Panchayats: West Bengal

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Panchayats: West Bengal

Why Mamata wants every inch of rural Bengal

Saugata Roy, TNN | Jul 24, 2013

The Times of India

More powerful than in the rest of India

The panchayati raj system in Bengal works differently from the rest of the country. Here, the panchayat pradhan or the zilla parishad chairman is all powerful. He has the final say in most matters relating to development and governance, hence it's to him that the ordinary villager turns to for everything - from his birth certificate to his daily job.

Therefore, the Bengal panchayat elections are a high-stakes game, not just because they're about power and patronage networks. They have a lot to do with money as well. Reason why politicians are locked in such an intense bloody battle for every inch of territory.

Over the years these power and funds have devolved to the gram panchayats and, in the rural hinterland local bodies have emerged as key power centres. So critical, that they can make and unmake governments. === Zilla parishad chairmanship more sought after than MLA or MP The lure of a zilla parishad chairmanship is so strong for a politician that he'd rather go flat out for the post rather than become MLA or MP. The zilla parishad is the topmost layer of the three-tier panchayat system.

At the grassroots level, the gram panchayat pradhan is the nodal person. He holds the key to rural life and handles between Rs 40 lakh and Rs 1 crore a year in centrally-assisted and state government grants.

Subjects handled by local bodies

The government has moved 28 of the 29 subjects listed in the Constitution's Eleventh Schedule to these local bodies — rural roads to sanitation, land reforms to child and mother care, housing to irrigation. A former state minister from Left Front constituent Forward Bloc once described the power of a village headman thus: "Opore bhagaban, niche gram pradhan (God is in heaven, on Earth the gram pradhan is the real repository of all powers)."


State government figures speak for themselves. In 2007-8, a total of Rs 1,881 crore went to the three-tier panchayat.

With funds pouring in, some 58,000-odd elected panchayat representatives control the levers of the panchayati raj system. Political parties want their people at the controls to ensure a tight grip on the beneficiaries - the rural population and their support during the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.

A landless labourer has to humour the panchayat pradhan to get a slice of homestead land free. He needs the pradhan's certificate for a house allotment under Indira Awaas Yojna or an old-age pension for his mother.

1978 to 2008

From 1978 to 2008, CPM and the Left Front had a virtually unchallenged run in panchayati raj institutions till they suffered a jolt after Singur and Nandigram happened in the last leg of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's government in 2008. This was when the Trinamool Cogress wrested 9,379 (22.59%) gram panchayats and two zilla parishads — East Midnapore, and South 24-Parganas from the Left.

The CPM till 1988 used these bodies to script an alternative route to development through progressive land reforms and pro-poor policies. Human indices such as child mortality and mass education jumped. But, in the post-Nineties, the mission got distorted when party leaders began controlling these rural bodies through patronage networks, muscle and money power.

Panchayat doles

With agricultural productivity slowing, the rural poor got evicted and became more dependent on party-driven panchayat doles. Some used these sweeping powers to mint money in the bheris (commercial fisheries) of Sashan, North 24-Parganas. They began eating up land for real-estate developers in Bhangar and Baruipur in South 24-Parganas, controlling sand-mining operations from the Damodar River along the Burdwan-Birbhum border, or promoting mafia interests in the coal belt. These areas later turned into flashpoints of violence.


Mamata Banerjee used the boiling anger among the rural poor to her advantage after winning power in May 2011. Her men locked up the CPM-run panchayats. The government asked block development officers and district magistrates to run the show turning the philosophy of "planning from below" on its head. The Trinamool chief now wants total control of panchayats to push her tally in the coming Lok Sabha polls.

The politics of hegemony and the resulting bloodbath have prompted some, such as Cogress leader Nirbed Roy, to demand replacement of the present system with a party-less democracy at the panchayat level.

Retired IAS and former panchayat secretary M N Roy refuses to buy the argument. "Party-less democracy won't work in a politically-polarized state like West Bengal. What is worrying is the lack of dialogue and governance. The panchayat institution was meant to usher in development from the grassroots. Laws and rules are fine. The political will to include villagers irrespective of the party they belong to seems to be badly missing," says Roy.



28 of 29 subjects devolved to panchayati raj institutions — from rural roads, sanitation to housing, jobs, irrigation to maternal & child welfare

This makes panchayti raj institution heads powerful. They control rural lives,

58,000 Elected panchayat representatives


1978 to 2008, CPM-Left Front monopolised panchayati raj

Till 1988, CPM-led local bodies pushed pro-poor policies

Post-1990s, growing influence of land sharks, sand & coal mafia

Rural poor evicted, increasingly dependent on Party-driven panchayat doles

Landless labourers under panchayat pradhan’s thumb.

In 2008 shakedown, faultlines burst open in Singur and Nandigram

Trinamool wrested 9,379 (22.6%) gram panchayats and two zilla parishads

Now Mamata Banerjee wants hegemony on panchayats to boost tally in Lok Sabha 2014

Patronage networks

These posts more coveted than MLA or MP

Panchayat pradhan has at his disposal Rs 40 lakh to 1cr a year, key issuer of NREGA jobs (MPLAD funds Rs 5cr pa)

1881cr | Funds with three-tier panchayat (2007-08)


Held in five phases over 15 days in July 2013.

Large-scale intimidation’s led to 6,274 uncontested seats

In Hooghly, voting took place for only two of 337 gram panchayat seats and only one of six zilla parishad seats. All 70 panchayat samiti seats were uncontested

In fourth phase on Jul 22, 7 killed | 3 in Murshidabad, 2 in Birbhum, 1 in Malda 1 in Nadia

In fourth phase, about 100 live bombs recovered from various places

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