Power to Panchayats: Naveen proposes, his officers dispose

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Recent orders issued by Panchayati Raj Secretary and Collectors undermine CM’s April 19 announcement

Bhubaneswar: On April 19, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced a “historic decision” to delegate powers of district collectors to sarpanches of Gram Panchayats for their jurisdiction under Section 51 of Disaster Management Act, 2005, Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 read with Odisha COVID-19 Regulations, 2020. The decision was intended to help in efficient management of the quarantine centres meant for returning migrants.

Accordingly, Odisha became the first and the only state to make such provisions as per the Section 44 (1) of Odisha Gram Panchayat Act 1964 following the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act.  Subject to the provisions of this Act and the rules made thereunder, it shall be the duty of a Gram Panchayat, within the limits of its funds to undertake, control and administer and be responsible in respect of the Orissa Grama Panchayats Act 1964 ,”(h) measures for preventing and checking the spread of epidemic or infectious and other dangerous diseases.”

However, neither in the CM’s declaration nor in the subsequent notification by the R&D department, the administrative and financial authorities of the Sarpanchs were spelled out, thus leaving considerable ambiguity around what the Sarpanches could or could not do. In this context, it is worth noting that an earlier order, dated 17th February 2020, issued by Secretary, Panchayati raj and Drinking Water Department, restricted Sarpanchs from making any expenditure without the permission of the block development officer.

The Citizens’ Action Group-Odisha is deeply concerned that instead of withdrawing the February 17 order, which continues to be in force, and bringing clarity about the role of Sarpanchs, a circular issued by the panchayati raj department on May 11 and two recent orders from the collectors of two districts have further undermined the chief minister’s decision to make Sarpanchs the cornerstone of Odisha’s fight against Covid_19, by devolving more power to panchayats in line with the provisions of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments.

The said circular, which highlights the mismanagement of the quarantine centers and asks Collectors and BDOs to ensure strict adherence to guidelines relating to the management of theses centers, neither refers to the Sarpanch nor is copied to any of them. The same has been the case with several other orders passed by various authorities over the past fortnight. District Collectors of Ganjam and Kandhmala have issued further orders restricting any movement near the TMC/ quarantine center without any consultation or involvement of the Sarpanchs.

These actions are in conflict with the announcement made by the chief minister on April 19. More importantly, they undermine his appeal for greater decentralization in the approach to fight Covid_19.

 Against this backdrop, the Citizens’ Action Group-Odisha demands to withdraw the order issued by the Secretary, Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water Department-Odisha curtailing financial powers of the Sarpanchs. The Sarapanchs be provided adequate financial and administrative powers to access the basic minimum amenities besides the other development works in the village Sarpanchs in order to tackle the spread of novel coronavirus. Adequate funds are ensured for capital costs and running costs. At every point, the Panchayat must have adequate financial reserves for the lockdown period. The rights and authorities of Sarpanchs in the COVID19 containment and management of quarantine centers at their respective Panchayats be spelled out clearly. Every Panchayat be provided with financial allocation based on the number of workers registered and expected to return to the Panchayat.

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