The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Special status, shaken at roots
- Village governance setback fear stalks Darjeeling as minister insists on modified version

Siliguri, April 5: Grassroots-governance in the hills will suffer a setback, as the panchayati raj will become redundant once the DGHC is granted the Sixth Schedule status.

The DGHC will now have to do away with its two-tier panchayat system, which in any case has been rendered redundant with no elections being held to it even after the expiry of its term in June last year.

'The DGHC will be excluded from the panchayati raj because constitutional amendment (73rd) does not apply to the Sixth Schedule areas,' Mani Shankar Aiyar, Union minister for panchayati raj, told The Telegraph.

None of the areas in the northeastern states like Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland that are recognised under the Sixth Schedule has been kept under the purview of the panchayati raj by the Constitution, he added.

DGHC comes out as a unique case because tribal societies in other states still have in place their age-old forms of self-governance, like the Dorbarshnong of the Khasis and Nokmas of the Garos, which is not the situation here. The respective state governments recognised these tribal bodies as parallel forms of local self-governance.

What will happen to grassroots democracy in the DGHC is a question that has begun to haunt political observers. 'The panchayat system does not at all exist in the hills now. And there has not been any notification from the government regarding it so far. I don't know what will happen,' Anil Verma, principal secretary of the DGHC, said.

Recently the panchayat pradhans in the hills had accused the DGHC of sitting on funds to the tune of Rs 15 crore released by the Centre and the state government for development work. Reacting to their charges, Verma had then justified the non-release of funds by pointing to the ambiguous status of the bodies.

Though the tenure of the functionaries of 112 gram panchayats had ended in June 2005, no elections to the posts were held mainly due to the uncertainty over the Sixth Schedule demand and the pradhans continue to hold office.

GNLF MLA from Kurseong Shanta Chhetri is also not sure about the fate of the panchayats in the new set-up. 'The picture will be clear once the bill is passed in Parliament,' she said.

State urban development minister Asok Bhattacharya, however, insisted that the panchayat system stay in its place. 'We would pass a resolution to this effect in the Assembly,' he said.

'Excluded from the constitutional panchayati raj, the council could work out a non-panchayat form of self-governance with the state government,' said Aiyar, who was in Sikkim last week to review the panchayat system there. 'At least a dialogue should be initiated in this direction. Some indications have come to me from Mizoram (and Meghalaya too).'

Aiyar said he was 'rather surprised' at the role played by Left leaders.

'In 1992, (during the 73rd amendment), though it was our intention to exclude Darjeeling from panchayati raj, we (on the insistence of the CPM) worked out a formula overnight and that is how village panchayats came into existence in the hills. So it would appear, that whereas in 1992 CPM leaders like Somnath Chatterjee were interested in village panchayats, now they are reconciled to the Sixth Schedule (which according to the Constitution excludes panchayat provisions),' he added.

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