Panchayati Raj—the plinth of democracy at the grassroots—stands the risk of being hijacked in Gujarat. A government circular is pushing for a wider reach of the "samras" scheme under which a village sarpanch (head) is elected by consensus.
With the election to 18,000 village panchayats due on December 10, the government whip has stressed the need for more samras (consensus) villages. It has also hiked the samras incentive from Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh as a bait to lure more villages into its ambit.
More than 3,900 villages voluntarily opted for the scheme in 2001, when the Narendra Modi government revived the plan after coming to power. However, no survey was conducted for a comparative study of their development indices as against those, which did not avail of it.
The scheme is under cloud. There are reports that a nexus of district and block-level officials, in connivance with influential local residents, is forcing villagers to settle for a consensus in electing village sarpanch.
Samras entails a general gathering of villagers, where the sarpanch is selected on a popular mandate—doing away with the need of formal elections. Officials are allegedly campaigning openly to avoid elections, and at some places the district panchayat office has distributed pamphlets listing the advantages of the scheme.
A Panchmahals district panchayat circular says villages that do not opt for "samras" will remain backward while those opting for the scheme will be looked after. Civil rights activists are crying abuse. "This is violation of democratic norms. The incentives, disincentives and the veiled threats are robbing the villagers of their voting rights," says Laljibhai Desai of Buniyaadi Adhikaar Andolan, Gujarat (BAAG).
Reacting to the charge, state agriculture and Panchayat Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama told Hindustan Times that allegations of coercion were politically-motivated. "There is no problem with the scheme. The money will speed up development in samras villages."
Selecting a sarpanch by consensus would also help maintain peace in the village—offsetting the possibility of election-related violence. But a network of women's non-government organisations is planning an agitation against samras system on the ground that women and Dalits are being denied their democratic rights. "Men of upper caste groups wielding political and social clout usually decide on the 'consensus' candidate," says Sitaben Rabari of Veir village in Kutch.
When someone from her community wanted to contest, he was asked "to pay Rs 1 lakh (the samras grant promised by the government)." "This is complete subversion of the electoral process," lashes out Persis Ginwalla, vice-president of the Mahila Swaraj Network.