Do political parties in Tamil Nadu have the will to make local government a reality?

The cancellation of Gram Sabhas thrice raises serious concerns about the Tamil Nadu government’s attitude towards ensuring democratic decentralisation in the state.
Village panchayat meeting
Village panchayat meeting
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The enactment of the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Act paved the way for decentralised governance in our country. These acts enabled forming a third tier of government called ‘Local Government’, apart from the existing Union and state governments. The sphere of local government is divided into two – Rural and Urban for proper decentralisation in a federal system. The major provisions mentioned in these acts – Gram Sabha in Rural and Area Sabha in Urban – promote aspects of participatory democracy wherein people participate in the development process.

In the case of rural local government in Tamil Nadu, elections were conducted in December 2019 for all three tiers (village panchayat, block panchayat and district panchayat) in two phases except for nine districts, and the elected representatives have been holding office for the past one year. As per the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act 1994, the Gram Sabha shall meet at least twice in a year but six months shall not intervene between any two meetings, and it is the president of the village panchayat (elected representative) who has to convene the meeting. Usually, Gram Sabha meetings in TN happen on the following days in a year: Republic Day (January 26), Labour Day (May 1), Independence Day (August 15) and Gandhi Jayanti (October 2).

Gram Sabha is a participatory forum where all members (18 years and above) of the village panchayat come together and exercise their democratic rights through active participation. The members jointly discuss, deliberate, raise questions and take decisions on their local developmental needs as well as pass various resolutions pertaining to the village development. The major activities of Gram Sabha are: (i) approval of the Gram panchayat development plan (GPDP) (ii) approval of the village budget for the year (iii) approval of the audit report on the village panchayat account (iv) reviewing the progress of various programmes/schemes implemented in the village panchayat, etc.

After assuming office, these elected TN village panchayat presidents had convened a Gram Sabha meeting only once in the last year, on January 26, 2020. Citing the COVID-19 situation as well as the Disaster Management Act being in place, the TN government had cancelled the conduct of Gram Sabhas on May 1 and August 15, 2020, which was understandable due to the increase in COVID-19 numbers.

Considering the decrease in COVID-19 cases, the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department had issued a directive on September 26, 2020 to convene Gram Sabha meetings in village panchayats on October 2 with adherence to COVID-19 protocols. As per the Act, information about the conduct of Gram Sabha meetings should have been given to members seven days in advance. But the directive itself had come late. Then one day before the meeting, the District Collectors suddenly directed that the meetings be cancelled citing the same COVID-19 situation as a reason. Most panchayat presidents were very eager to conduct the Gram Sabha and had spent money on pamphlets, posters, loudspeaker announcements, etc., which all went in vain, making a mockery of the constitutionally approved structure called Gram Sabha by the TN government. The state government cannot treat village panchayats as per their whims and fancies. In this scenario, one cannot ignore the permission given by the government to conduct the Vel Yatra and open TASMAC shops during this period.

After this incident, a People’s Plan Campaign (October 2, 2020 – January 31, 2021) was started by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj & Ministry of Rural Development, directing a Special Gram Sabha to be held in village panchayats for the preparation and approval of GPDP. As per information available on the GPDP website, the TN government had organised Gram Sabhas and prepared GPDP. But in reality, when we contacted some village panchayat presidents (Manjakuzhi panchayat in Cuddalore district and Keela Vallanadu panchayat in Thoothukudi district, to name a few), they said no Gram Sabhas were held and that the development plan was approved without people’s participation. Apart from this, some other details, like names of presidents, mentioned in the portal are also wrong. For example, the village panchayat president of Vendhoni panchayat, Paramakudi block, Ramanathapuram district is Kulanthai Rani but the website shows the secretary’s name instead. This again shows how village panchayats are treated indifferently and misused by the present state government.

With the cancellation of Gram Sabhas thrice in the state, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) launched a major campaign ‘Let us Reject AIADMK’ on December 23, 2020, through which the party planned to hold Gram Sabha meetings in 16,500 villages. But this is against the Constitution. Hans Raj Verma, Additional Chief Secretary to Government, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, issued a directive mentioning that only elected village panchayat presidents or District Collector can conduct Gram Sabha as per the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, Section 3(2-A). He further said that Gram Sabhas are apolitical in nature and warned political parties of legal action if they misuse the Gram Sabha platform. After this, the DMK changed their campaign name to Makkal Sabha (People’s Sabha) and continued with it. This has created confusion amongst citizens at the grassroots, where many don’t have clarity about the powers given to them in the Gram Sabha. DMK chief MK Stalin, who has earlier been Minister for Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (2006 to 2011), misusing the Gram Sabha platform for political gains is not welcome.

After the positive directive from the government, village panchayats were hopeful that the next Gram Sabha will happen on January 26, 2021 but again permission was denied by the state government. TN has witnessed a continuous downward trend in COVID-19 cases since October 2020, acknowledged even by the state Health Minister Dr C Vijayabaskar in a recent interview, and theatres were also permitted to function with 50% occupancy. Although the Disaster Management Act is in place, Parliamentary sessions and state Assembly meetings have been happening following COVID-19 norms. When elected representatives like Members of Parliament (MP) and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) participate in these meetings and exercise their democratic rights, why are village panchayats not being allowed to conduct Gram Sabha? This poses severe threat to the spirit of participatory democracy in TN and raises serious concerns about the government’s attitude towards ensuring democratic decentralisation in the state. Political parties in TN such as the DMK, CPI(M) and MNM have condemned the state government for not convening the Gram Sabha meeting. There were no comments or any condemnation from national parties like the Congress, BJP and others.

Apart from this, elections are yet to be conducted in TN for all urban local governments as well as rural local governments for nine districts that have been continuously neglected, but now the state is very much focussed on the upcoming Assembly elections. On the whole, it is evident that there is a lack of political will in inculcating the spirit of participatory democracy amongst all parties.

Without the element of political will, it is difficult to reap the benefits of participatory democracy. It’s high time that whichever party forms the next government in TN recognise and devolve real powers to local governments, which will eventually facilitate participatory democracy at the grassroots.

To address these various issues pertaining to local governments, an election manifesto for ‘Devolving Powers to Strengthen Local Governments in Tamil Nadu 2021’ has been collectively prepared by various civil society institutions like the Institute of Grassroots Governance (IGG), Thannatchi, Arappor Iyakkam, Voice of People and Thozhan to sensitise political parties and make participatory democracy a reality.

Gurusaravanan M is a TNM member and Chairperson, Institute of Grassroots Governance.

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