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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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.
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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