When the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) was about to have its first Panchayat elections after about four decades in 2011, 33-year-old Ghulam Rasool Bhat, was a vibrant aspirant. Born and brought up in Sheeri village of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, he intended to repair the severed bridge between masses and the administration. 

In the decade to come, various governments were formed and broken – alike in Centre and the erstwhile state. Out of those in power, a few favoured Panchayati Raj’s three-tier governance idea and a few allegedly refuted to endorse it. Nonetheless, it was, and has been, a political fodder – used by different governments accordingly.

When Mr. Bhat, now 42, looks back at the decade of being a Sarpanch, he says that he never got what the headlines on Panchayati Raj implementation proposed – “except lies, fear, and a tag of collaborator.”

Every new plan and policy – which claims to enhance the concept of Panchayati Raj – seems galvanic to common masses, Mr. Bhat believes, “but on the ground – it is not what it is supposed to be; it is zero.”

One of the reasons ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been boasting since stripping J-K’s special status or Articles 370 and 35A in August 2019 – which barred the application of central law directly to the erstwhile state – is the extension of grass root democracy. In a party event in November 2019, in Srinagar, the BJP hosted hundreds of swinging elected Panches and Sarpanches – to spread awareness about how the Central government’s decision will shape a new political system in J-K.

The Kashmir Walla spoke to various Panches, Sarpanches, and chairmen – who constitute the newly structured three-tier system in J-K – to understand, if things have changed for them on ground in the newly formed Union Territory of J-K?

Panchayati Raj 

The culture of Panchayati Raj has existed in the country for long in different permutation and combination but not formally. Similarly, in J-K, the idea of Panchayati Raj was introduced during the Dogra regime in 1935 – though, remained weak due to princely regime. 

In 1989, J-K got the Panchayati Raj Act in the erstwhile constitution and was later amended in 1996. The 1989 Act provided for a three-tier system – halqa panchayats, representing a cluster of villages, headed by a Sarpanch; Block Development Councils (BDC) consisting of Sarpanches from that area; at last, District Development and Planning Boards (DDPB). The halqa Panches would be directly elected by people and in turn, the Sarpanches would elect the chairperson of the BDC.

DDPB consisted of the Members of Parliament (MP) and Legislative Assembly (MLA), heads of BDC and other civic bodies – with a chairman nominated by the government.

At the root, halqa Panchayats had the power to levy certain taxes and fees, draw up annual list of works to be done – while the designate authority would sanction and oversee the project.

In 2011, during the coalition government of National Conference (NC) and Indian National Congress in J-K, Panchayat elections were held after about four decades. The idea of taking governance to the third-level attracted many a people in Kashmir – where masses are not fond of electoral politics usually.

“Everything related to the Panchayat system was going well,” recalls Mr. Bhat, the Sarpanch from Sheeri, of the time when Ali Mohammad Sagar, a senior legislator of the NC, was minister of Panchayat Raj in J-K. “The powers that were promised by the Centre were enjoyed in his tenure.” 

Recalling those days, Mr. Bhat points out incidents where he would help villagers on the block level. “It was a positive sign for the people as well for us,” he says. Though, when People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP came together in coalition in 2014 – “the crisis started; there was mistrust on ground and death penalty for many of us.”

Fast forward to 2018, seven years after the last Panchayat elections, the then Governor of J-K, Satya Pal Malik, led State Administrative Council (SAC) amended the J-K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989. The move gave financial push and granted powers to Panchayats to directly implement centrally sponsored schemes.

However, from the idea of upcoming BDC elections or the extended financial powers to the local bodies are said to have roots back to NC-Congress government in 2011-12. The drafts never made it to an act, though. The Governor administration had made it a reality.

On 24 August 2019, the government spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, during a press briefing in Srinagar announced Block Development Council (BDC) polls in the newly formed Union Territory of J-K.  In October-December 2019, plans were set afoot to hold the BDC polls to be followed by District Planning and Development Boards (DPDBs) – which are yet to take place.

The announcement came when all the regional political leadership – including three former chief ministers – was either detained or under house-arrest in the fallout of the central government’s August 2019 decision.

Notably, NC and PDP boycotted the last Panchayat polls in 2018protesting against the threat to region’s special status. However, candidates in this election are not meant to contest on any party’s tickets, but they are tacitly supported by some party or another.

On the other side, taking part in the electoral politics was something that militant groups refuted. Over the years, a few elected members disassociated due to the apprehensions of becoming militants’ targets and other different reasons. According to central government officials, who monitor Panchayati Raj department in the Valley, were quoted by Hindustan Times in January 2020 that about 504 Panches have resigned for different reasons. 

The highest numbers of the resignations took place in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district with 129 office bearers quitting, followed by central Kashmir’s Budgam district with eighty-one, and sixty-seven in Baramulla. 

As per the Election Commission of India, after the winter elections in 2019, about sixty-two per cent of the seats remain vacant in Kashmir Valley in Urban Local Body (ULB) and Panchayat elections. The stats are contrasting in Jammu and Ladakh region; 0.91 and 2.8 per cent seats are vacant in the two regions respectively. In recently concluded BDC polls, out of 2,135 Sarpanch seats in the Valley, about 708 halqas had no candidates and other 699 candidates won uncontested.

The figures tell that the idea of contesting the BDC and ULB elections in the Valley is still far-fetched with majority of the seats remaining vacant. While speaking to The Kashmir Walla, the head of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj department, Sheetal Nanda, said that the BDCs have been appointed at many places and they will enjoy their due powers when the process of three-tier system completes.

“We are working on their [Panches and Sarpanches] issues but it cannot be done overnight,” she added. “The department will also re-conduct the elections for vacant seats soon.”

