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Prasanna Mishra

In the just concluded Elections, Odisha’s 27.93 million rural voters were to elect 91,913 Ward Members, 6794 Sarpanches, 6793 Panchayat Samilti Members and 853 Zilla Parishad Members. As many as 189,099 candidates were in the fray, comprising 162,297 for Ward Members (1.76 candidates per seat), 34613 for Sarpanches (5.09 candidates per seat), 3999 for Zilla Parishad Members (4.68 candidates per seat), 28153 for Panchayat Samiti Members (4.14 candidates per seat). Prior to elections, expenditure limits for various offices were enhanced. For Zilla Parishad Members, it was enhanced to Rs 5 lakh from Rs 2 lakh and for Sarpanch the raise was from Rs 80,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

About 210 lakh voters cast votes; 69 lakh voters did not. BJD polled 110,89,712 votes (52%); BJP 63,23,646 votes (30%) and Congress 28,54,398(13%). BJD won 765 seats in Zilla Parishad, an all time high– a rise of 289 seats in comparison to previous performance in 2017; BJP registered a steep slide from 297 in 2017 and could capture only 42 seats while Congress won 37 seats sliding down from 60 seats in 2017. So far, BJD’s win has been the most spectacular in its over two decades of rule in Odisha. Interestingly, however, Panchayat Elections had generated a lot of interest and Opposition Parties hoped to benefit from anti-incumbency sentiments.

In the run up to the Elections, interesting and encouraging signals came out from different parts of the state that indicated a societal rethink on the quality of candidates and widespread use of inducement tactics to win votes. A village in Kutra Block of Sundargarh District decided to test Sarpanch aspirants to find out their suitability. Eight aspirants subjected themselves to the test. Youths of Ganiary village in Nuapada District launched a door to door campaign asking voters to keep themselves away from inducements and select a good person as Sarpanch. As Election date drew nearer, however, widespread use of various inducement tactics was reported. Reports of violence were disturbing; particularly about attacks on media men.

In their struggle for supremacy, political forces, however, have chosen to keep under the carpet the severe shortcomings and deficiencies Odisha’s Gram Panchayats have been suffering from for years. Despite being the pivot for decentralised administration, they continue to be anaemic and in frail health. Now that new Sarpanches have arrived it may be timely to place before them a few important issues that continue to affect holistic development of the very important institution of the Gram Panchayat. Considering the fact that Odisha has about close to 50,000 villages – next only to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the number of Gram Panchayats remains too small. As a result, many Panchayats have a large number of villages making satisfactory participation of the villagers in Gram Sabha meetings an impossible task. People's participation in the decision making process is key to a decentralised system of governance. Palli Sabha and Gram Sabha are institutions at the grassroots level through which annual budget proposals are routed and discussed, debated and approved. However, Palli Sabha doesn't meet regularly; Gram Sabhas have low participation. Proper recording of the minutes of meetings is not done. Participatory level of both the institutions is poor. Regular meetings of Standing Committees are not held. Proper records of meetings are not maintained. GPs are to prepare annual action plan and upload in the Plan Soft under e-panchayat .GPs make limited attempt to link their financial budget on the basis of resources at their disposal .Service delivery gap in different villages is hardly addressed. There is little coordination with functionaries of line departments. These persisting deficiencies are seldom addressed. Decentralised governance remains mostly on paper. GPs implement various development projects at village level but do not have adequate manpower. Shortage of essential manpower leads to severe malfunctioning of the GPs and heavy accumulation of unutilised Grants takes place.

Over decades, Panchayats have failed to generate adequate resources even though a large number of assets are owned by them. They have multifarious functions to discharge many of which could provide opportunities for generating resources. Precious little has been done. The last State Finance Commission had observed that against transfer of funds from the Government of over Rs 8390 crore in 3 years from 2015-16, the own sources of revenue of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) was only Rs 100.86 crore (1.2%). 21 subjects out of 29 enlisted in Schedule XI of the Constitution have been devolved to the PRIs . These subjects include agriculture, land improvement, land reforms, land consolidation, soil conservation; minor irrigation, watershed development; dairy, poultry; minor forest produce; rural housing; drinking water; roads; non conventional energy sources; poverty alleviation programmes; primary education; markets and fairs; health and sanitation; public distribution; maintenance of public assets; social welfare; welfare of weaker sections. Adequate manpower is necessary for meaningful participation of GPs.

Like other Elections for PRIs, this year’s Election too witnessed eagerness of candidates to spend huge sums of money for winning the office of Sarpanch. Electoral success through money power creates a compulsion for an adequate return on investment. PRIs provide many low hanging fruits in the shape of various opportunities to satisfy the craving for earnings. Educated youths are, however, more likely to break this mindset and appreciate the potential Panchayati Raj holds out. They can transform Panchayats into viable economic enterprises and ensure better quality of life to the rural population. They can remedy the systemic deficiencies of Palli Sabha and Gram Sabha; they would be able to ensure participation of most citizens in decision making. India has witnessed cases of rural transformation of astounding proportions through capable Sarpanches. With more and more educated young men and women now in the PRIs in Odisha, such wholesale transformation should be possible in different districts.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at lonewalker.1942@gmail.com)

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