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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Explained: Supreme Court template for State Election Commissioners

Supreme Court says SECs across country cannot be holding office in govt. A look at the context in Goa, and the implications

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: March 16, 2021 7:01:22 am
Explained: SC ruling on Goa municipal council ward reservation and role of state poll commissionersThe SC ruling has come as a shot in the arm for opposition parties including the Congress and the GFP that went to court over the issue.

Last week, the Supreme Court said State Election Commissioners (SECs) across the country should be independent, and not persons holding office with the central government or a state government. The observation came in a case relating to the municipal elections in Goa; the Supreme Court directed the Goa government to redo the exercise of delimitation and reservation of municipal wards for women and SC/ST candidates in five municipal councils that were set to go to polls next week and appoint an independent SEC, which the government is now in the process of doing.

What is the case about?

The Goa government had moved Supreme Court against a ruling of the High Court of Bombay at Goa which had quashed an order of the Goa government determining the reservation of seats in wards of five of the 11 municipal councils set to go to polls on March 20. The High Court ruling had come on a clutch of petitions filed by Goan residents, including candidates backed by the Congress and the Goa Forward Party (GFP), urging the court to set aside a February 4 order of the Director of Municipal Administration in which, the petitioners alleged, wards were arbitrarily reserved and constitutional provisions mandating 33% seats for women and rotation of seats reserved for SC/ST candidates were not followed.

The High Court directed the Director, Municipal Administration to carry out the reservation of the wards afresh “rectifying gross illegalities”.

The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the HC that was of the opinion that the course adopted by the state government violates the constitutional mandate of law in reserving one-third seats for women in all local body polls. It directed the state government to carry out the exercise of reservation of wards afresh and issue a fresh election schedule.

The state government had mainly contended that the courts cannot interfere in the election schedule since they were imminent.

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What did the Supreme Court rule on the State Election Commissioner?

Noting that the SEC in Goa was the state Law Secretary, the Supreme Court described it as the “most disturbing feature of the case”. “The SEC has to be a person who is independent of the State Government as he is an important constitutional functionary who is to oversee the entire election process in the state qua panchayats and municipalities,” the Bench of Justices Rohinton Nariman, B R Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy observed. They directed the Goa government to appoint an independent person as SEC at the earliest.

The court noted that the Law Secretary, an IAS officer, was appointed SEC by the Goa Governor on November 3, 2020, handing him an additional duty. Two days later, administrators were appointed to municipal councils that had completed term, and in January, the SEC postponed elections to these councils until April. On February 4 , the Director of Municipal Administration reserved the wards, leading to the court petitions. Even while these were pending in court, the SEC announced the election schedule to 11 municipal councils on February 22.

What is the immediate fallout of the ruling?

The ruling has come as a shot in the arm for the Opposition parties that went to court. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant made a statement that mistakes made by the Directorate of the Municipal Administration will be rectified.

Elections had been announced for the Corporation of the City of Panaji (CCP) and 11 municipal councils. The ruling found reservation of wards in five councils faulty; hence, polls in these councils polls will not take place as scheduled on March 21. Elections to the other local bodies will be held on March 20.

Once delimitation and ward reservation for the five councils is done afresh, the new election dates will have to be before April 30, as directed by the SC.

Once delimitation and ward reservation for the five councils is done afresh, the new election dates will have to be before April 30, as directed by the Supreme Court.

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