ON October 11, a week ahead of the local body elections in Tamil Nadu, Theekathir, the daily newspaper brought out in Tamil by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), published a cartoon. It portrayed two emaciated bulls drawing a cart, with a frail old man driving it. The cart was shown as crashing down as J. Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister, and M. Karunanidhi, the former Chief Minister, pull away a wheel each in opposite directions. The cart was likened to panchayati raj institutions in the State, with the two wheels representing its financial resources.
What was remarkable about the local body elections was the high-quality debate on how the two Dravidian parties, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which have alternated in power for decades, had weakened the panchayati raj institutions, starved them of funds, given unbridled powers to District Collectors to dissolve gram panchayats, and exercised the power to dismiss district panchayats and town panchayats at will. It was also pointed out that gram sabha meetings were never held.
G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the CPI(M), K.V. Thangkabalu, president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC), Dr S. Ramadoss, founder and leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and Vijayakant, founder of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), were unanimous in attacking the specious argument advanced by the ruling AIADMK that for development works to take place people should vote only for ruling party candidates. It is an insult to democracy and elections that [AIADMK] Ministers are asking people to vote for the ruling party candidates, telling them that if they fail to do so, welfare measures will not reach them, Ramakrishnan said.
In this context, few missed the irony of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's speech read out in her absence at the National Development Council (NDC) meeting in New Delhi on October 22. She sarcastically remarked that she was not sure whether the Government of India recognises the States as partners, leave alone equal partners, and respects their viewpoints. She unleashed a broadside against the Centre, alleging that there are attempts by the Centre to weaken the States with too much interference, thereby reducing them to the status of glorified municipal corporations. With a big-brotherly attitude that has come to characterise the Central government, Jayalalithaa said, untied funds have been replaced by the so-called flagship programmes', consequently treating elected State governments as mere local supplicants. In her view, she said, such a design is completely flawed and violative of the spirit of the Constitution wherein States, being closer to the people, have been accorded a key role in the development-related activities.
Firing another fusillade, Jayalalithaa said: In most of the flagship programmes, the Central funds are released directly to a large number of implementation agencies at the State and district levels to their bank accounts, outside the government system. This is a deliberate attempt to bypass the State governments and this violates the spirit of democratic decentralisation being preached often by the Centre. The direct release of Central funds to such special purpose vehicles outside the budgetary system dilutes financial control and accountability and weakens monitoring, while increasing the administrative burden of the State governments. The right approach would be to release Central funds to the State governments and allow for expenditure from State budgets.
If the burden of the Chief Minister's speech was that the Centre had reduced the States to glorified municipal corporations by encroaching upon their powers, a recurring theme in the speeches of leaders of several political parties during the campaign for the local body elections was how the AIADMK and the DMK governments had reduced the local bodies to toothless entities.
While introducing A.K. Moorthy, the PMK's mayoral candidate for the Chennai Municipal Corporation, on October 3, Ramadoss was blunt: While indulging in rhetoric about the autonomy for States, the Dravidian parties never bothered to relegate powers to local bodies. If the local bodies continue to languish in every aspect, it is because they do not have adequate powers. Although the two Dravidian parties had alternately ruled Tamil Nadu for the past 44 years, they did not give the local bodies enough powers to ensure their independent functioning, he said. He brought up the subject again on October 7: The Dravidian parties are demanding more autonomy for the States. But they are reluctant to provide more powers to the local bodies. The latter should be given full powers over education, health, drinking water supply and roads.
The issue of how the AIADMK and the DMK had made the panchayati raj institutions powerless was serious enough for the State committee of the CPI(M) to point out in its panchayat election manifesto how these two parties had not provided enough finance to these institutions and how they had been neglecting the district panchayats for the past 20 years because they did not accept in principle the setting up of district panchayats. It also demanded that the District Collectors should not be empowered to remove the elected representatives of local bodies.
The TNCC brought out a researched document in Tamil, entitled For autonomy in panchayat institutions, Local Body Elections 2011, which dealt with the architects of the panchayati raj institutions in India. It pointed out that Congress Chief Minister K. Kamaraj was instrumental in enacting the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act in 1958 and that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted to ensure true decentralisation of powers to local bodies. Under the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, which devolved powers on the rural local bodies, 29 functions were set apart for them. Under the 74th Amendment, the urban local bodies could exercise 18 functions, the document pointed out.
Releasing the document, which formed the TNCC's manifesto, Thangkabalu demanded that all rural local bodies in the State should be allowed these 29 functions. However, under the law [Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994], there is no scope for panchayati raj institutions to exercise many of these functions, Thangkabalu said. According to the provisions of the 73rd Amendment, government primary and middle schools, primary health centres and taluq hospitals were to be under the control of the rural local bodies. But the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act brought the schoolteachers, health workers and others fully under the State government's control. This is totally contrary to what is envisaged in the Constitution, Thangkabalu said. The TNCC document said it was painful that the State government continued to exercise 17 out of the 29 functions of the rural local bodies. Thangkabalu also described as totally unwanted and reprehensible the powers vested with the Collector and the government to dissolve village panchayats and panchayat union councils.
Ramakrishnan, who has been advocating true decentralisation of powers to local bodies, reasoned that since the local bodies are close to the people, they can implement many welfare schemes.
The power of village panchayat presidents to convene village sabha meetings was unique, Ramakrishnan said. This helped the people take part in the administration of villages. Gram panchayats could prepare annual plans for the villages, implement them and review them.
All these records, including accounts, should be placed before village sabha meetings and their approval obtained. Ramakrishnan said: This means the voters, who elect the village panchayat president, can participate in the administration of the village. Unfortunately, officials do not help the gram sabha presidents to convene the meetings. Power should be devolved on local bodies and not officials. The British wanted to rule the country through officials and not through elected representatives. The Collectors continue to behave as if they are chieftains. The CPI(M) demanded that the power given to Collectors under the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act to remove elected representatives should be done away with. Ramakrishnan, Ramadoss and Thangkabalu demanded that the State government should provide more than 30 per cent of its tax revenues to the local bodies instead of the 10 per cent given now. At least one-third of the tax revenues should be allotted to the local bodies, Ramakrishnan said.
The leaders also demanded separately that the State Election Commissioner, who was in charge of organising the panchayat elections, should be independent of the State government. The CPI(M) leader and the PMK founder wanted the State Election Commissioner to be appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) just as the CEO was appointed by the Chief Election Commissioner.
Vijayakant, Ramadoss and Ramakrishnan were also united in attacking the argument advanced by AIADMK leaders that people should elect only those belonging to the ruling party in order to ensure development of villages and towns.
Ramakrishnan demanded that the State Assembly bring forward a piece of legislation to deal with the three-tiered urban local bodies (municipal corporations, municipalities and district panchayats) just as the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act dealt with three-tiered rural local bodies.
During her campaign, Jayalalithaa often likened the local bodies to the nervous system of the government. Just as the nervous system carried the blood to the various parts of the body, local bodies were responsible for taking the government's schemes to the people. The AIADMK government will take Tamil Nadu on the path of development and ensure that welfare schemes reach the people, she told voters. However, as Ramakrishnan observed, In a vast country like India with a population of 120 crore, only when we empower the local bodies, grass-root democracy will come into force.T.S. Subramanian
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