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Twin rural defection shields removed
No ban for abstention

Calcutta, Feb. 21: The Bengal government today amended the panchayat act to make disqualification difficult, prompting the Opposition to allege the objective was to encourage defections.

The two criteria for disqualification of gram panchayat, panchayat samiti and zilla parishad members had been incorporated in the West Bengal Panchayat Act, 1973, by the Left Front government “to ensure horse-trading did not take place in rural bodies”, former panchayat minister Anisur Rahman said.

“But this government has diluted the provisions to capture Opposition-led boards in rural areas,” added Rahman, a CPM MLA.

After today’s amendment, rural body members abstaining from voting during no-confidence motions and policy decisions can no longer be disqualified. Earlier, those abstaining or voting against the party whip used to be disqualified.

The provision of informing the district administration at least three days in advance if one-third of the elected members of a political party in a rural body wants to vote against the whip has been done away with.

Rahman, whose party had alleged horse-trading by the Trinamul Congress during the recent Rajya Sabha elections, said as rural body members would no longer have to inform the administration at least three days in advance, “they can be bought ahead of voting”.

Opposition leader Surjya Kanta Mishra of the CPM said Trinamul “wanted to capture” all Opposition-run rural bodies “through the back door” by amending the act.

“They are controlling almost all civic bodies. Many of them were captured through the back door. It is clear that they have set their sights on the rural bodies,” Mishra said.

Trinamul has taken over at least nine Opposition-run civic bodies riding on defections in the past few months. There is, however, no voting-related provision for disqualification of civic body members. Sources said large-scale defections in rural bodies had not taken place because of the two provisions for disqualification.

Senior panchayat department officials said 35 per cent of the 3,349 gram panchayats were run by the Opposition parties.

“It is true that once these amendments are enacted, it will be easy for the ruling party of the day to take over gram panchayats,” an official said.

Panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee said the Trinamul government had made the panchayat act identical to what it had been after it was amended by the Left government in 1994. “We have brought back what they had done in 1994,” Mukherjee said.

In 2010, the Left had strengthened the act by including the provision of disqualification in case of abstention from voting.

But Rahman, the former panchayat minister, said the Left government had strengthened the anti-defection provisions in 2010 “as we felt it was the need of the hour to prevent elected members from switching sides for financial gains”.

Civic switch

Four Left councillors of the Cooch Behar municipality and three Congress councillors of the Midnapore municipality today joined Trinamul.

Trinamul all-India general secretary Mukul Roy handed over party flags to the councillors.

Trinamul had formed the Cooch Behar board with 11 councillors. After today’s defections, it has 15.

In the Midnapore municipality, Trinamul had 13 councillors and the Congress six. Now, Trinamul has 16 and the Congress three.