by bappaditya paul
They were to act as watchdog of the West Bengal State Election Commission (SEC) in ensuring a free and peaceful poll but most of the 227 poll observers deputed for the ongoing rural polls in Bengal are failing the test.
There are 210 block-level observers and 17 district observers drawn from the state administration ranging from assistant secretaries to special secretaries.
According to SEC officials, the reports that the observers sent during the first three phases of the rural polls did not reflect the actual volatile situation and the corresponding absence of administrative measures in many areas. Thus the poll panel was left clueless when violence erupted in many areas on poll days and there were widespread complaints of non-deployment or under-deployment of security force.
Keeping in mind the politically overcharged situation in Bengal, the SEC this time had added three new clauses in the format for fixed reporting by the observers, seeking to know (i) if vulnerable villages, critical clusters were identified, (ii) police plan have been done and (iii) if the allotted force has reached the block concerned. The report was to reach the poll panel three days in advance of the poll so that it could suggest remedial steps to the state and district administration.
But SEC officials said although the observers sent the reports, on most occasions there were discrepancies found later. “Theoretically speaking, they did what was asked of them. But on practical counts their reports did not reflect an iota of the actual situation, raising doubts if the observers really did undertake village tours,” said an SEC official. On poll days, the observers were very slow in reporting incidents of violence or booth capturing in their areas and the SEC had to mostly rely on calls received at its central control room and on TV news channels.
But there is not much that the SEC can do about the under-performance by the observers, as the West Bengal Panchayat Elections Act, 2003, does not provide for any such provision.
Section 134 of the Act states that the Commission may nominate state (sic) government officers as observers and assign them tasks as it deems fit, but there is no mention if any action can be taken for failure to perform.
Instead, Section 115 of the Act dealing in “Breaches of official duty” specifies that action can be taken only against the district panchayat election officer (the district magistrate), panchayat returning officer and assistant panchayat returning officer (that is the BDO and deputy magistrate, respectively), polling officers and any other persons involved in receipt/withdrawal of nominations or counting of votes. The observers are not involved in any of these. As against this, the Election Commission of India (ECI) is empowered to take disciplinary action against observes deputed during the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
“In Assembly and Lok Sabha polls the observers are deputed from other states and the Representation of the People Act, 1951, empowers ECI to recommend action against them for dereliction of duty and the Union government is bound to accept that,” said the West Bengal chief electoral officer, Mr Sunil Kumar Gupta.
(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India. This report first appeared in The Statesman on 21 July 2013 under a different headline.)