'Gram Sabha should be empowered'

'Gram Sabha should be empowered'

The RTI activist now feels that the time has come to amend the Panchayati Raj Act and empower the Gram Sabha rather than the mukhiyas (presidents). “Too much power has been vested with the officials and the mukhiyas. As a result, the panchayat has become yet another institution of corruption,” opined Kejriwal.

Kejriwal, who worked tirelessly to create awareness about the Right to Information Act, had quit the lucrative post of Additional Commissioner, Income Tax, so that he could champion people's cause. Kejriwal was in Bihar recently to find out what ails Panchayat Raj system .

In an interview to Abhay Kumar of Deccan Herald, the RTI activist emphasised that if the gram sabhas were not empowered, people in far-flung areas will lose faith in the system of governance and might take up arms “or even join Maoists as it had happened in Lohandigoda in Chhattisgarh.”

Excerpts:
After making a mark as an RTI activist, you seem to have changed the track. Now your focus is on rural areas?
True, but the aim remains the same - empowerment of people.

How do you intend to achieve that?
Look, in the present system, people at the village level virtually have no say in the local governance. Most of the decisions are being taken by the mukhiyas or the government officials (right from the district magistrate to BDO level).

But what's wrong with it? At the State level, a Chief Minister decides. At the national level, it's the Prime Minister who calls the shots. So what's wrong if at the panchayat level, it's the mukhiya who makes all the decisions?
This is precisely where the system is at fault. People at the lowest level of governance will feel empowered if you give them decision-making powers. My argument is that a Gram Sabha should be given all the administrative and financial powers, where the people will decide collectively in a democratic way. And then, the mukhiya and the local officials should be asked to implement all those decisions.

So you want to reverse the existing system?
All I want is empowerment of people at the grass-roots level. Tell me, why should an elected representative attend a Gram Sabha meet if it has limited powers. Today in Bihar, an appointment of a school teacher depends on the whims and fancies of a mukhiya. He decides which fund is to be spent where, or which road/school is to be constructed. An unbridled devolution of power to mukhiya and officials at the block level has given rise to corruption.

Do you think that there should be a centralised system even at the panchayat level? Or else, everything will be messed up?
At the State level, have you seen a Chief Minister presiding over the Assembly? We have the Speaker for that purpose. Even at the national level, where Prime Minister is the main authority, there is a separate presiding officer in the Lok Sabha. But at the panchayat level, it’s the mukhiya who has become multi-functional authority. My point is let the people decide what they want. Let them decide how much money is to be spent under which head.

Is your assumption based on some personal experience?
If you don’t empower people at the grass-roots level, they will turn to naxalism. Like it happened in the villages of Lohandigoda in Chhattisgarh, where the Tata group had sought permission from the Government to set up a sponge iron plant. From the State Government level to the mukhiya, the proposal was cleared. But the local people were up in arms and were in no mood to give up their land or allow cutting of trees. So they submitted a 15-point charter of demands which included plantation of five saplings for each tree cut. But their demand was rejected outright. Eventually, the entire 13 villages reportedly turned to naxalism.

But don’t you think such approach will hinder development?
We don't want development at the cost of our lives. Have you gone through the details of Nuclear Civil Liability Bill? It sends chill down my spine. No FIR or a criminal action can be taken against the defaulting company.
All it has to do is shell out Rs 500 crore as compensation. People should recall the Union Carbide mishap of December 3, 1984…. our life is  precious too.

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