At long last West Bengal Chief Minister Miss Mamata Banerjee has taken time off from intra-party polemics to initiate much needed systemic reform. One cannot but applaud her decision to create a new primary tier of police at the village level in order to empower gram panchayats with law enforcement responsibility. After several chief ministers had demanded more federalism in the system it was pointed out that to achieve it there was as much need to increase empowerment of districts and villages as there was to empower the states. It was also pointed out that there was as much need to better define and demarcate the powers of the President in order to usher in genuine federalism.
In relation to the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre it was pointed out that a new primary tier of police at the local urban or village level would create a valuable data base for intelligence if central authorities kept close contact with it. On September 24, 2008 one wrote in these columns: “Panchayati Raj must be given a new and primary level of purely local policing. The local policeman functioning under the existing hierarchy must be accountable for salary and performance to the local citizens. One main function of this primary policing would be to keep watch on new entrants in the locality and on any unusual activities being pursued. The IB through its state units can keep tabs on what is going on across the nation through interaction with these elemental units. Citizens have a vested interest in keeping their neighborhood secure. This interest should be exploited.” Then again, on March 29, 2012 it was written: “Unless there is also a new primary level of police created to cater only to petty law and order issues under the executive authority of the panchayat, self governance becomes farcical. The powers of the traditional Chowkidar need to be enhanced and legitimized.”
It seems that similar ideas have inspired the West Bengal government. Miss Banerjee has cleared a proposal to appoint chowkidars in 3,341 gram panchayats, giving one watchman to each village, creating thereby a new primary tier of policing. The personnel for this tier would be recruited by the state police recruitment board. Each chowkidar will be paid Rs 310 on a daily basis, provided a mobile phone and blue uniform. The chowkidars would not carry weapons. One Home Ministry official told media: “The basic job of the chowkidars will be to gather intelligence and report any crime. They will be the eyes and ears of the state police and will interact with villagers. One chowkidar will cover one panchayat area. He will also be asked to maintain a register to record births and deaths... The Chief Minister is very keen that the project is implemented soon.”
This could give a huge boost to federalism as well as to counter-terrorism operations. One hopes that other states will follow suit. One also hopes that Miss Banerjee will next turn her attention to reappraising the powers of the President in the light of the forthcoming election. She is on the right track. Hopefully she will stay on it to fulfill the hopes she had aroused after her electoral victory.