Two months after election results were announced, the functioning of the District Development Councils (DDC) in Jammu and Kashmir is still ambiguous. Even as most of the DDC councils have now elected their chairperson and vice-chairpersons, they still await guidelines on their roles and official protocol.
Taranjit Singh, an independent candidate who won the Suchetgarh seat from the Jammu district, said that he feared the DDCs would meet a similar fate as that of the panchayats, which are unable to effectively deliver at the grassroots.
“The government has not paid the sarpanches. Panchayats are disempowered due to lack of funds,” said Singh. “Now we have been given elected posts but if we face the same problems, we wouldn’t be able to do much towards development.”
Singh, who defeated his rival Sham Lal Choudhary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a former minister in the erstwhile state’s last government, with a small margin of eleven votes, currently operates from his private office in his own residence in Jammu city’s Sanjay Nagar. “There is no DDC office yet. I work from here, or wherever I am,” he said.
“There are no guidelines given to us on how to function,” he said. “I am waiting for the government to conduct sessions so we are trained on our working and the projected aim of grassroots development is actually realized.”
Sohail Shahzad, another councilor from Surankote-B seat of the Poonch district, said that councilors were still unaware of their powers and rules and regulations of official work. He added that “even though the DDCs’ powers are not yet defined we are trying to make people aware and help them benefit from different government schemes.”
‘Glaring lack of clarity’
Having rushed through the elections, the administration is now, however, showing signs of complacency in taking this new tier of governance forward.
“J-K is a peculiar case when it comes to governance,” said Ellora Puri, a political science professor at the Jammu University.
There is, Puri said, a “glaring lack of clarity when it comes to the role and functioning of DDCs. There is no definitive information in the public space and even political analysts, scientists and academics have not been able to grasp the development in its entirety. When it comes to the elections, or specifics of reservation of seats, or even the number of members constitution DDC, there is no rationale that the decisions can be attributed to.”
Puri noted that the formation of the DDCs was ironically a “top-down approach” that was “more bureaucratic” than political. “Nothing around DDCs has been thought of, which is why it seems very bureaucratic and ad-hoc,” she said. “The Centre seems to be making decisions on the go, without preparation, without any consultation with experts on Panchayati Raj Institutions who have studied issues pertaining to local governance in India.”
Puri added: “There have been no prospective setting of agendas or rules when it comes to DDCs and that creates an uneven playing field since people are elected first and the rules are formed later according to what suits the administration. For many people who stood for the elections, they didn’t know what powers they would have.”
“After the abrogation of Article 370… People in the state were left in limbo as regards their political position and citizenry,” Puri said, adding that though the DDCs were a “positive step” towards ensuring the “participation of people in local governance”, it wasn’t a substitute to politics.
“The state assembly, the bodies that hold political power, are missing in the middle,” she said, adding that “there needs to be a State Assembly that works in coordination with the DDCs. That vacuum has to be filled in order to have holistic governance.”
Development a ruse?
According to Abdul Khabir, Divisional Publicity Officer in the Directorate of Rural Development Department, communication with and training of elected DDC members will begin in March, after the current process of electing chairpersons is completed. “In the month of March, the training program will be held for DDC members after the administrative department decides the dates. Presently, the chairpersons are being elected. After that, the training will be held and they will be told about their roles and responsibilities,” he said.
The elections to the DDCs had broken the stalemate since 5 August 2019 and led to a politically charged atmosphere with the exercise being projected as an endorsement of BJP’s unilateral decision of abrogating J-K’s limited-autonomy versus the local parties projecting every vote for them as a vote against the BJP.
Zulkarnain Sheikh, who hails from Kishtwar and practices law in Jammu, opined that “the first elections after the abrogation of Article 370 were not aimed at fostering development. They were to show that the erstwhile state has fully integrated with India. Every vote to BJP would affirm that.”
He had campaigned for his father, Abdul Lateef Sheikh, who contested the Kishtwar DDC seat on the ticket of the newly formed Apni Party.
“The election was not held on the issues of water supply, sanitation, and electricity that our area faces,” said Davinder Singh, the sarpanch of Keran panchayat in Bhalwal segment of Jammu district. “People voted either for Modi or a proximate candidate who could provide instant gains.”
Despite the slow pace and lack of clarity, there is still hope among some. “I think DDCs will bring change,” said Chhankar Singh Chib, deputy-sarpanch of the Keran Panchayat. “A lot of public work is not done because high-level political leaders like [legislators] are unapproachable to the local population.”
Taranjit Singh, the councilor from Suchetgarh, hoped for a quick resolution of the ambiguity as development works couldn’t wait. “[I]irrigation canals, cheaper seeds to the farmers, subsidy on electricity bills, infrastructure for power back up so that the farmers don’t face problems in operating water-pumps,” said Singh, “are genuine demands that nobody should oppose.”
The DDCs, Taranjit said, “can do a lot if they work dedicatedly and are empowered, unlike the panchayats.”