The DMK government’s decision to cancel Gram Sabha meetings on January 26, citing COVID concerns, has created a furore in the state. Activists and opposition parties have demanded to know why the government has cancelled Gram Panchayat meetings when it was allowing local body polls to be held.
The critics have said that it is ironical how the DMK government which once advocated for the conduct of the crucial Gram Sabha meetings in villages, has now taken a U-turn on its own ideology.
In 2020, the DMK had protested against the then AIADMK government’s cancellation of Gram Sabha meetings on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) and had conducted unofficial Gram Sabha meetings in some of the villages in central Tamil Nadu including Thanjavur, Trichy and Pudukottai districts.
However, the MK Stalin-led government’s U-turn on the issue has riled up many.
Due to an alleged delay in the delimitation process, the local body polls were not conducted in the state between 2016 and 2019. After a delay of three years, the rural local body polls were conducted in December 2019. The first Gram Sabha meeting was held on January 26, 2020.
According to the Panchayat Raj rules, the elected local body representatives should conduct Gram Sabha meetings four times in a year – on Republic Day (January 26), May Day (May 1), Independence Day (August 15) and Gandhi Jayanti (October 2). However, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grama Sabha meetings have not been conducted on a regular basis. The last one was held on October 2, 2021. On the day, Chief Minister Stalin made history by being the first chief minister to attend a Gram Sabha meeting at Pappapatti in Madurai district.
Nandakumar Siva, general secretary of Thannatchi, an organisation working towards creating awareness on local body governance, however, says that even the last Gram Sabha meeting was held following a plea filed by a village panchayat president.
“If it (Gram Sabha meeting) continues (to be cancelled), how can the elected representatives run the panchayats? It is impossible to take decisions without consulting the people or conducting the Gram Sabha meetings,” Siva said.
He added that when there was no elected body, the panchayat administration was the responsibility of the block development officers. During this time, several instances of corruption were reported.
“If the Gram Sabha meetings continue to be deferred, how can the government ensure transparency in the local body governance?” asked Nandakumar.
Senthil Arumugam, state secretary, Makkal Needhi Maiam, said that when the state government is ready to conduct the urban local body polls, it is unfathomable why it hesitates to conduct Gram Sabha meetings.
“According to Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, the panchayat presidents have the right to convene Gram Sabha meetings on any day. They don’t need to get prior permission from the District Collector. Based on that, many of the presidents had intimated their villages about the January 26 gram sabha meetings a week in advance. The government’s cancellation of these meetings is akin to interfering in the democratic right of an elected representative. It is not only a violation, but disrespect towards the Constitution,” Arumugam said in a statement.
He added that when the government can run TASMAC shops “safely”, citing the pandemic to deny permission for holding Gram Sabha meetings is not acceptable.
Talking to The Federal, Saravanan Annadurai, one of the spokespersons of the DMK said that the decision to postpone the Gram Sabha meetings has not taken been in an individual capacity, but after consulting with an expert team.
“Though the Omicron variant is said to be mild, it spreads like wildfire. The DMK waited till the last moment to see if it can find any possibility to conduct the Gram Sabha meetings. After consulting with experts, it has been decided that allowing the Gram Sabha meetings to be held at this stage of the pandemic wouldn’t be a safe option,” he said.
The director of rural development and Panchayat Raj department was not available for comment.
Meanwhile, the Madras High Court has refused to postpone the urban local body polls, while hearing a public interest litigation on January 25. It is to be noted that the Supreme Court in September 2021, has directed the State Election Commission to announce the dates for urban local polls on or before January 26. Any failure on part of the SEC to obey the directive would be seen as contempt of court.