Soon after taking office in March 2017, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh set up a new department called Guardians of Governance reporting directly to him. The department comprises entirely of ex-servicemen. “This will be a group of ex-servicemen from panchayats to blocks to districts, right up to the chief minister. They will report about the implementation of schemes. It is going to hopefully eradicate the misuse of funds,” Amarinder had said earlier at the release of the Congress manifesto for the election.
One year into Amarinder’s term, the scheme is described by the CM’s aides as the “brain, eyes, and ears” of the government. Congress MLAs, on the other hand, are openly opposed to it as an encroachment on their turf. The opposition calls it a waste of money. It is also facing criticism for the alleged high-handedness of its members.
There are more basic questions: should it exist at all, as the government already has oversight instruments such as vigilance and audit departments; does it undermine grassroots democratic institutions such as the panchayat at the village level; and should ex-servicemen be monitoring civilian schemes and institutions.
The GoG scheme was initially launched in five districts of Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Barnala last year with 927 GoGs. It is now also in Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Amarinder’s home district Patiala, and the number of 3,060. Havildar Baljinder Singh (retd), is the Guardian of Governance for Alkare and Jhande villages in Amritsar district said. “I have raised that the village school has no playground, no drinking water and no electricity. I have also raised the issue of the chhappar (village pond) shrinking day by day as people are filling it and panchayat is doing nothing.” He said that he was not getting any support from the panchayat. “I also brought to notice that non-deserving people are getting benefits under Blue Card scheme and the real deserving are left out,” he added.
GoG vice chairman Major General SPS Grewal (retd) said the government allocated Rs 9 crore in the current fiscal for the first phase of the scheme. Of this, Rs 7 crore goes towards paying GoGs an honorarium, ranging from Rs 11,000 to Rs 40,000, depending on whether he is appointed in a village, tehsil or district. There are plans to recruit more GoGs. The Sainik Welfare Department Punjab, the nodal department, has demanded a Rs 92 crore budgetary allocation for the scheme in the coming fiscal, out of which Rs 82 crore is for the honorarium, and balance Rs 10 crore for infrastructure, contingency and training of the volunteers. The goal is to have one GoG in each of the 13,000 villages in the state, and the estimated cost of this is about Rs 150 crore.
The ex-servicemen hired in the inaugural phase were given a five-day training at the Punjab government-run Mahatma Gandhi State Institute of Public Administration. It cost the government Rs 66 lakh. The institute has not been paid fully yet, and wants the outstanding to be cleared, and advance payment for the next batch.
Several Congress legislators have lodged a strong protest with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, alleging that the the “raakhe”, as GoGs are known, were coming between them and their constituency. “I have received a number of complaints in my constituency that they are overstepping their mandate. In several cases, they take to the gurdwara public address system and ask people to come and get their forms of pension and such schemes filled. They have to monitor but there have been complaints that they have started their own politics. This has caused a problem in villages. I have brought this matter to the notice of Chief Minister,” said Congress MLA Sukhpal Singh Bhullar, who represents Khem Karan constituency in Tarn Taran district.
Congress legislator Harpartap Singh Ajnala alleged that many of them had Akali loyalties. “It has created a big mess and until you involve local MLAs, it will remain a mess. As an MLA, we have to deal with people at the political level. A lot of these GOGs are active supporters of Shiromani Akali Dal, some even polling agents of SAD candidates. How can our supporters accept them. As an MLA, we are supposed to be involved in schemes like Blue Cards, pensions. We remain in touch with officials up to patwari level in the village. But GoGs are promoting themselves,” Ajnala, who represents Ajnala constituency in Amritsar district, said.
Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Dera Baba Nanak MLA, said, “MLAs were not taken into confidence while appointing GoGs. Very few of them are Congress supporters. Those who fought against Akali rule for 10-years were not chosen. Also, this threatens to undermine the Panchayati Raj System.”
Randhawa said, if at all, unemployed youth should have been appointed as GoGs. “Ex-armymen get pension. The scheme should be reconsidered to provide opportunities to the youth,” said Randhawa. Lt General T S Shergill (retd), a senior adviser to Chief Minister Amarinder Singh who runs the scheme from the CMO, is unfazed by the criticism.
“When you think of recruiting people who will be the brains, eyes and ears of the government, the most respected undisputedly are from the armed forces,” said Shergill.
He said GoGs only apprise government of problems that need to be addressed. “GoGs do not give instructions to sarpanches. They should not be given political colour. After getting elected, MLAs should also treat people equally,” Shergill said Political Science professor at Panjab University Ashutosh Kumar calls the scheme the outcome of “typical military kind of thinking that civilians are corrupt”. “It also undermines the Panchayati Raj institutions and the principles of grassroots democracy,” he said.
Kumar said there was already a system in place with ministers, MLAs and bureaucrats. “And if they do anything wrong, there is a vigilance department to keep an eye on them,” said Kumar. Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal called the GoGs “a total waste of money”. The government should first start governing, and then think of having guardians of governance,” he said.
Leader of Opposition in Vidhan Sabha and AAP MLA Sukhpal Singh Khaira said, “The concept appears to be non-productive. If an elected sarpanch cannot get justice for the people of the village, how can a Guardian of Governance ensure that.” GoGs use an app and upload their feedback there which reaches at multiple levels including the concerned deputy commissioners.
Col Sarbrinder Singh Sandhu (retd), who heads Amritsar district unit of the GoGs, said that they are making a difference “slowly and quietly” . “While the Deputy Commissioner is very co-operative, the subordinate officers were initially very apprehensive that a third force will interfere in their work. But, we made it clear to them that we are there only to assist. Now, they are also co-operating with us. From MGNREGA to Blue Cards to water works, we are raising the issues one by one. We give lists of works which could be done under MGNREGA, lists of non-deserving beneficiaries under Blue Cards and lists of various works like non-functional water supply due to damaged water pipes.” Sandhu added, “Some of the Congress MLAs are not happy for the reasons best known to them. If system is clean, benefit will go to the government only.”