“The constitutional scheme envisaged the Panchayat Raj and high degree of autonomy to the gram panchayats. The sheer magnitude of large number of gram panchayats and their importance in a democratic set-up is a good reason why any political dispensation would be eager to gain control and extend its hold over the gram panchayats,” said a bench of Justices S S Shinde and M S Karnik.
The issue of gram panchayats landed in court after a bunch of petitions challenged the ordinance amending the Maharashtra Village Panchayat Act to provide for administrators since elections were difficult to be held due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the GR issued in July last year enabling chief executive officers of zilla parishads to consult district guardian ministers and appoint administrators to almost 14,000 gram panchayats whose terms expired or were due to expire soon.
The HC noted that “the entire object of appointing an independent administrator is to ensure impartiality in election process” and added, “Any possibility of appointing an administrator who is likely to act in furtherance of the political agenda and thereby aid the ruling dispensation to get an unfair advantage in the elections needs to be avoided.”
Counsel Shyam Dewani, S B Talekar and G S Godbole, appearing for petitioners who challenged the validity of the GR, said such intervention “would defeat the constitutional scheme of free and fair elections.”
The guardian minister is empowered to oversee combined budgets of all local civic bodies and their implementation, besides facilitating “land acquisition for mega projects like garbage processing plants, construction of highways, airports, industrial area, water supply and sewage treatment projects,” observed the HC order.
The CEO, though appointed by the state, is a statutory authority, duty-bound to follow the Zilla Parishad Act and rules. “It is necessary that the CEO should have a free hand in the appointment of an administrator without a semblance of any political influence,” held the HC, but clarified that it was “not for a moment” suggesting that in every case, the guardian minister would influence the decision of the CEO.
The HC said “holding free and fair elections in a democracy is of paramount importance,” and the state must do everything necessary to cooperate with the mandate of the state election commission. The SEC too objected to the GR. It was “imperative’’ the CEO exercised his power to appoint an administrator sans any advice of the minister, said SEC counsel Ajit Kadethankar. The HC said the SEC stand “deserves to be accepted.”
“The petitions therefore succeed. The impugned GR dated 13th July, 2020…is quashed and set aside,” the HC directed.