Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court issued the orders on a plea by T Suresh challenging the order of the district administration restricting him from conducting the meeting. Hailing from a poor family, Suresh completed engineering and was working in Singapore. But he quit his well-paid job in 2016 to take a plunge into grassroots-level administration. When the local body polls were deferred and eventually held in 2019, he contested and won from Rajendrapattinam village panchayat in Virudhachalam block.
Narrating his legal fight to ensure his right to conduct Gram Sabha meeting, Suresh said after the lockdown was imposed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, he called a Gram Sabha meeting on Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) to collect views of the people in his village. However, the State government cancelled all such meetings the previous evening. “When I again tried to convene the meeting on January 26 on the occasion of Republic Day, the Rural Development officials pressurised me to cancel the meeting,” Suresh said to DT Next.
State govt cites pandemic for ban on convening Gram Sabha meeting
Citing Section 3 (2) (A) of Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act, 1994, which grants the village panchayat president the rights to convene the Gram Sabha, the panchayat council decided to conduct the meeting on February 24. He then received a communication dated February 18 from the Assistant Director, Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department, Cuddalore, informing him that as per the government order GO (Ms) No 245 dated November 19, 1998, Gram Sabha meetings could be conducted only on four government holidays — January 26, May 2, August 15 and October 2.
“It was a complete misinterpretation of the GO to illegally restrict panchayat presidents from exercising their right to convene the Gram Sabha meeting at any time when there is a necessity. After officials asked us to cancel the meeting, we filed a writ petition before the High Court on February 22,” he said.
In his response, Advocate General R Shunmugasundaram submitted that the restriction was only on the grounds of the pandemic.
After the hearing, Justice Anand Venkatesh held that the orders/circulars restricting panchayat presidents from conducting Gram Sabha meetings should confine only to the pandemic period. “Government circulars directing the panchayat presidents could not be applicable during normal times,” the judge added.
He also made it clear that the four days mentioned in the circular were only the minimum number of times that Gram Sabha meetings should be convened in a calendar year.
“The judgment has [made it clear that] the authorities can’t stop us from exercising our rights as elected representatives of the village,” added Suresh.