In Tamil Nadu, where local body elections begin this month, panchayat posts are "auctioned" and Dalits are prevented from filing nominations in some villages.
ELECTIONS to fill 1.17 lakh positions in the three-tier panchayati raj institutions and 14,354 posts in the urban local bodies in Tamil Nadu will be held on October 16 and 18. Voters numbering 4.66 crores would exercise their franchise in these civic elections, the second in the State held in accordance with the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution effected in 1993. The amendments ensured reservation of seats for two distinctly disadvantaged sections - women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. While one-third of the elected positions in each of the different categories were reserved for women, the reservation of seats for the latter groups would be in proportion to their percentage in the population (roughly 20 per cent). The first post-amendment elections were held in 1996.
Involved in the elections are 12,609 village panchayats, 384 panchayat unions and 29 district panchayats, besides 609 town panchayats, 102 municipalities and six city corporations.
The run-up to the elections witnessed some significant socio-political developments. A new political lineup emerged in the case of the urban bodies - city corporations and municipal councils - for which elections are held on party basis. There are now three principal fronts as against the two in the Assembly elections. Two major parties have left the ruling front headed by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) - the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Congress(I). While the PMK has joined the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led front, the Congress(I) is heading a third Front in association with a few parties which have left the DMK-led front, including the Congress Jananayaga Peravai led by former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), another constituent of the AIADMK-led front, has decided to go it alone following differences of opinion with the AIADMK over seat-sharing. The Puthiya Tamilagam, headed by Dalit leader K. Krishnaswami, also left the DMK-led front and joined the Congress(I)-led alliance. The Dalit Panthers led by R. Thirumavalavan, which was also with the DMK in the May elections, has opted to contest on its own. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) is also in the fray, unattached to any alliance. Added to this is the problem of serious dissensions in the principal parties over the choice of candidates.
OF far greater significance, and having possibly far-reaching implications, are certain developments relating to the panchayat elections witnessed in the southern districts even before the electoral process began. These elections are held on a non-party basis. The forum of "oor (village) panchayat" (an assembly of elders and wealthy and influential persons, mostly belonging to the predominant caste group in the village) was used in a number of villages to "auction" panchayat posts such as president and ward member, with the declared objective of "avoiding conflicts". The highest bidders were declared "selected" for the posts and they alone were allowed to file nominations. The bid amount ranged between Rs.10,000 (for the post of ward member) and Rs.5.43 lakhs (for panchayat president). According to newspaper reports, the posts of panchayat president in several villages were thus "sold" in Usilampatti and Peraiyur blocks in Madurai district and Manamadurai block in Sivaganga district.
A different mode of "sale" was adopted in certain other villages. An amount was fixed as the "sale price" - Rs.1 lakh, for instance - for the president's post and one of the persons who offered to pay the price was "selected". Vagurani in Madurai district is one of the villages where the post of panchayat president was "sold" under this system. The amount collected from the "selected" persons would go to the village's common fund, mainly to be spent on temple festivals.
Such auctioning is seen as an attempt by vested interests to retain the common resources of the village in their control. When money is the only criterion for obtaining power, the poor, the women and Dalits, who are kept out of the decision-making process at the "oor panchayats", are deprived of their right to participate in the electoral process on equal terms with others. The practice will encourage corruption since those who "buy" the posts at high prices would not do it for nothing. Another pertinent point raised is that the "selections" were made in violation of the rules governing election expenses. The maximum amount a contestant for a panchayat president's post can spend is only Rs.10,000.
Madurai District Collector S. Ramachandran pleaded helplessness when reports of the auctioning of posts were brought to his notice on September 18. He said he did not know whether the administration could intervene, though he agreed that the practice went against the spirit of democracy. He said the administration could not take suo motu action in these cases; he could act only on specific complaints.
State Election Commissioner (SEC) P.S. Pandyan took a week to clarify the Election Commission's position. He explained that the auctioning "does not have legal sanctity" and said that anyone could contest the elections "regardless of prior deals". He warned against any attempt to prevent people from filing nominations and assured the contestants protection. "Only after the electoral officer of a particular local body declares the results and issues a certificate, a contestant becomes a winner," he pointed out.
The SEC felt compelled to take note of the development only when yet another, more important, aspect of the practice began surfacing. Dr. G. Palanithurai, coordinator, Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayat Studies, Gandhigram Rural Institute, saw in the auctioning an attempt by the "traditional panchayat system" to re-establish its supremacy. He pointed out that this happened more in areas where a particular caste known for its deep-rooted prejudice against Dalits had a substantial presence. In villages where the posts of panchayat president are reserved for Dalits, the auctioning of posts by the dominant caste Hindu groups, which do not want Dalits in positions of power, was obviously intended to find at best "pliable" presidents. Dalit activists say Dalits, who are mostly agricultural workers dependent on caste Hindu landholders for their subsistence, cannot pay a hefty amount for a panchayat post, which may even prove to be a crown of thorns as experience in the past five years has shown them. They point out that if a Dalit is "selected" in this way, it only means that some wealthy person from the caste Hindu groups is behind him.
Caste Hindu groups adopt numerous ways to sabotage attempts to empower Dalits, one of the declared objectives of decentralisation of power. First, they challenge in courts the reservation of particular villages for Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes. When this fails, they announce a boycott of elections. By virtue of their majority status in the village, they bring pressure on Dalits against contesting the elections. In some places they resort to violence.
If these efforts also fail and elections do take place, they look for "pliable" candidates. (For instance, in a village in Kanchipuram district, a landholder was the vice-president and a worker in his field the president.) If someone who is disliked by the dominant caste manages to get elected, they do not cooperate with the person concerned. If a "pliable" Dalit panchayat president turns "hostile", he is banished from the village and his family ostracised, as it happened in the case of V. Nagar, the Dalit president of Maruthangudi panchayat in Madurai district (Frontline, September 29, 2000). In the worst-ever manifestation of caste Hindu intolerance of Dalit empowerment, Murugesan, president of the Melavalavu panchayat in Madurai district and six others were done to death in 1997 (Frontline, July 25, 1997).
Despite "repeated efforts" by the administration, elections could not be held last time in Keeripatti and Pappapatti villages in Usilampatti taluk of Madurai district because of stiff resistance from militant caste Hindu groups. (No elections could be held in four village panchayats last time.) This time also caste Hindu militants were in no mood to budge. They threatened that if any Dalit dared to contest "Melavalavu will be repeated here."
Their threat seems to have worked. Keeripatti and Pappapatti are among the four villages where no nomination papers were filed for the post of either the president or the ward member.
The director of People's Watch, Tamil Nadu, Henri Tiphagne, has filed complaints before the Collector and the Superintendent of Police, Madurai, demanding that a case be registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and investigation started to find out who was responsible for not conducting the panchayat elections in Pappapatti and Keeripatti. Copies of the complaints have been sent to the National Human Rights Commission and the National S.C./S.T. Commission.
How many more village panchayats reserved for Dalits will be deprived of elections is not known at this stage since the election process is not complete. Moreover, it not yet clear how many of those who won the "auctioned" posts will actually get "elected".
Political parties which are busy with their plans for the urban body elections, have showed little interest in the developments concerning the marginalised sections in rural Tamil Nadu. Only a few leaders have denounced the practice of auctioning panchayat posts. CPI(M) State Secretary N. Sankariah said that it was anti-democratic and cut at the roots of the process of decentralising power. "The objective of 'power to the people' will be defeated by this practice," he said. P. Chidambaram said that attempts to auction panchayat posts and the moves to prevent Dalits from filing nominations were indicators of the increasing trend of criminalisation, commercialisation and communalisation of politics in the State.