By bappaditya paul
If the panchayat elections in West Bengal are not held on time and the terms of all the panchayats expire, the worst casualty would be the poor in villages, since basic civic services and a host of welfare schemes planned for them would be affected.This is because these services and schemes are either implemented or processed by elected gram panchayat bodies, and in their absence, it is not yet clear as to how the mechanism will function. Bengal panchayat minister, Subrata Mukherjee, is however confident that in the event of the election getting postponed, day-to-day functioning wouldn’t be affected.
The services that would come to a standstill include the maintenance of village roads, drainage systems and streetlights, and the issue of resident certificate and ration card to the rural populace. The identification of new beneficiaries for old-age and widow pensions and for housing grants under the Centre-funded Indira Awas Yojona (IAY) will also take a beating.Gram panchayats (GP) carry out the regular maintenance of internal village roads, drainage systems and street illumination with their own funds, generated through the collection of various kinds of fees and taxes. Proposals and estimates for such maintenance activities must be approved in advance in the general body of a GP, which is comprised of elected panchayat members.
Going by the functions defined for them, a panchayat member, who is equivalent to a ward councilor in urban areas, receives requests from villagers for issuing of resident certificate, old age pension, widow pension, ration card and IAY housing grant. After a preliminary verification of such requests, the member concerned forwards them to the Pradhan, or head of the GP, who then tables it in the GP’s general body meeting for approval.While resident certificate is then issued to the applicants from the GP office itself, for old-age pension, widow pension and IAY housing grants, the approved names are sent to the block development office concerned for inclusion in the list of beneficiaries. Likewise, the names approved for the ration card are forwarded to the nearest food and civil supplies office.
At present, widow pension and old age pension are awarded to individuals at a flat rate of Rs 400 a month. For widow pension, a woman will have to be at least 45 years of age; in case of old age pension the entry age is 60 years for women and 65 years for men.West Bengal (excluding Darjeeling district) has 3,351-gram panchayats, 329 panchayat samitis and 17 zilla parishads. Of them, a major chunk of gram panchayats have already exhausted their term on 8 June and most of the panchayat samitis will outlive their tenure on 3 July. The remaining gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and all the zilla parishads will complete their term by 27 July.
In Darjeeling district, the hill areas at present do not have a panchayati system in place; the plain areas are placed under a panchyati system with the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad at the top and the rural polls there are due in May 2014.
(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This piece first appeared in The Statesman on 27 June 2013.)