Hill parties divided over two-tier panchayat election plan

8 Nov 2016

Even as the TMC-led state government is gearing up to hold a two-tier panchayat election in the hills in an obvious bid to gain electoral advantage given the present fickle political scenario, political parties of the region are a divided lot.

The Darjeeling district administration today convened an all-party meeting for delimitation of seats for the gram panchayat and panchayat samity elections. The meeting was attended by the ruling Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, hill TMC, Gorkha National Liberation Front, Jan Andolan Party and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist (CPRM) and the Congress. The GJM and CPRM rejected the state government’s decision to conduct a two-tier panchayat election maintaining it would be aaainst the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration agreement and act of 2011. On the other hand, the hill TMC, GNLF, Congress and JAP said they did not have any objections.

Predictably, the GJM chose to evoke the GTA Act that has the provision to form a three-tier panchayat system in the hills. The state, Centre and the GJM are signatories to the agreement that was signed on July 19, 2011 to bring to an end four years of agitation for statehood.

“The state government has subterfuge designs in wanting to hold a two-tier panchayat election in the hills despite the existence of an agreement to implement a three-tier system. It's decision is unilateral as no bipartite or tripartite meetings have been held. By trying to enforce a two-tier election, the state government is depriving people of the facilities and benefits of a three-tier panchayat system. Opposition parties must reject this and create pressure on the state government,” said GJM general secretary Roshan Giri after the all-party meeting that was held in the conference hall of the district magistrate's office.

The CPRM too highlighted the GTA agreement to oppose the two-tier election. “The state government is also a signatory to the GTA agreement that says a three-tier panchayat election will be implemented in the hills. Why the sudden change now?  A three-tier panchayat election should be held by scrapping the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad first,” said CPRM spokesperson Govind Chhetri.

After the formation of the now-defunct Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988, a constitutional amendment was effected to form a two-tier system for the Darjeeling hills since no two zilla parishads — the highest rung under a panchayati system — can exist in one district. So while the plains of Darjeeling district had a Mahakuma Parishad, the hills had a two-tier system without the zilla parishad. Although the hills were supposed to have a two-tier system, opposition from the GNLF, which was in power then, saw the functioning of a single tier system until 2005.

N.B. Khawas, spokesperson for the hill TMC, chided the GJM for raking up the three-tier panchayat system issue for political gain. “Like the Gorkhaland issue, the GJM is taking up the three-tier panchayat matter for political benefits. The GTA agreement was signed in 2011, but why are they now trying to oppose the panchayat election by bringing up the three-tier panchayat system? The whole exercise of the GJM is to continue to impose their autocratic and oppressive rule in the hills,’ he said.

Meantime, the GNLF and JAP brought up the issue of amending Article 243 of the Constitution to put in place a three-tier panchayat system even as they welcomed the state government's decision  for a two-tier election. “Article 253 of the Constitution must be amended in order to facilitate a three-tier panchayat system in the hills. The GJM failed to take up the issue for these many years. The state government must not deprive the rural population from the benefits of panchayati raj,” said Amar Lama, senior bureau member of the JAP. The GNLF too said that without amending Article 243 it would not be possible to implement a three-tier panchayat system. “As long as Article 243 remains unchanged, we cannot have a three-tier panchayat or elections to it,” said Sandip Limbu, representing the GNLF.

The 73rd Amendment of the Constitution, Clause 3 of Article 243-M reads: “Nothing in this Part (a) related to panchayats at the district level shall apply to the hill areas of the District of Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal for which Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council exists under any law for the time being in force; (b) shall be construed to affect the functions and powers of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

Darjeeling district magistrate Anurag Srivastava said the agenda of delimitation of seats for the gram panchayat and panchayat samity elections was discussed in the all-party meeting today. He said all parties present were asked to give in writing their objections and suggestions to the proposal within 15 days. “We have noted the objections. They will have to give this in writing. The high court has directed the state government to hold panchayat election in the hills. The district administration is prepared and just awaiting directives from the state government,” he said.

At present there are 112 gram panchayats and eight panchayat samities in the eight blocks of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong subdivisions. (EOIC)