Tamil Nadu

Panchayat polls in Tamil Nadu: Building democracy from the bottom up

A view of Tamil Nadu State Election Commission office at Koyambedu, Chennai.   | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

After years of delays, elections to local bodies in Tamil Nadu are finally on the horizon. Barring any ‘last-minute dramatic development’, the polls will be held in a month or so.

But there were many such developments in the last three years, preventing the local body polls from being conducted in the State.

Between September 26, 2016 and November 18, 2019, the State saw a host of dramatic events, many of them having long-term implications. Two weeks after the Tamil Nadu State Election Commission (SEC) announced on September 26, 2016 that the elections will take place on October 17 and 19, 2016, the Madras High Court directed the SEC to issue a fresh notification and hold the polls no later than December 31 that year.

Several deadlines were missed for a variety of reasons, some of which were valid. In November this year, the Supreme Court told the SEC to notify the poll schedule by the second week of December. The SEC too had given such an undertaking.

There were several developments in the intervening period. In January 2018, the AIADMK government decided to change the system of election for the heads of urban local bodies (ULBs) from indirect to direct, meaning the Mayor of Chennai, for instance, will be directly elected. But on the day the Supreme Court last heard the matter, the State Cabinet met at Fort St. George and gave its nod for bringing in an ordinance to revert to indirect elections for local body chiefs, which was the decision taken by Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister in June 2016. Tamil Nadu should have perhaps been the only State to have made three changes in as many years without even holding the local body polls during that period.

On Thursday (November 28), the DMK — the principal Opposition party — went to the Supreme Court with a plea for carrying out delimitation and implementing reservation in five newly-formed districts prior to the issuance of the poll notification. A similar demand was made by the party at a meeting State Election Commissioner R. Palaniswamy held with recognised political parties. On Friday, a few others approached the court with a similar plea. Already, former legislator and president of the India Kudiarasu Katchi, C.K. Thamilarasan, has filed a petition in the High Court, demanding that reservation for the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes in posts like Deputy Mayors of municipal corporations be made in proportion to their population.

Panchayat polls in Tamil Nadu: Building democracy from the bottom up

This development has, yet again, raised doubts in the minds of many as to whether the elections will be held at all. “We are going ahead with our plan. There is no need for anyone to have any doubts,” Mr. Palaniswamy says, adding that the plan is to issue the poll notification in the first week of December.

The ruling AIADMK too appears keen on holding the elections this time.

Well before the latest change in the system of election for the chiefs of ULBs, the party called for nominations from its members. Its functionaries had even completed the task of shortlisting candidates. (Except for councillors and presidents of village panchayats, elections to all other layers are held on party lines).

“We will perhaps be the first to come out with our lists of candidates,” says a senior functionary of the AIADMK. Such is the level of preparedness on the part of the ruling party, though seat-sharing talks with allies are yet to begin.

Even in June, the party leadership had, at a meeting of senior functionaries, hinted that it was keen on having the elections conducted early. It was particular about proving a point to its adversary, the DMK, and the rest of the world, especially after its poor show in the Lok Sabha polls. In the Assembly byelections to 22 constituencies in April-May, it was able to win only 9 seats, and barely managed to hold on to power. Of course, the party’s performance had improved substantially in the Vellore Parliamentary election in August, and was even better in October, when it won hands down in the Nanguneri and Vikravandi Assembly byelections.

Panchayat polls in Tamil Nadu: Building democracy from the bottom up

Not just that. The ruling dispensation swiftly inaugurated new districts and launched the distribution of the free Pongal gift hamper, which included ₹1,000 in cash.

Another legal battle?

The DMK, which had begun receiving nominations at more or less the same time as the AIADMK did, had even extended the period for submission of applications. Its latest action of moving the Supreme Court has generated the perception, in certain quarters, that the DMK is not that interested in holding the local body polls. “We are not asking for a stay,” argues R.S. Bharathi, Rajya Sabha member and two-time Chairman of the Chamber of Chairpersons of Municipalities. “Our prayer is nothing new. We had raised it earlier too in court.”

Would it be possible for the authorities to fulfil the DMK’s demand for having the delimitation and reservation processes done and dusted in the newly-created districts before the notification of the poll schedule? “It should be. When they [the State government] could issue an ordinance for changing the system of election in no time, would this not be possible for them? It can be done if the authorities want to [do it],” says Mr. Bharathi, who held the post of Chairperson of the now-abolished Alandur Municipality for four terms.

In an interaction with the media on Friday, DMK chief M.K. Stalin blamed the AIADMK for all the confusion regarding the local body polls, and said this was why his party had to go to the court. However, the DMK was ready to face the elections, even in the absence of adherence to due process, he said.

Even as several allies of the two principal parties have also initiated the process of getting applications from their members, and the debate goes on between the two major players as to who is responsible for the delay in holding the polls, the question that troubles many is whether people really require elected local bodies.

