Clamour for panchayat elections in Darjeeling grows
The demand to hold panchayat elections in the hills is getting louder as all the major political parties, including the BJP and Trinamul, are voicing support for the rural polls last held in 2000.
Hill leaders such as Anit Thapa, the president of the newly floated Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM), Binay Tamang and Ajoy Edwards have been vocal on panchayat polls.
With new political equations emerging amid some prominent faces seeking to chart their own course, the demand is resonating from all corners.
Thapa, at a public meeting at Bijanbari on Monday, reiterated the demand.
The Telegraph on Monday reached out to Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the BJP and Trinamul for their view on panchayat elections.
Leaders of all these parties told this newspaper that they want panchayat elections.
Roshan Giri, general secretary, Morcha said they had recently pursued the issue with state panchayat and rural development minister Subrata Mukherjee. Giri admitted that the final call lay with chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Even the BJP is not averse to rural polls in the hills. “I have been advocating for panchayat elections. In the absence of an elected rural body, massive corruption is taking place in the hills,” said Kalyan Dewan, president of BJP Darjeeling district (hill) committee.
Unlike other parts of the state, the Panchayat issue is a bit complex in the hills. In 1993, the Constitution was amended to put in place a two-tier panchayat system in the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) areas, unlike the three-tier system in the rest of Bengal. The three tiers are gram panchayat, panchayat samitis and zilla parishad.
However, in 2000, the elections were held only to gram panchayats and many believe then GNLF chief Subash Ghisingh did not want polls to panchayat samitis as he believed that its powers would overlap with the then existing DGHC.
Neeraj Zimba, Darjeeling MLA and secretary-general of GNLF, said his party has no objection if the two-tier panchayat elections are held now.
“Since the amendment (brought about in 1993) gives special status to Darjeeling hills, we are against three-tier panchayat elections, but have no problems if panchayats to two tiers are held,” he said.
For a three-tier panchayat to be held, the Constitution has to be amended. To complicate matters, a Siliguri Mahukama Parishad was formed in 1993 for the Siliguri subdivision of Darjeeling district.
The SMP functions like the zilla parishad or the highest tier of the rural administrative system. The Constitution has provisions for one zilla parishad in one district.
“We will welcome if panchayat elections are held as it is an issue of decentralisation of power. There are some constitutional lacunae but we will accept whatever the state decides,” said N.B. Khawash, Trinamul coordinator for Darjeeling assembly segment.
Most parties which earlier were keen on a three-tier system, like Bimal Gurung’s Morcha, however, seem to have tweaked their stand.
Many in the hills believe that the softening of stand from three tier to two tier elections is probably because of the hill parties’ eagerness for a share of power.
“Bimal Gurung discarded the GTA in 2017 and he cannot tell the public that he wants to be in that chair now. Anit Thapa, too, recently said he would go to the GTA only through elections. The GNLF has filed a case in the high court against the GTA. Given this scenario, the panchayat could be their path to power for these hill parties at this moment,” said an observer from the hills.
The TMC, which won the Mirik municipality in 2017, might also be wanting to test their strength after the new alignment in hill politics, the observer said adding the same logic could hold true for the BJP, which won both the Darjeeling and Kurseong Assembly seats in May this year.