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SEC, State Officials to be Liable for Loss of Life, Violence in Panchayat Poll: Calcutta HC

File photo of the Calcutta High Court.

File photo of the Calcutta High Court.

The State Election Commissioner announced that the panchayat poll will be held on May 14 after the Supreme Court directed it to ensure "free and fair" election.

Kolkata: On May 10, The Calcutta High Court said the State Election Commissioner and state officials would be held personally liable and have to pay compensation if the loss of life and property in the coming panchayat election was higher than that in the 2013 poll.

The panchayat poll will be held on May 14, according to an announcement of the SEC after the Supreme Court's direction to it to ensure "free and fair" election.

A division bench comprising Chief Justice J Bhattacharya and Justice A Banerjee hoped that the state government and the SEC would take steps to ensure that the election be free, fair and peaceful, whenever it is held.

The court made it clear that in case the loss of life and violence in the polls was higher than in the 2013 election, the high state officials who submitted the report on security arrangement before it and the State Election Commissioner, who approved it, would be personally liable and pay compensation apart from the government.

The bench said that this would be done if it was found that the senior state government officials' decision was not fair and unbiased and the submission of their report and approval by the SEC was communicated to the court only to mislead it about the adequacy of the security arrangement.

"Under such circumstances, compensation to be paid will be recovered and realized not only from the salary of the responsible officer of the state who submitted the misleading report before this court and the State Election Commissioner who approved such report consciously knowing the consequence thereof but also from their retiral benefits and from their personal properties by way attachment and sale thereof," the court said.

If the entire compensation money payable in this regard could not be recovered this way, the state government would be liable to pay the remaining part of such compensation.

"Since the SEC is happy with the arrangement made by the state administration, we deem it proper not to pass any further direction for the time being," the bench said.

The court said in case the SEC felt that further force was required in view of any changed circumstances, it would take necessary steps for mobilisation of the additional force and the state government would extend all help and cooperation.

The bench noted the state's position that Rs 10 lakh would be paid to the next of kin of an official in case of his death on election duty and if it was caused by violence, Rs 20 lakh was to be paid.

In case of permanent disability like loss of limbs or eyesight a minimum ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh would be given, which would be doubled in case of such mishaps being caused by extremist or un-social elements.Observing that the high court had no independent mechanism for assessing the law and order problem of the state, the bench said its maintenance was a state subject. "State government is the appropriate authority to take decision as to how the law and order problem of the state will be managed," it said.

The bench, however, did not specify the date for holding the election.A single bench had earlier said that the date of May 14 for holding the elections, as had been announced by the SEC, could be regarded as tentative and not final.It had said that the division bench presided by the chief justice would decide on the date of election after the state and the SEC submit reports on security arrangements for holding the polls.

Petitioners had prayed for deployment of central forces for conducting the rural polls and sought compensation in case of loss of lives and destruction of property.The state had told the court that it had enough armed forces to hold the elections and that there was no need to call in central paramilitary forces for the purpose.

Appearing on behalf of the government, Advocate General Kishore Datta told the division bench on Tuesday that 71,500 armed police personnel would be deployed for holding the polls Of them, 500 would be of the rank of inspector and 10,000 sub-inspectors and assistant sub-inspectors, while the rest 61,000 would be constables, homeguards and from the National Volunteer Force (NVF), Datta said.

In addition, 80,000 civic volunteers would be deployed, the AG said.

According to the reports placed by the state and the SEC, polling is going to be held at 47,415 polling booths.The AG told the court that one armed policeman and one civic volunteer will be deployed in each booth.

In 2013, central paramilitary forces had been deployed along with state forces for holding the panchayat elections in the state.Another division bench presided by Justice B Somadder is hearing an appeal on the SEC's decision to hold the election in a single phase, while it had earlier announced a three-phase election.

Appellants CPI(M) and PDS, both opposition parties in the state, claimed that the commission had not followed a single bench order of holding meaningful discussion with stakeholders before announcing the date/dates for the elections.

Hearing in the appeal was adjourned for the day and may be taken up again on Friday by the division bench of Justice Somadder and Justice A Mukherjee.