As unanimous, samaras panchayats have come to stay in several states, scholar analyses threat they pose to democracy

By Dr Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly* Dr Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly

The 243-E of the Indian Constitutional amendment, and the Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992 (CAA), imply regular elections every five years. It is against this backdrop that the protagonists of unanimous election to village panchayats seek to incentivise them, arguing that such unanimity save poll expenses, help reduce litigations, and consensus in the selection of panchayat members grassrootspromote peace, harmony and brotherhood in the village. Many state governments in India have launched the scheme for the promotion of unanimous election to village panchayats (UEVPs) based on two important components – awarding financial grant on the basis of population of each village, and other incentives for first time, second and third time UEVPs. ‘No-election’ in village panchayats is termed differently in different states, such as ‘unanimously elected’, ‘unopposed elected’ and ‘samaras’ panchayats (as is referred to in Gujarat).

The governments of Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Rajasthan launched the scheme in 1960s. The government of Andhra Pradesh revised the scheme in 2006 and 2011 with 2,000 times hike (from Rs 2,500 to Rs 5 lakh for the village panchayats with less than 5,000 of population, and from Rs 5,000 to Rs 15 lakh for a population of 5,000 to 15,000) in financial incentive. The Gujarat government started the scheme in 1992 and revised it in 2001 as ‘samaras yojana’ (samaras literally means ‘all substances submerged in to one form’ implying ‘common interest’) with 3,000 to 5,000 times hike (from Rs 2,000 for each UEVP to Rs 60,000 to 100,000 in 2001 depending upon the population of a village, and reaching Rs 5,00,000 in 2011). Revisions took place ahead of pachayat polls in 2006 and 2011. The Gujarat government also provides extra incentives to all-women samaras panchayats. There are higher financial grants and incentives for second time and third time UEVPs.

Seeking inspiration from these states, the governments of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab also started announced schemes for UEVP. The governments of Haryana and Punjab promised Rs 2 to Rs 3 lakh to each UEVP during the 2008 elections. The Himachal Pradesh government promised Rs 10 lakh cash prize to each UEVP.

As a result of the scheme, on an average 10-20 per cent of the total village panchyats in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Punjab have opted for UEVP, while in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh a similar trend could be said to have begun. In Andhra Pradesh, there were 2,924 village panchayats that opted to be UEVP during the 2013 elections out of 21,144 village panchayats, This was against 2,623 opting for the UEVP in the 2008 elections, a drop of 299 (11.4%) panchayats.

During the 2001 elections in Gujarat, over 3,900 village panchayats ‘voluntarily’ opted for the samaras scheme, mainly due to huge hike in the award money as financial grant. In 2006, of 10,509 village panchayats that went to polls, 2,869 (27.3%) opted to be samaras panchayats, and in 2010, a total of 2,147 (20.4%) became samaras panchayats. Of the total 2,417 samaras panchayats, 254 are all-women samras panchayats, and of the rest of the village panchayats, 800 panchayats were declared samaras for the first time, 472 for the second time and 621 for the third time. Thus, there was a drop of almost 50% in number of village panchayats opting for samaras during the last decade, ie compared to samaras panchayats in 2001. In Punjab, in all, total 2,806 village panchayats were elected unanimously in 2008. In Haryana, 372 panchayats in Karnal district and eight in Nilokheri district were elected unanimously in 2008. In Himachal Pradesh, there were more than 300 UEVPs during the 2006 elections, and there were 110 UEVP in 2011.

Voices against UEVPs to no avail

The UEVP scheme is seen as undemocratic, as it seeks to maintain domination of caste, feudal and patriarchal practices, it is non-participatory and non-representative, it is an attempt to silence the dissent, and thus a threat to democracy for local governance, it promotes ‘moneycracy’ rather than democracy, populist measures are encouraged to entice financially deprived village panchayats, and the ruling party spreads its paradigm by way of saffronising Gujarat, for instance, or by playing caste card and ‘moneycracy’ in Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. Lack of election also needs to be seen as leadership crisis or no change in leadership, i.e. continuity of domination of ‘traditional occupiers’ of the seats who are not challenged through election.

As part of populist measures, three trends can be observed. First, most of the Chief Ministers (CM) organise public functions in order to release of funds – cheques are issued to the functionaries of UEVPs in public function. This is done in order to bestow a sense of honour among the UEVPs. Secondly, the governments of Punjab and Haryana did not pay financial grants to the UEVPs, and finally the High Court of the both states ordered in April 2013 for immediate release of financial grant within three months. And thirdly, all the governments ask their respective administrative machineries to woo village panchayats, propagating the message that financial grants and other incentives for UEVP would make the village panchayats financially stable and politically supported by the ruling party.

It goes without saying that in these states village panchayats not opting to be UEVP or samaras are indirectly penalised, as they do not get certain grants.

Yet, it has been problematic is to challenge the idea of UEVP. In Gujarat, a Panchayat Elections Vigilance Committee (PEVC) was formed by over 70 civil society organisations. The PECV approached the State Election Commission (SEC) regarding the samaras scheme, promoting unanimous elections, as the SEC is responsible for conducing free and fair elections in the state. But the SEC expressed its inability to interfere in the matter as the samaras scheme was a state government scheme over which the SEC had no jurisdiction. The PEVC moved the High Court of Gujarat in 2008, and the case is still pending.

