Five months ahead of the Gujarat Assembly election, a government circular sent out to village panchayats has triggered murmurs of protest among sarpanches across the state.

Issued in May after an amendement to the Gujarat Panchayats Act, the circular states that sarpanches now have to get the approval and signature of the talati – the village accountant or revenue secretary – in order to spend any funds allocated to the panchayat. Previously, village expenses were authorised by the sarpanch and one other member of the panchayat.

Since panchayats, or local self-government bodies, are voted in through elections, while talatis are bureaucrats appointed by the state government, sarpanches claim the new government rule undermines their powers as elected representatives and violates the principles of electoral democracy.

“This is the village-level equivalent of a chief minister needing the approval of the chief secretary before spending any official funds,” said Sagar Rabari, a farmers’ rights activist and head of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj.

Meanwhile, state Panchayat Minister Jayanti Kavadiya has claimed that the new rule was introduced because many sarpanches are “illiterate” and end up signing on “improper expenditure”.

On June 13, village chiefs in Ahmedabad district’s Sanand block held the first major protest against the new government circular, and submitted a memorandum of dissent to their mamlatdar or block development officer.

As panchayats in other parts of Gujarat plan more protests, activists and political observers claim this move is an attempt by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government to weaken local self-governments and exert more influence at the village level at a time when several district and taluka panchayats are led by the Congress.

‘What is the point of being elected?’

A village or gram panchayat, headed by a sarpanch, is typically responsible for the administration of agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, drinking water, sanitation, roads, primary healthcare, small-scale industries, social welfare and education in the village.

Bureaucrats like the talatis or village secretaries are employed by the state government to collect land revenue, conduct land surveys, maintain accounts and perform other similar duties for the block development officer and district collector, who in turn report to the state government’s chief secretary.

The new government rule, say sarpanches, will upset the system of decentralised local self-governance by placing financial veto power for village expenses in the hands of a state government representative.

“As elected panchayat members, we know the needs and priorities of our village better than a talati, who is often not even a local,” said Narendrasinh Barad, the sarpanch of Sanand’s Bol village who protested on June 13 along with 50 other sarpanches. “I don’t have much of a problem because the talati of my village belongs to my caste, so I can get my work done. But what about other sarpanches? The government just wants its influence to go right down to the village level in an election year.”

Often, each talati is in charge of three or four villages, and barely has a week to spare for each village every month. “Imagine the problems we will face if we have to wait for the talati’s signature for clearing even small amounts of money,” said Ranubhai Vala, the sarpanch of Shivad village in Amreli district. “The talati in my area is in charge of eight villages.”

In Mehsana district’s Thol village, sarpanch Varshaben Thakore is already anticipating delays in the clearance of regular payments such as the village’s electricity bills, sanitation workers’ salaries and bore-well maintenance work. “So far, I would immediately clear these expenses along with one of the two sabhyas [panchayat members] appointed for these approvals,” said Thakore. “What is the point of being elected by our people if we now need the permission of a state government official for everything?”

Many talatis chose not to comment on the new rule since they are government employees, but they admitted that it will significantly increase their workload.

“Earlier talatis would just prepare cheques and maintain records based on the sarpanch’s instructions, but now their responsibility will increase,” said HH Parmar, a retired talati from Amreli district’s Dhari block. “I can also understand why sarpanches are opposing this new rule. Talatis will always be under pressure to act as per state government orders, and the sarpanch may not want to do that.”

‘People at the top don’t want to share power’

While this is the first known instance of a state government giving village revenue secretaries authority over a sarpanch, it is not the first time that a government has undermined or disregarded the autonomy of an elected panchayat.

The three-tier Panchayati Raj system was introduced across India through the 73rd amendment to the Constitution in 1992. The aim of the system was to decentralise governance by handing over political and administrative power to local self-government bodies or elected panchayats at the district, taluka and village levels.

According to advocate Anand Yagnik from Ahmedabad, this amendment brought in both vertical democratisation of power (by decentralising governance at the central, state and local levels), as well as horizontal democratisation of power (by allowing reservations in panchayats for women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes).

However, nearly 25 years after local self-governance came into being, panchayats are still not seen as competent bodies that can be trusted to take charge of major work. Higher-level politicians and bureaucrats tend to criticise panchayats for lacking capacity, and state governments are often reluctant to devolve certain powers and responsibilities to them.

In Gujarat and other states, for instance, funds for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are supposed to come directly to village panchayats. “But most of the time the funds are sent to the taluka office, and sarpanches are expected to get approvals from there,” said Indira Hirway, director of the Centre for Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad.

Hirway believes that the Gujarat government has not done anything to empower decentralised democracy, and seems to have more faith in the bureaucracy. “If they believed in decentralised democracy, they would work towards building capacity in panchayats and putting in checks and balances to prevent corruption,” she said. “But basically, the people at the top don’t want to share power with those at lower levels.”

Politically motivated?

The Gujarat Panchayats Act has a clause that allows the state government to “exercise its control over the panchayats either directly or through such officer or officers as it may, by general or special order, appoint for the purpose”.

The new Gujarat government rule subordinating sarpanches to talatis seems to be backed by this clause. The timing of the new rule, however, could be more politically motivated.

“This is basically a manifestation of the fallout between the BJP government at the state level and many district and taluka panchayats that are now run by the Congress,” said Anand Yagnik, who is planning to litigate against the new rule. “This tension has been going on since January 2016, when the BJP started losing local body elections.”

In their current state of discontent, many sarpanches in Gujarat claim that the new government rule will lead to a loss of support for the BJP in the Assembly election scheduled in November. Ranubhai Vala is one of them, but still believes it is too soon to make up his mind. “Right now we are all upset, but I have always been a BJP supporter,” he said. “Anyway, I can’t decide alone who I am going to vote for – the whole village will decide together.”