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Trampling on grassroots: On T.N. local body polls

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Three years after they fell due in 2016, rural local bodies in Tamil Nadu will witness elections in the last week of this month. And, barring ( except for; if not for)  any further judicial intervention, urban local bodies are also likely to have elected representatives early next year. It is a travesty ( a false, absurd, or distorted representation of something) of the law that these elections have been delayed. Cities, towns and villages have been under the rule of unelected officials for too long. Under a Supreme Court order, polls for all local bodies will have to be held, except in those districts that have been divided recently to create new ones.

It is the first time since local self-government became the third tier ( level ; layer ) of governance under the Constitution that polls have not been held on time in T.N. — timely elections were held every five years since 1996. Administrative lapses ( an interval or passage of time) and political litigation ( the process of taking legal action)  over ward delimitation ( the action of fixing the boundary or limits of something)  in various local bodies in accordance with the latest population figures in the 2011 Census resulted in the unprecedented ( never done or known before)  delay.

Originally announced on time in 2016, the notification was cancelled by the Madras High Court, citing irregularities in it. Since then, the issue of delimitation, the announcement of new districts and occasional litigation have contributed to the delay in setting in motion elections to the vital tiers of grassroots ( the most basic level of an activity or organization) democracy.There have been frequent changes in the mode of electing mayors of city corporations and chairpersons of municipalities. Originally, direct elections were held, but it was changed to indirect mode in 2006. The present regime ( a government, especially an authoritarian one) has changed its mind twice.

In 2016, the Jayalalithaa regime opted for indirect elections, that is, only ward councillors would be elected by the people and these representatives, in turn, would elect mayors and municipal chairpersons. The current Edappadi K. Palaniswami government reversed the decision and chose the direct election mode. Recently, it once again changed its mind and restored the system of indirect election, citing “better accountability and collective responsibility”.

It claimed that there was scope for conflict between a directly elected head and the councillors, and that this would be eliminated if councillors themselves elected the mayor or chairperson. Beyond all the legal and technical reasons, and political squabbles ( a noisy quarrel about something trivial ; arguements) over the timing of elections, the attitude of the two main parties towards the importance of local bodies has been quite lukewarm ( showing little enthusiasm). While the posts of the heads of various local bodies are seen as prestigious, there is much politicisation  ( the action of causing an activity or event to become political in character) when it comes to devolving funds and letting the various tiers work independently.

District panchayats, in particular, are seen as being frequently undermined ( lessen the effectiveness, power, or ability of, especially gradually or insidiously), as most parties consider them as a redundant ( not or no longer needed or useful; superfluous) third tier among panchayati raj institutions. While the polls are fought bitterly, the State is still some distance away from including local self-government bodies as partners in its development.

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