Himachal Pradesh polls: Voters demand revival of nyaya panchayats as alternative to delayed, costly justice system

Across Himachal Pradesh, workshops are conducted to spread awareness about the need for nyaya panchayats. People in the urban areas say the demand is rising because of the climbing crime graph in the state — mostly against women — but the older generation, that had been witness to the working of nyaya panchayats, say minor cases were handled at the local level for the well-being of society and also to maintain the izzat (respect) of the village. Marginalised sections demand the return of the old system, with elections being the right time to press for it.

Similar demands for nyaya panchayats have also figured in other states. In 1959, the government of Maharashtra introduced nyaya panchayats for the administration of minor cases of civil and criminal disputes in a group of villages. These panchayats were abandoned in 1975. In 2011, the Congress-led Democratic Front government considered the revival of the nyaya panchayat system for speedy disposal of cases. It has Tanta Mukti Samitis now working for dispute resolution at the panchayat level, though members of this Samiti are nominated by the government.

Similarly, Bihar experienced some success with Gram Kachaharis, that appoint a nyaya mitra, a law graduate or a paralegal who guides the nominated men and women of repute on issues of jurisprudence.

People of Himachal Pradesh engage with Health and Family Walfare minister Kaul Singh Thakur over demand for nyaya panchayats. Image courtesy Vandana Shukla

People of Himachal Pradesh engage with health and family welfare minister Kaul Singh Thakur over the demand for nyaya panchayats. Image courtesy Vandana Shukla

In view of the recent spurt in minor litigations in villages, voters in Himachal Pradesh are also demanding a revival of nyaya panchayats. They have given a memorandum to both political parties — the Congress and the BJP – to enlist the formation of nyaya panchayats in their manifesto. While BJP has turned it down, Congress has promised to "look into the matter."

The history

In 2012, the Congress Party included a provision for nyaya panchayats in its election manifesto for the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh. After winning the elections, it 'forgot' to fulfil the promise. In 2015, responding to persistent demands by a cluster of NGOs, the state government accepted the demand for autonomous nyaya panchayats, but later went back on its word.

There is no need for these bodies, stated the government with the existing justice delivery system and 3,243 elected panchayats in the state. Unofficially, people came to know, the government did not have the resources. Incidentally, the state had a provision for nyaya panchayats till 1978 (the state was carved out of Punjab in 1971).

Few senior officials told Firstpost, on condition of anonymity, that a nyaya panchayat member had punished Shanta Kumar (former chief minister), to invite its closure. Others say all records of the nyaya panchayats were found burnt. Whatever be the truth, after a reorganisation of states, Punjab had done away with these panchayats, and Himachal followed suit.

Why the need for revival

Till 2005, a gram panchayat election in the state did not even require a pamphlet. Today, a candidate spends Rs four-five lakh for an electorate of 1,000 people. The focus has shifted to development work, with each panchayat receiving Rs 80-90 lakh per annum.

"No one wants to lose votes by getting involved in petty disputes and antagonise one party. Compromise is all they ask for, more so from women and the marginalised. Justice of the courts is costly, its carried out in English... it is not meant for us" says Brijbala (Sharma, though she doesn't write her surname because her husband abandoned her), one of the coordinations spreading awareness on nyaya panchayats, from district Bilaspur.

Dr SS Meenakshisundaram, former secretary of the Union Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department, who has monitored the working of panchayats believes, "It is easier to lie in a distant court where no one knows you than in a panchayat where everyone does; nyaya panchayats can deliver faster and cheaper justice." He avers that the Judiciary needs decentralisation too.

Echoing his views, SR Sharma, retired deputy director, Panchayati Raj, Shimla, says,"Panchayati Raj Act is flawed." In his opinion, "by giving both executive and judicial powers, it has undermined the value of both. "When nyaya panchayats were active in Himachal Pradesh, people respected locally delivered judgments, but now for every little issue they have to run to the courts because they lack faith in the Panchayat."

Added to this is a new kind of inequality bred in the rural life that segregates services into the government and the private sector. The poor and the disadvantaged find themselves at the mercy of the government machinery that controls their right to services for education and healthcare etc, tilted in favour of the rich.

"Even BDOs ( block development officers) demand a report from sarpanchs only on how the funds are used... they want the paperwork to look good. The well being of the people, especially the disadvantaged, is nobody’s concern," adds Brijbala.

NGOs presenting a memorandum to HP chief minister Virbhadra Singh, demanding to reintroduce nyay panchayats at Shimla. Image courtesy Vandana Shukla

NGOs presenting a memorandum to HP chief minister Virbhadra Singh, demanding to reintroduce nyaya panchayats at Shimla. Image courtesy Vandana Shukla

The road ahead

Not willing to repeat a 2012, Networking NGO, a cluster of NGOs active in the state, has spearheaded an awareness campaign on the issue, with signatures of 20,938 panchayat members in their bag, both men and women. The volunteers are training even gran pradhans about the need for nyaya panchayats.

The NGOs — SRDA (society for rural development and action), Shraddha, EG (Energy Environment group), Ankur Welfare Association, Nishtha, Rural Health Education and Environment, Sarb Shakti Sangam, Federation of Women and ENSS — are active in seven out of 12 districts of the state.

"We need affordable, approachable justice," they clamour. They have worked out solutions for governments that, they accuse, hides behind the excuse of lack of resources. "The post of up-pradhan in a panchayat is useless, each up-pradhan gets an honorarium of Rs 2,200 per month, for 3,243 panchayats... the money wasted works out to be Rs 8,56,15,200 annually. this can be used to create nyaya panchayats,” says Radha, a deserted wife from Sayahola panchayat of Bilaspur district, dedicated to the cause of reviving the nyaya panchayats.

Ratan Manjari, president, Mahila Kalyan Parishad, Kinnaur, a strong supporter of the abolition of tribal laws that discriminate against women on property rights, has motivated 55 out of 68 panchayats in the district, mostly constituted of the hill tribes, to sign a memorandum demanding nyaya panchayats.

"No woman likes going to thana0kachahari, village dispute shouldn't go out of the village. Tribes used to have their own system of justice,  they abolished old systems, new systems don't deliver. Common problems are multiple marriages by men, domestic violence, property disputes... where do we go to get justice?" she asks.

Updated Date: Nov 02, 2017 17:30 PM

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