Mumbai: No consultation with guardian ministers for appointing panchayat administrators, says HC

The Bombay High Court on Thursday quashed a provision in a Government Resolution (GR) in Maharashtra under which guardian ministers were supposed to be consulted for the appointment of gram panchayat administrators.

A bench of Justices S S Shinde and M S Karnik pronounced the judgement through video link on a bunch of petitions challenging a Government Resolution (decision) of July 13, 2020.

The GR said that the terms of over 15,000 gram panchayat members across the state had come to an end but owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, holding elections would not be possible.

Therefore, the Chief Executive Officer of every gram panchayat would appoint an `administrator' based on recommendation by the guardian minister, it said.

The petitioners, which included members of various panchayats, argued that the GR was arbitrary and politically motivated.

Petitioners' lawyers Shyam Devani, S B Talekar and G S Godbole argued that the GR gave too much power to guardian ministers who can recommend those close to them or to their political parties.

The state election commission too supported the petitioners' case.

The petitioners also challenged the provision for the appointment of an administrator instead of holding elections.

Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, who appeared for the state government, said it was only an interim arrangement in view of the pandemic.

The guardian minister's recommendation is not binding on the CEO, he argued.

The high court did not find any "infirmity" (flaw) in the decision to appoint administrators, but held that the petitioners' arguments on consultation with guardian ministers had substance.

"Any possibility of appointing an administrator who is likely to act in furtherance of political agenda and thereby aid the ruling dispensation to get an unfair advantage in the elections needs to be avoided," the court said.

For this reason the CEO "must be given a free hand in the matter of appointment of administrator to ensure the sanctity and purity of the election process," it said.

The GR, "to the extent of seeking advice of the Guardian Minister is quashed and set aside," the HC said.

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