IN WHAT will be the biggest opportunity for the Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to seize control of village-level politics since losing the initiative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the years after 2014, the Maharashtra government on Monday ordered administrators to nearly 14,000 gram panchayats to be appointed by zilla parishad Chief Executive Officers in consultation with their respective district guardian ministers.
On account of Covid-19 and the lockdown, the State Election Commission had earlier postponed elections to all gram panchayats whose elected bodies’ term comes to an end between the imposition of the lockdown and October-November 2020 and recommended appointment of administrators. Nearly 50 per cent of Maharashtra’s 28,000-odd gram panchayats would have gone to polls between March and November this year. On Monday, a Government Resolution issued by Additional Chief Secretary Arvind Kumar said that from the point of view of administrative convenience, zilla parishad CEOs would be entrusted the work of appointing a suitable person as administrator for each gram panchayat whose tenure is ending. It added that the appointments will be made in consultation with each district’s guardian minister. The order pertains to 1,566 gram panchayats whose tenure ended between April and June this year and another 12,668 gram pamchayats whose term ends between July and November 2020.
From sarpanches to Members of Parliament, leaders not aligned to the current Maha Vikas Aghadi regime said involving district guardian ministers in the process of selecting administrators was a blatant political move, though BJP leaders downplayed suggestions that it would kick off an exodus of grassroots leaders into the three ruling parties.
“These are bodies elected by local voters. We agree that elections cannot be held now, but how can district guardian ministers be involved in finalising administrators? This is a politically motivated decision, one that has never happened in the history of Maharashtra. No government has the right by law to extend the term of the elected body, but here a government is appropriating to political leaders a procedural task that should have been left to officials,” said Harshavardhan Patil, former Maharashtra cabinet minister who moved to the BJP from the Congress just before state Assembly elections in 2019.
Nanded MP Pratap Patil Chikhalikar, who moved to the BJP before the Lok Sabha elections last year, said the ZP CEOs’ role in the selection will now be minimal. “Basically, guardian ministers have been given a free hand to take political control of the gram panchayats. Either the government should have insisted on government officers to be appointed as administrators, or at the very least should have ensured that administrators have the same political allegiance as the sitting sarpanch,” Chikhalikar told The Indian Express.
Sarpanches, who have played a central role in successfully limiting the spread of the novel-coronavirus in rural Maharashtra, have themselves expressed disappointment over the past weeks — their suggestions for the incumbent sarpanch or a spouse to be selected for the administrator’s post were rejected.
Jayant Patil Kurdukar, founding president of the Akhil Bharatiya Sarpanch Parishad, said wherever politically expedient, or where there is a sitting Sena or Congress or NCP-affiliated sarpanch, appointment of a close aide or relative will be common, while gram panchayats with sarpanches affiliated to the BJP or other parties would likely see their immediate rivals, prospective Sena-NCP-Congress candidates for coming elections, or losing candidates from the last election appointed as administrators. “The unity achieved in villages in the fight against Corona will vanish, and people will once again focus on partisan politics,” he told The Indian Express. The association’s latest letter to the CM urges that elections be announced, with social distancing and e-campaigning norms in place.
“In April and then in May, we wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray requesting that the government approach the Centre and request an ordinance amending the law and allowing an extension of tenure for existing elected panchayat members,” said Patil Kurdukar. He said administrators, who may be outsiders to a village, would not be able to correctly survey and quarantine returning workers and handle other coronavirus-related awareness and precautionary measures while sitting panchayat members have worked without any additional remuneration or acknowledgement of their services. “The government’s decision has reduced everything to a political play, there will now be many jumping party fences,” he said.
Apart from the political capital derived from controlling gram panchayats, the utilisation of development funds is also a bone of contention. “Very large sums are received by gram panchayats directly from the state and central governments as funds, the control of these will also now be politically motivated,” Chikhalikar said.
After the implementation of the 15th Finance Commission recommendations, gram panchayats receive approximately between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 80 lakh annually from the Centre — the gram panchayats’ whose term ends now would account for an average total of Rs 4,000 crore in development funds in this financial year. Harshvardhan Patil said, “The central funds come with clear stipulations and rules. Can the administrator now also tweak the rules and decide on utilisation of these funds? This is usually decided by the elected body. On what legal basis will the administrator be able to decide on funds’ utilisation? How can he call meetings, what will be a quorum when there is no elected body?”
He said development work will be in chaos while politics will rule-village level decisions until elections, which will be at least another six months away.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines