In a mockery of democracy, Punjab's Bhamme Kalan set to see sarpanch election five years from its original date

In a mockery of democracy, Punjab's Bhamme Kalan set to see sarpanch election five years from its original date

In a mockery of democracy, Punjab's Bhamme Kalan set to see sarpanch election five years from its original date

While four sarpanch aspirants withdrew their nomination papers before the December 2018 election, one nomination paper was rejected citing lack of proper documents. This triggered a court battle, which has now culminated in a by-election five years later

Mansa, Punjab: Bhamme Kalan village panchayat of Sardulgarh tehsil in Mansa district of Punjab will witness a by-election to the sarpanch’s post on December 24, but a languid atmosphere prevails here with the villagers engaged in their daily activities. The village streets usually buzz with activity during the panchayat elections, and everyone participates in the chaupal (a community space) discussions on the poll outcome. This time, however, they are not particularly interested in the election result to be announced the same day. 

Agriculture is the mainstay of Bhamme Kalan, which has a population of 8,000. The residents are indifferent because the sarpanch election happening now was supposed to be held in December 2018. Why this delay, and the sudden decision to conduct the poll when the whole of Punjab is set to see panchayat elections in January next year?

The answer lies in the apathy and slow pace of  the Panchayati Raj and Election Department in the matter. Result: democracy bloomed in Bhamme Kalan only five years later.

Though elections were held to the nine panch (ward members) positions in 2018, village voters could not elect its sarpanch due to the withdrawal of nomination papers by four candidates. Sadly, even the papers of the lone candidate in the fray was rejected on the ground of not attaching the copies of the panchayat voters’ list. The aggrieved, Jaswinder Kaur (48), had been engaged in a court battle since then, claiming that she had attached the voters’ list and that her nomination papers were rejected intentionally.

Villagers in Bhamme Kalan panchayat (Photo - Amarpal Singh Verma, 101Reporters)

The battle unfolds

The sarpanch post in Bhamme Kalan went to women following a lottery draw for reservation. Soon after the election fiasco, villagers began to demand that a by-election be held. Jaswinder and her supporters kept submitting memorandums to the Panchayati Raj Department, Election Department, state government and the local MLA.

In March 2019, Jaswinder filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. During the hearing on December 2, 2019, the Election Department assured the court that it will get information from the Panchayat Department about the vacant panch and sarpanch positions and hold by-elections after the Assembly by-elections. Satisfied with the reply, the High Court disposed of the petition. 

However, even after two years, the situation in Bhamme Kalan did not change. Jaswinder's lawyer Advocate Parminder Singh Sekhon then demanded that the High Court initiate contempt of court proceedings against the officials concerned. Hearing his plea, the High Court issued a notice on December 15, 2021, asking why action should not be taken under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, for wilful disobedience of the undertaking given in the court. Additional Advocate General sought time to reply.

During the hearing on January 5, 2023, Jaswinder's lawyer said the order has not been followed even after a long time. On this, the government lawyer presented the affidavit of the Secretary of Punjab Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department in the court and said that the sarpanch by-election was postponed due to COVID-19. While noting that a long time has elapsed after the pandemic, the court directed the officials of both the Panchayati Raj Department and Election Department to appear before it.

On April 12, the state government promised the court that the sarpanch election would be announced within a period of three weeks. At the next hearing on May 10, Jaswinder's lawyer said general elections for Punjab Assembly and even by-elections have been held, but Bhamme Kalan did not see one.   

The court then directed the Chief Secretary of Punjab to present a special affidavit explaining the delay and what action has been taken against the officials who did not follow its instructions. On May 18, the Chief Secretary presented a special affidavit in the court and said that a by-election notification will be issued within 20 days.

After this, the High Court ordered the State Election Commissioner of Punjab to appear in person on December 5. On December 7, when the State Election Commissioner Raj Kamal Chaudhary appeared before it, the court imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on him and remarked that if the election dates were not announced within a week, he should be prepared to go to jail.

Things moved swiftly after the court’s rebuke. The State Election Commissioner released the by-election schedule for the post of sarpanch on December 8.  

The Punjab Panchayati Raj Act has been completely disregarded in Bhamme Kalan. This case is a vivid example of tampering with the panchayati raj system… A fresh election schedule should have been announced in six months of the election fiasco,” Advocate Sekhon told 101Reporters.

Jaswinder Kaur was engaged in a court battle, claiming that she had attached the voters’ list and that her nomination papers were rejected intentionally (Photo - Amarpal Singh Verma, 101Reporters)

Multiple effects

Having a sarpanch is very important for the swift functioning of a panchayat. Only the sarpanch can attend the panchayat committee meetings as the representative of the village panchayat. Panchs do not have the authority to convene the gram sabha.

Bhamme Kalan panch Sikandar Singh Dhariwal told 101Reporters that in the absence of a sarpanch, village development has taken a back seat. Gram sabhas have not been convened, and the proposals for village development could not be passed. Monitoring of government schemes has been affected. 

“The dilapidated buildings of the primary health centre and veterinary hospital need attention. We wanted to reconstruct them, but even repairing them was impossible. Most of the streets are unpaved. Concretisation was not possible due to the administrative deadlock. One side of the boundary wall of our water tank has remained broken, but it could not be rebuilt. As a result, dirt is entering our water source,” he listed out. 

Villagers Sukhdev Singh and Raghuveer Singh agreed that the damage caused by not holding elections for five years cannot be compensated. Dhariwal said panchayat-related activities had come to a standstill in the first one-and-a-half years of the five-year tenure.

“Later, when the panchayat samiti development officer was appointed as administrator for about one-and-a-half years, only the formalities related to the panchayat’s work were completed. A year ago, panch Gurmeet Kaur was made the acting sarpanch, which helped in carrying out some works. If we had a full-time sarpanch, the volume of work taken up would have been drastically different,” he said.

There will be no major expenditure at the government level for this by-election, yet it would not be wrong to say that Bhamme Kalan has witnessed a mockery of democracy. Villagers Hartej Singh, Tarsem Singh, Harbans Singh and Raja Singh said unanimously that a very wrong precedent has been set. 

Kusum Aggarwal, Development Officer, Panchayat Samiti, Jhunir, told 101Reporters that the administrator only looks after special work. “Ensuring development of the village is the sarpanch’s duty, because only the sarpanch lives among the public and is aware of the public needs,” she said.

A tenure lasting just over a month

For the last five years, Bhamme Kalan residents have been yearning for development. Nevertheless, the present decision to hold the election, when the 2024 panchayat elections are just days away, has not gone down well with them.

“What difference is it going to make? After a month-and-a-half, panchayat elections will be held across the state. Elections will be held here too. By the time the newly-elected sarpanch becomes acquainted with the functioning of the panchayat, her tenure will be over,” Gurdeep Singh, a Bhamme Kalan resident, wondered.

Asked about the tenure of the sarpanch to be elected, Aggarwal said conducting panchayat elections was a matter at the level of the state Election Department, so she was not in a position to reply. “By-elections are always held for the remaining tenure. As soon as the tenure of the panchayats ends, the tenure of the sarpanch elected here will also end. Panchayat elections were held in December 2018, so the tenure is set to end in January 2024,” she informs.

Returning Officer Rachpal Singh Sidhu told 101Reporters that four women filed nomination papers on December 13, but two of them withdrew them the very next day. So this time, it will be a direct contest between Jaswinder and Karmjeet Kaur. 

Speaking to 101Reporters on the effort required to get the election notified, Jaswinder said, “We made requests to the Panchayati Raj Department several times and wrote to the state government, but nobody heard us. Even after the court gave us a favourable order, they did not feel it was necessary to implement the same. Even if I get a tenure lasting just over a month, I am still contesting because it is my right.”

Jaswinder is not affiliated to any political party. She claims her position was very strong in the 2018 elections. “The voters wanted to make me their sarpanch, but my nomination paper was rejected in a conspiracy. If I had been the sarpanch, I would have got a lot of work done,” she said.

Though Jaswinder did not elaborate on the conspiracy theory, her husband Bhola Singh Sidhu alleged that his wife’s nomination papers were rejected at the behest of “a big leader”.

Asked whether she will contest the election in January as well, Jaswinder said, “Yes, definitely.”  

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

Cover Photo - Villagers of Bhamme Kalan (Photo - Amarpal Singh Verma, 101Reporters)


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