A retrograde step

Print edition : April 15, 2000

WITH elections to the upper two tiers of the panchayati raj system - the taluk and zilla panchayats - approaching, the Karnataka Government has brought about an amendment to the Panchayati Raj Act of 1993, which seeks to take away certain powers that wer e hitherto vested with the State Election Commission. The Karnataka Panchayati Raj Amendment Bill, 2000, which is yet to receive the Governor's assent, is aimed at restoring to the government the right to make reservations to seats and offices of the pre sident (adhyaksha) and vice-president (upadhyaksha) of taluk and zilla panchayats. The bill seeks to take away the power to delimit taluk and zilla panchayat constituencies, which under the Act is vested with the State Election Commission. It would also reduce the term of the adhyaksha and upadhyaksha from five years to two and a half years.

The argument that the government offers in its Statement of Objects and Reasons for the amendment is that it is merely "restoring" the status quo ante - the system that existed prior to 1997 - which "in the light of the experience gained for the l ast two years is considered desirable". In 1997, the Janata Dal Government amended the Act to give these powers to the Election Commission. This was done in order to depoliticise the process of appointments through reservations and give it a degree of tr ansparency and accountability. The State Election Commission was also given powers to publish the names of elected members of taluk and zilla panchayats.

In the Assembly, the Opposition parties criticised the move to curtail the powers of the State Election Commission as one that was intended to help the ruling Congress(I) in the coming elections. Sixty-two MLAs from the Opposition parties, including the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (Secular), urged Governor V.S. Rama Devi to withhold her assent to the bill. They argued that it went against Article 243(K)(1) of the Constitution introduced through Constitution (73rd A mendment) Act, which states that "the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to the Panchayats shall be vested in a State Election Commission consisting of a State Election Comm issioner to be appointed by the Governor." The Opposition alleged that once the bill came into force, the ruling party would have complete say in the delimitation of constituencies and in the implementation of the roster system of reservation for backwar d classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

The bill was passed in the Assembly, where the Congress(I) is in a majority, on March 23 by a voice vote and without any discussion. The ruling party had not given the mandatory seven-day notice for the introduction of the bill; further, the bill was pas sed even as the Opposition staged a dharna in the well of the Assembly against its introduction. However, the bill was defeated in the Legislative Council the next day. It was readopted and passed in the Assembly, again without discussion, on March 31. I t awaits the Governor's assent.

THE legal status of the panchayati raj system in Karnataka has undergone several changes in the course of the State's 17-year experiment with decentralised governance. Karnataka was one of the first States in the country to introduce panchayati raj legis lation that anticipated the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act in respect of the extent and nature of powers devolved on panchayati raj institutions. The Karnataka Zilla Parishads, Taluk Panchayat Samithis, Mandal Panchayats and Nyaya Panchayats Act, 1983 , introduced by the Janata Party Government under Ramakrishna Hegde, gave far-reaching political and financial powers to panchayati raj institutions, creating functioning district governments. When the Congress(I) came back to power in 1989 it recast the Panchayati Raj Act: it revoked the powers that were given to elected panchayat bodies and put decision-making powers back into the hands of the State government. A new act, the Karnataka Panchayati Raj Act, 1993, came into being. In 1995 the Janata Dal Government introduced yet another major amendment to the Act of 1993: this amendment substantially increased reservations for the backward classes and put in a roster system of constituency reservation for the various backward classes and castes. This fo r the first time empowered persons from hitherto under-represented castes and communities by bringing them into elected office.

The present amendment is a retrograde legislative measure that opens up the process of selection of office-bearers to political interference by the party in power.

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