration was transferred to the people, from the politicians and other officials.

The lofty dream of Gandhiji to make each village of the independent India a republic organisation, and to reiterate that the autonomous administration of villages should be made the foundation of the entire country’s administration was heard and he lay stress on the active participation of the people in governance.

For seemingly trivial and easily resolvable issues, the villages did not have to seek the assistance of the State or the Central governments. Grama sabhas could and can be the platform to resolve such issues. According to the rules framed by the Tamil Nadu government, it is mandatory that grama sabhas meet at least four times in a calendar year. Besides, grama sabhas can be convened as and when the necessity arises. Every grama sabha meeting ensures the equal right to highlight the issues that disrupt life. In addition to this, the elected members of the Panchayat are obliged to read out the financial statements and balance sheet to ensure transparency.

Centre pitches for ₹10 lakh crore for panchayats from 15th Finance Commission

The decisions taken during a grama sabha meeting and the proposed solutions with a feasible deadline are potent and powerful. Unfortunately, the reality today is that grama sabhas have become more like auction houses. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the present government did not even make an attempt to seek the opinions and the consensus of the people on significant issues such as an eight-lane highway project and even a major hydrocarbon project. Even though the government announced that people’s opinions would be considered, it went ahead and conducted meetings, which were marked by poor attendance and poor representation from the people. Even then, the government went ahead with the approval of projects which are impediments to normal life.

The truth is that keeping in mind a single goal, of profit, politicians hold ‘negotiations’ with the officials. Several projects are being implemented for the benefit of private and corporate entities.

Sadly, in this age, women do not find themselves in major administrative roles in the local bodies, though, on paper, women are shown to be a considerable force.

The Makkal Needhi Maiam has been laying stress on the importance of grama sabhas and has been extending its support in a very transparent manner to rejuvenate the dying system of Panchayati raj.

The neighbouring State of Kerala has been diligently working toward ensuring the proper use of allotted funds, and ensuring the efficiency of administration and eligible member appointments. Thus, it stands tall as being exemplary. If Tamil Nadu wants to stand tall too, it needs to take steps to enable the power of administration to Panchayats, as stated in the Constitution.

To ensure efficiency, we need to strengthen our grama sabhas, hold area sabhas in cities, form ward committees, hold online Panchayat meetings, ensure decent remuneration to Panchayat chiefs and councillors and also bestow the grama sabha with the power to revoke appointed members and representatives. These steps are what will ensure real growth in the State.

The State-appointed corporation commissioner faces mammoth challenges when a member of the Opposition party takes charge as a mayor. The constant and meaningless conflicts between the ruling party and the mayor from the Opposition party make it impossible for the corporation commissioner to execute what was agreed upon in a meeting. The officials kowtow to pressures from the ruling party. The same treatment is meted out to municipal councillors and district councillors.

Throttled at the grass roots

The Constitution is clear in stating that local body elections must be conducted once in five years. But the ruling party keeps postponing the holding of local body elections, which is a breach of the Constitution. Strangely, this form of disrespect never materialises when it comes to the Assembly elections!

Local body elections have been held once in five years for the last 25 years, since 1996. But for the first time, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government has travelled on without holding a local body election. This is not only an act of escapism but also a stain on the State’s political history.

The recent reconstitution of nine districts in the State is an invalid excuse to postpone the holding of local body elections. The government gives a variety of empty and irrelevant excuses to postpone these elections and to cancel grama sabha meetings. The time has come to stop this act — of depriving people of their basic rights.

The demand for federal rule in the Centre and autonomous rule in the States should resonate along with the need to have autonomous local bodies too. We must collectively ensure that Panchayati raj should be strengthened. This should be the outcome of a peoples’ movement.

I wish to end by citing Gandhiji’s belief that the voices of people will resolve what violence can never be successful in resolving. Let the peoples’ voices be heard. We should also note that every year, April 24 is celebrated as Panchayat raj day.

Kamal Haasan, actor, director and Padma Bhushan awardee, is President, Makkal Needhi Maiam

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