Panchayat polls in Tamil Nadu: Building democracy from the bottom up

In private conversations, senior leaders of various political parties concede that, more often than not, councillors bring only “adverse publicity” to their organisations. In June 2012, then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa gave the councillors of the Chennai Corporation a dressing-down at a closed-door meeting, in the wake of complaints of rampant corruption. Besides, given the possibility of the parties’ performance in the civic polls having a bearing on their prospects in the Assembly elections, their leaders generally do not display much enthusiasm towards local body polls.

“In the last 20 years or so, though there were public-spirited councillors, their number was not in majority. You know what I mean,” says N. Meenakshisundaram, former Executive Engineer of Chennai Metrowater, who has been working on issues related to water and sanitation.

B. Senguttuvan, former Vellore MP from the AIADMK and member of the Fifth State Finance Commission (SFC), acknowledges that he will not be able to cite “sterling examples of dramatic improvement” in local bodies’ governance since the mid-1990s. Yet, elected local bodies, he emphasises, are desirable in the interest of “larger democracy”. As a member of the SFC, he contributed ideas to make the local bodies financially self-sustaining, instead of having to rely on one or two sources of funding. In addition, adequate manpower should be made available to local bodies when they are being upgraded, says Mr. Meenakshisundaram.

It is not that everything is wrong with elected local bodies. “Take the case of the Tiruchi Municipal Corporation,” says a senior State government official who has been observing the urban local bodies at close quarters for years. Both in “delivery of services and financial management”, they have done well, says the official.

‘Tremendous work’

Though Tiruchi’s rank at the all-India level for cleanliness fluctuated from third in 2016 to a distant 39th three years later, it is still the State’s “cleanest city”. What one should not overlook is that Tiruchi was one of the top performers when it had an elected local body. “Is it not obvious that the absence of public representatives in the last three years would have also contributed to the fall [in the city’s performance]?” asks another official.

Many other local bodies, especially town and village panchayats, have done “tremendous work”, asserts R. Elango, former president of the Kuthampakkam village panchayat in Tiruvallur district. The smaller the unit of a local body, the greater the scope for superlative performance, he argues.

Agreeing with him, Mr. Meenakshisundaram points out how the Kathirampatti village panchayat, about 10 km from Erode, had transformed itself into a role model for the management of public water supply distribution, after it got elected representatives.

Elaborating on the relevance of, and the need for, elected local bodies, Santha Sheela Nair, a retired bureaucrat with experience in the Municipal Administration & Water Supply and the Rural Development & Panchayat Raj departments during 2001-06, argues: “We have lost civic sense due to non-participation in civic affairs. This [elected bodies] can bring back the sense of participation in civic affairs. Civic issues become the issues on which you debate, you vote, you respond and you react. And that is crucial for improving [the state of] civic affairs and civic governance.”

Ms. Nair has one more strong reason for having elected local bodies – women’s empowerment. Conscious of the problem of women representatives being used as a front for their fathers, brothers or husbands, she had, during her days in government, urged women representatives to come out and become the “real participants” in local affairs. Her efforts yielded results.

Jesu Mary of Michaelpattinam in Ramanathapuram district had gained widespread attention for her leadership in rainwater harvesting and transforming the place she represented from a “parched area” into a “water-surplus area”. She even went to Washington, D.C. to attend a World Bank event on innovation.

“Can you imagine a woman from rural Ramanathapuram rising up to that leadership level and being able to address a global audience? What amount of empowerment it creates and what ripple effect it has on all women and all local bodies’ participants and aspirants?” asks Ms. Nair, who was also Vice-Chairperson of the State Planning Commission during 2011-16.

Though the State government is yet to announce the reservation scheme for the posts of Mayors of municipal corporations, a consumer activist from Tiruchi suggests taking a fresh look at the existing arrangement.

Pointing out that the Tiruchi Municipal Corporation has had only women Mayors since 1996, S. Pushpavanam, secretary of the Consumer Protection Council - Tamil Nadu, suggests that the quota scheme be changed so that Tiruchi will have a man as Mayor. Conversely, Chennai, which has never had a woman Mayor for at least the last 50 years, can have one this time. “As the 50% [reservation] scheme covers the post of Mayor too, the government can examine the matter comprehensively and earmark for women those municipal corporations which have not been reserved for them so far,” he adds.

Problems to address

At the same time, it is an open secret that the local bodies are suffering from certain chronic problems and challenges. “Even though I, as the president, had conducted myself as one who was common to all, there are people in my village who view me through the prism of caste,” Mr. Elango says, with a sense of hurt. The municipalities and panchayats have this problem and many more. Ms. Nair’s prescription is this: It is only through participation in civic affairs that such problems can be resolved. “We have to make it happen,” she says.

It remains to be seen whether the former civil servant’s wish becomes a reality, which depends on how nearly six crore electors in the State conduct themselves during the next elections, as and when they are held.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 7:42:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/building-democracy-from-the-bottom-up/article30126970.ece

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