The Election Watch Front (EWF) of Andhra Pradesh has demanded that the government should order an inquiry into the money power that worked behind unanimous elections, as it found auctioning of sarpanch’s post, wherein Rs 4 lakh to Rs 40 lakh are paid up. The EWF has called PEVC as a subversion of the democratic process as well as spread of land mafia, which supports UEVPs to protect its interests. This trend is observed among village panchayats closer to developing cities. The EWV has also warned the state government that the grassroots democracy was being turned into ‘moneycracy’.

Newspaper reports from various states confirm money flowing before, during and after the village panchayat elections. One of the sarpanches in Gujarat shared that after she was chosen as sarpanch of a samaras village panchayat, her father-in-law invited the entire village, of about 6,000 people, for a meal to celebrate her appointment. In Kutch district of Gujarat, with the second highest number of samaras panchayats, each sarpanch and panchayat member has reportedly accumulated huge cash or wealth. This has happened because industries coming next to the jetties and ports in the region want huge tracts of land for setting up units.

Samaras claims versus reality

The UEVP or samaras schemes, especially all-women saramas panchayats, claim to promote following goals: Create a positive environment for development so that people could take decisions in a cordial, cooperative and harmonious manner; save election expenses; and ensure women’s empowerment through all-women samaras panchayats.

In response to these goals, the PEVC of Gujarat and political observers have raised several objections. When a reserved seat for a woman or a scheduled caste (SC) candidate is announced it is likely that many village panchayats initiate the process of opting for samaras panchayats.  As soon as the election is declared, usually the elderly men of upper castes call a meeting and discuss a few name for sarpanch and in two-three days, a person is selected – a woman or a person from the scheduled castes and s/he is informed. Those villagers who do not endorse the decision of samaras panchayats are threatened by the dominant group.

The Society for Women’s Training and Action conducted a quick survey in 2012 on all-women samaras panchayats, with important findings, such as, in the absence of open category candidates, a higher number of OBCs is selected and almost no SC candidate is opted. Thus, systematic exclusion of people from the lower castes and classes from the panchayat bodies is observed.

The visibility of women in all-women samaras panchayats cannot be labelled as women empowerment; in fact, a bias due to the perceived inability of women to perform effectively might be a factor which excludes them from various activities. In fact, one can see ‘proxy functioning’ in most of such panchayats. Often, as the performance of a woman sarpanch depends on many factors, the inability and non-performance of a woman sarpanch is used against her in case of conflict and ‘no-confidence motion’.

What is particularly worrisome is, government officials directly or indirectly convey the message to the village panchayats, that by not opting for samaras yojana, they may lead to deprivation of grants and development work in the village.

In the absence of substantive development agenda such as ensuring decentralisation and devolution of financial and administrative powers, political parties take populist measures that are considered progressive. These measures are taken in the name of women’s empowerment and social justice, as they help keep women and the marginalised communities closer to them. With financial incentive, the focus shifts to the development work in the village in largely a finance starving scenario. Thus, ‘unanimity’ is equalised as ‘unity’ and ‘financial support’ as ‘development’.

Lack of opposition despite decline in UEVPs

Though there is a decline in number of village panchayats opting for UEVP or samaras yojana compared to previous elections, more than 10 per cent of village panchayats opting for this scheme is a significant number. Why so? Because this idea serves different purposes.

First of all, when a democratic process is being compromised, it may have a negative impact in the long run. But as the term for a panchayat is for five years, long-term planning and development are not given much importance. People think in short term and short gains.

Secondly, people seek to buy up populist arguments of political leaders. One such instance is that of the Chief Minister of Gujarat arguing in favour of samaras panchayat, saying, “When a country elects its president unanimously, it is dubbed victory of democracy, but when a village elects its entire panchayat unanimously in Gujarat the opposition calls it murder. They fail to see that when the entire village reposes confidence on the unanimously elected panchayat, the elected body functions with greater zeal.”

Thirdly, the domination is maintained on caste and patriarchal identities and the voice of the marginalised communities remains inaudible.

Fourthly, illusionary yet populist moves of the ruling political party keep people away from more pertinent problems like democratic rights, participatory democracy and top-down development approach, lack of devolution of power in terms of funds, functions and functionaries, which actually make them dependent on red-tapism.

There a need to find out as to why people do not question the functioning of administrative macros and accept the culture of dependence. In representative democracy, approaching a member of the legislative assembly or a member of parliament is difficult for any common man, especially for the enactment of a law, or the amendment in a law, or for policy making. The grassroots democracy has also become a replica of the parliamentary democracy, where lack of devolution power disempower the elected representative, and in turn the villagers. When the disempowerment multiplies in the form of administrative hassles, issues related with lack of funds and corruption arise, and the spirit of enjoying democratic right is quietened.

In the given scenario we need to rethink about democracy and functioning of democratic institutions. Do we look at democracy as a dynamic system to bring about desired change and achieving the ideals our constitution offers us, or is democracy is just a system of governance that fulfils the needs of the people? Should election be considered a vital element for the selection of competent representatives who will in turn ensure grassroots development? How do we ensure new leadership through election, and how do we support the system of rotation and reservation for election that offers an opportunity for change of leadership?

In a larger discourse, what do we do to make vibrant panchayati raj institutions that are not just adjuncts to the bureaucracy and higher level governments in the absence of devolution of power? These questions need to be thought about before we turn cynical about relevance and importance of the panchayati raj institutions and swallow populist measures like unanimous panchayat elections, which are undemocratic, non-participatory, non-representative and non-inclusive.

—-

* Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla. This is the abridged version of an article published in “Summerhill”, a journal published by IIAS. It is part of a  larger study supported by the Institute for Rural Research and Development, Gurgaon

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