No respite for headmen, Justice Sen’s order remains in force

State govt directed to frame law to regulate Dorbar Shnong l‘Headman needs to be brought within the purview of the provisions of RTI’

SHILLONG: Denying any immediate relief to the Rangbah Shnong (headmen), who were stripped of their arbitrary powers, the High Court of Meghalaya has recommended that the State Government bring in a suitable and comprehensive legislation to settle the controversies connected with the issue and settle it once and for all.
The Court had earlier passed a stricture on the arbitrary powers exercised by the Rangbah Shnong while disposing off a writ petition filed by many villagers of Pamrakmai village, East Jaintia Hills district  after they were excommunicated by the Village Dorbar for marrying non- tribals.
The Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Uma Nath Singh and Justice TNK Singh said that until a suitable legislation or an Ordinance during the pendency of the Bill, is brought by the State Government, the directions passed by the single Bench headed by Justice SR Sen on December 10, 2014, will remain in force.
The single Bench had to intervene and strip off the powers of the Rangbah Shnong when the villagers  sought the intervention of the Court after they were excommunicated and deprived of their rights to live and stay peacefully with their parental families.
They were  also subjected to  harassment by the Village Dorbar including denial of essential items under  the public distribution system (PDS). Moreover, the Village Dorbar of Pamrakmai declined to issue residential certificates to the affected villagers. As a result, they were not able to get their accommodation or regular employment at their place of stay, having, shifted there after closure of the coal mines.
The Division Bench in its order said that   the traditional institution of Rangbah Shnong being an important tool of governance at the grass roots level in the tribal system of democracy has existed since long. “But since it appears that there is no uniformity in respect of customary laws, practices and usages as well as the provisions of law enacted by Autonomous District Councils, apart from local legislation made by the concerned Autonomous District Councils, which may cover customary laws, practices and usages prevailing in the Elaka or villages, there should be some common qualifications and eligibility criteria for contesting election to the office of Headman, and also regarding the term of office, the remuneration to be paid for performing the duties, and the nature of duties connected with the office”.
In another landmark ruling the Court also observed that the traditional institution of Headman needs to be brought within the purview of the provisions of the Right to Information Act since this institution acts as a tool of governance at the grass roots level and is also being  assigned an important role in implementing various programmes and schemes of the Central Government as well as the State.
The Court also directed the authorities to frame necessary Rules in this regard for furnishing required information connected with the activities of the Headman and his office and also about the schemes, he is assigned to implement, besides other duties which the Headmen are obligated to perform under the customary laws, practices and usages prevalent in their area as well as under various provisions of the Central and State enacted Statutes.
According to Court, the State should also include the Headman in the definition of “Public Servant”
for the purpose of prosecution under the provisions of Criminal Law, particularly, the Prevention of Corruption Act in the case of allegations of committing any financial irregularities or any other economic offences.
The Court ruling order further added, “It may also not be out of context, particularly looking at the amount of responsibilities, a Headman is said to be discharging under the Customary Laws as well as various Statutory provisions (in the absence of any other elected body at the grass root level), apart from being assigned with the additional responsibility of implementing various Social and Government Schemes and programmes, to impress upon the State, in the public interest, to make some Statutory provisions for fixing a remuneration commensurate with the responsibilities being discharged by the person holding that office so that he is able to perform his functions and duties honestly and with full dedication and devotion.”
The Court also observed that the State Government should also ensure that no person with anti-national and criminal background is allowed to contest the election, and as far as possible, the qualifications and eligibility criteria as provided under the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 and other Statutes for a candidate to contest the election to the State Assembly should also be made applicable in the case of candidates contesting the election for the post of Headman.
The Court also directed  the Union of India through the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Secretary, Meghalaya, to issue necessary directions to all the authorities concerned that any documents  such as  the Voters’ ID card or the bank account-pass book or ration card or telephone bill or similar other utility bills and documents should be treated as sufficient proof of residence  and shall be accepted as proof of residence without further queries and they shall also prescribe punishments for commission or omission, if any and for violation of such directives.
Documents for proof of residence
The High Court has directed  the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Secretary  to issue  directions to all the authorities concerned that any of documents  like  voters’ card or  the bank account-pass book or ration card or telephone bill or similar other utility bills and documents should be treated as sufficient proof of residence.
They shall prescribe punishments for commission or omission, if any, for violation of such directives.
For opening a bank account, obtaining proof of residence and for other small matters, certificates of a neighbour or any respectable person of the village, instead of headman, should be sufficient and equally acceptable.