A bleak future 

Seats remain vacant but those who are already elected see a bleak future. Much like Mr. Bhat, another Sarpanch from Pulwama, south Kashmir, who does not wish to be named, says that in contrast to people’s expectations, and perceptions, of up-gradation in basic developmental work – “the situation has deteriorated after August [2019].” 

Adding to that, the Sarpanch says that the funds getting lapsed are another major issue. “Around 36,00,000 rupees of my halqa were lapsed due to poor hierarchy in the system,” he says, disappointingly. “Most importantly, all of our bills need to be uploaded online [for reimbursement] and we haven’t been able to do that for the past five months.”

As per the given policy, the funds for a halqa are decided annually on the basis of the population; for instance, as per the Sarpanch from south, about 80,00,000 rupees were allotted for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NAREGA) scheme. “Only about 25,00,000 rupees were used in the initial years and rest were lapsed,” he says. “And the demands of the people remained same.”

According to a recent report by Panchayat officials of J-K, more than 1,400 crore rupees have been deposited in the Gram Panchayats, but due to the internet blockade they cannot verify their digital signature, hence barring the dispersal of funds.

Majority of the Sarpanches, who were elected in 2018 Panchayat polls, The Kashmir Walla spoke to say they have been “deceived by the government, and haven’t been empowered as promised.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently claimed in one of his political rallies that one of the benefits of August 2019 decision is that it would rid Kashmir of “dynastic rule” – targeting the two regional parties – NC and PDP. 

Amidst the clampdown, in September 2019, a delegation consisting largely of Panchayat members had met Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, in Delhi. Mr. Shah had assured that the promises made by the Central government – to flourish and strengthen the democracy at grass root level – will be a reality soon in the Valley.

But for the chairman from Uri, north Kashmir, Ghulam Mohammad Balot, 49, nothing has progressed yet. Mr. Balot says, “People in our areas have a lot of expectations from us but our hands are cuffed. They think we have got lakhs of money in our accounts but the fact is that we are like just another Sarpanch.”

“[Post August 2019] we submitted plans and estimates of our intended work in our areas but there is no improvement from the authorities’ side,” he says. “Most of the plans are stuck in the files, resulting in not being able to confront people.”

Another newly appointed chairman from Baramulla, who does not wish to be named, adds that the former legislators were allegedly against the idea of BDC and constitution of DPDBs. The legislators were of the belief that the three-tier system would curtail their powers – giving them away to Panchayat level.

Today, the chairman from Baramulla laughs over it, though. “Here, all of us have bad luck,” he says, hinting towards the current political detentions. “MLAs have a different domain and work schedule while ours is different,” he explains. “Though, I believe that their absence [from political scene] is also a reason for our work getting delayed.”

However, people do visit nearby Panchayat Ghar, says Mr. Balot, with a hope that they might get an update on their concerned work. “It feels bad motivating them that it won’t take much time,” he confesses, “despite knowing that the work would take extra time.”

“We have put our lives at stake”

With delayed works amid people’s expectations, fear has grown too. Mr. Bhat, who continued his Panchayat journey in the nine-phase polls during 2018, makes sure to lock all the entry points of house before dusk. “In the last years, the killings of Panches and Sarpanches have disturbed us,” he says. “We are living a fearful life – we have put our lives at stake.” 

Like Mr. Bhat, Mohamamd Poswal, an apple grower and a Sarpanch from Sangerwani village of Pulwama, is afraid too. He gets his drive from the idea of highlighting the local issues faced by Gujjar, or nomad, community. When the BJP pedalled the idea of development, Mr. Poswal was the one who bought it.

Today, he thinks of it all as nothing “but a fake dream.” Although, his salary rose from 1,000 rupees a month to 3,000 rupees, he believes that if the government wishes, nothing is impossible “but they don’t.”

The BJP has accommodated most of its Sarpanches in Srinagar for their “safety”; though, Mr. Poswal says he cannot stay in Srinagar– “I have small children at home.” 

“Life in village is altogether different than in towns,” he says, explaining that there are high chances of becoming easy targets of militant groups. “But, now I’m in middle of the turmoil with no escape.”

In 2018, when the Governor administration initiated Back to Village programme, which aims to strengthen governance at grass root level – again – elected members like Mr. Bhat expected the proposed projects would be revived and “things would get better on ground.” 

So was the case for some time, says Mr. Bhat. “Initially, funds were properly dispersed but execution remained a problem,” he says, “but, the BDO or assistant commissioner would not take our projects seriously.”

Now, as Mr. Bhat says, situation has been eased out as some of the existing projects have taken off. But, the overall situation in the Valley has by-and-large remained same. 

In June 2019, the government launched Back to Village – II; over 4,500 gazetted officers, from principal secretary to entry-level employees, fanned out across Panchayats in the Valley. According to the programme guidelines, the officers had to spend two days in the assigned village, listening to people’s grievances, demands, and assessing their developmental needs.

But for Mr. Bhat and many others dozens like him who shared their grievances to The Kashmir Walla from all regions of the Valley, they opined contrary to the claims of administration.

Despite not witnessing any major improvement in the newly formed UT; chairpersons failing to serve as bridge between Panchayat and administration; some have still pinned their hopes on Panchayati Raj – believing good days will come. 

“If this system aims to address people’s grievances then we should have such powers,” says Mr. Bhat, “Later, it was said that it will be happen after this [August 2019] decision.” However, for him and hundreds of others, the problems remain on a standstill; “it is not only a matter of our safety, it is a matter of dignity,” he says, “We are on a path to nowhere.”

Cover Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla.

Kaisar Andrabi is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla.

The story appeared in our 3-9 February 2020 print edition.

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