March 2, 2021 3:21:50 am
The Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on Monday quashed and set aside 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 State Election Commission (SEC) on Monday kept elections in the five of the municipal councils at abeyance after the high court directed the director of municipal administration to carry out the reservation of the wards afresh “rectifying gross illegalities” in the reservation process.
A division bench of Justice M S Sonak and Justice Bharati Dangre was hearing a clutch of petitions 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 percent seats for women and rotation of seats reserved for SC/ST candidates were not followed.
Last week, the SEC had announced elections in 11 municipal councils in Goa and the Corporation of the City of Panaji (CCP). With legislative Assembly polls in 2022, political parties were preparing for the local body polls as a prelude to next year’s election.
The court struck down the February 4 order of reservation of wards for the council polls in Sanguem, Mormugao, Margao and Quepem in South Goa and Mapusa in North Goa and ordered that the exercise of reservation in these councils be carried out afresh and asked authorities to issue a notification in 10 days to ensure that the reservation for women is not less than one-third the seats in the council.
The court also came down heavily on the SEC for announcing elections to the municipal council on February 22, despite the irregularities in the reservation of the wards.
“We do not appreciate the helplessness expressed by the state election commission, which is supposed to be an authority independent of the government. If the illegality has been noticed by the SEC, we expect it to act with promptitude and issue appropriate directions to the director to rectify the said action by ensuring that it follows the mandate of the Constitution rather than to rush and issue the election schedule….The silence on part of the constitutional functionary, according to us, is highly detrimental to the democratic concept of this country. We say nothing more,” Justice Dangre said in the judgment.
Justice Sonak observed, “…the state election commissioner enjoys the same status as the Election Commissioner of India when it comes to the domain of election to the Panchayats and Municipal Council in the state. Therefore, it is not expected of the SEC to express such helplessness when faced with orders of a director, which are ex-facie, unconstitutional, and ultra vires the provisions of the said Act.”
The petitioners had argued that in the municipal council of Sanguem, only three of ten seats were reserved for women, in Mormugao eight of 25 seats were reserved for women when there should have been at least nine and in Mapusa, six of 20 seats were reserved for women when at least seven should have been marked for women.
In Sanguem, a ward that had only one Scheduled Tribe voter (0.23 percent of the population), was reserved for an ST candidate instead of two other wards, that had a greater population of STs. In Quepem, lawyers C A Ferreira and Dhaval Zaveri argued that in absence of any policy for rotating the reserved seats, they were left to the whims and fancies of the government.
Advocate General D J Pangam submitted that even if there are certain minor irregularities in the process, they were not detrimental to the interest of the petitioners or did not affect the election to the municipal council.
“As per the factual matrix, borne out of record, elements of caprice and irrationality are manifestly writ large as because the action appears to be disproportionate and excursive even going by logic of the statistical data as well as the procedure applied for arriving at the number of seats to be reserved and how they are to be rotated, without repetition. It is out and out case of manifest arbitrariness because it is directed in eliminating the valid and legal representation of a particular class on basis of illogical and formalistic notion which is in utter disregard to achieve the very object of appropriate representation” the judges observed.
While the Advocate General sought a stay on the order to challenge it in the Supreme Court, the court, however, rejected his request.
On Monday evening, the Goa government was set to file a special leave petition in the Supreme Court, however, the petitioners too filed a caveat in the top court seeking a hearing the case. Congress and Goa Forward Party leaders both said caveats had been filed in the apex court by petitioners.
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