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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

NGOs against ‘consensus’ route to panchayat seats in Gujarat

Even as the state Government has ensured that 30 per cent of the villages got their representatives elected through consensus (samras) in the recently concluded panchayat elections, the initiative has drawn flak from a section of activists who termed the process as a ‘subversion of democracy.’

In the elections held on January 20, nearly 426 villages opted for ‘samras’, out of a total 1,436. They elected the sarpanch as well as other representatives through consensus, instead of using the ballot box.

Though the samras scheme had been in practice in the state since 1991-92, even during the time of Congress, it became popular when Chief Minister Narendra Modi increased the monetary incentives for the village panchayats during the elections held in 2001.

With increased money, the percentage of samras panchayats naturally registered an increase. According to officials of the State Election Commission, the percentage of samras villages which was hardly four to five per cent previously, jumped to 27.2 per cent in 2001 and to 30 per cent in January 2008 elections. The idea of samras, officials say, is to promote harmony, and reduce social and caste tension generated during the village panchayat elections. State’s panchayati raj ministry, soon after the notification of January 2008 elections, had announced a monetary assistance of Rs one lakh for small villages having seven panchayat members and Rs 2 lakh for big villages with more than seven members. The monetary assistance, according to officials, is given to samras panchayats for carrying out developmental projects in their area.

Meanwhile, dubbing the whole process as a “subversion of democracy at the grassroots level,” some NGOs have questioned the logic of linking development with election process.

“Development is a policy matter and can’t be linked with election or political process”, said Gangan Sethi of Jan Vikas.

Stating that samras was against essence of democracy as it obstructs holding regular panchayat elections after a gap of every five years as per Article 243 E(I) of the Constitution, Satyakam Joshi of Surat-based Centre for Social Studies said that “we can’t ignore democracy even if it leads to some kind of caste and community tension”.

Stating that samras is against the very ethos of democracy and Constitution, because it takes away the very right of the people to contest and cast votes, Vadodara-based activist Rohit Prajapati said it was quite “dangerous because it helps the dominant and influential communities to capture political power at village level”.

“When announcement of developmental projects or monetary benefits by the state Government during Assembly elections or by the Central government during Lok Sabha elections are banned to ensure that electors are not influenced, how can we justify monetary incentives during village panchayat elections”, asked Prajapati.

When asked if the ‘samras’ was “unconstitutional”, secretary of State Election Commission (SEC) V H Shah said that the Election Commission fully followed the electoral laws from notification till final results of elections. “But, if anybody felt it was illegal and unconstitutional, let him challenge it in a court of law”, he replied.


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