The Collectorate in Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district witnessed something unusual on June 16. For the first time, presidents of 11 panchayats in the district petitioned the Collector, alleging that authorities had not consulted gram sabhas before making decisions on works under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
The presidents have also alleged that some members of the ruling AIAMDK had indulged in the decision-making process, even without the consent of the gram sabhas.
However, this is not a one-off incident. Many elected representatives of panchayats across the state are not being allowed to exercise their rights. Especially, amid the COVID-19 lockdown, the high-handedness of authorities have overshadowed the powers of local bodies, they alleged.
“For instance, Virudhunagar Collector sent an order to all presidents on May 21, asking them not to spend any money from the bank accounts of their panchayats for works other than those related to COVID-19,” said Nandakumar Siva, the general secretary of Thannaatchi, an organisation that creates awareness on Panchayat Raj. “It is a violation of Government Order 203, passed in 2007,” he said.
Panchayats save their earnings from taxes and other revenues in a bank account, known as ‘first account’ or ‘general account’. The GO allows panchayats to withdraw upto ₹2 lakh from these accounts for developmental activities without the need to obtain permission from the concerned Collector, said Siva.
“The Odisha government has given powers to (panchayat) presidents, equivalent to that of Collectors. In Kerala, the local bodies have been given additional responsibilities amid the lockdown. But no such thing has happened in Tamil Nadu,” he added.
After three years, the state conducted elections to rural local bodies in December 2019. But officials neglect the advice of elected representatives, presidents alleged. “Clerks in panchayat offices get information about projects under MGNREGS, but they never inform presidents about these projects,” alleged Ulaganathan, the president of Sripurandan panchayat in Ariyalur district.
“Be it constructing a check dam or laying a cement road, ruling party members always make decisions. They never consult us regarding the works, nor do they carry out projects for the benefit of the village. Clerks too act according to the beck and call of the ruling party members,” Ulaganathan said.
Besides MGNREGS works, rules are also being flouted while carrying out Kudimaramathu (maintenance of water resources) works, he alleged.
“A committee of 20 farmers should be formed and Kudimaramathu works can be carried out only with their consent. However, ruling party members execute these works too. If we complain about this to authorities, the members threaten to invoke Section 205 of Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, which empowers Collector to remove a panchayat president,” said Ulaganathan.
Adding to their woes, funds allocated to panchayats under 14th and 15th Finance Commissions have been withheld.
“Earlier, commissioners of various departments respected panchayat presidents. But now, they don’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge us. I have never seen such disrespectful authorities in more than two decades,” added Ulaganathan.
However, in some parts of the state, officers consult with presidents while making decisions. Subitha, a first-time president of Poosalangudi panchayat in Tiruvarur district said authorities got her consent on MGNREGA works, though she was a first-timer.
“We demand them to take up works in particular places. If they have other ideas, then we discuss those during gram sabha meeting and they go ahead with the works,” she said.
G Palanithurai, an expert on Panchayat Raj, said Collectors, who are the inspectors of panchayats should follow certain procedures laid by High Court of Punjab and Haryana in 2013 before invoking Section 205 of the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act.
“The problem is most presidents lack knowledge about the Panchayat Raj Act. The state government provides 19 books to the presidents during its one-day training. But many presidents don’t read them. So, they don’t know how to exercise their rights. They always depend on Block Development Officers,” he said.
Earlier, panchayat presidents, especially, female panchayat presidents had associations. But now, no such associations exist. So political parties have begun to intrude into these issues, added Palanithurai.