Roles still unclear, DDC councilors agitate over matters of prestige

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On 9 March, councillors of various District Development Councils (DDCs) in the Jammu region boycotted a two-day training programme at the Convention Centre in Jammu in protest against the “disempowering protocol of precedence” issued by the J-K administration a day before.

The boycott was supported by councils across party lines but district council chairpersons from the BJP took the centre-stage in rejecting the warrant and demanded changes as per promises made before DDC elections.

According to the councilors, the powers given to them were inadequate for them to effectively function as per their charter and mandate, said Bharat Bushan, chairperson of the Jammu district council and also a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Bhushan is among those agitated over the “humiliation” meted out to them by the government. The warrant of precedence placed the council chairpersons at par with administrative secretaries or divisional commissioners, deputy chairpersons with vice-chancellors of universities, while councilors are equivalent to Block Development Council members.

But, Bhushan said, potential candidates were earlier made to believe that amendments to the Panchayati Raj Act would put the district council chairpersons equivalent to cabinet ministers while deputy chairpersons and members will have the same status as ministers of state and legislators. “The warrant of precedence does not give us due powers,” he said.

The protest had continued the following day at the Jammu Press Club, the councillors demanded the rollback of the 8 March decree. The protest was called off, for the time being, after the BJP’s state president Ravinder Raina informed Bhusan and other councillors that Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha had invited them for a meeting on 12 March. 

At the meeting, Bhushan said, “we were assured by the L-G that our demands will be met” but no timeframe was given. “We were told that the DDC chairpersons will have status at par with mayors and the status of deputy chairpersons and members will also be upgraded,” he said.

Even as protests are suspended, for now, there is no official confirmation on whether the councilors’s protocol will be revised in the near future. Decisions regarding the DDC tier of governance are made “retrospectively” and as suits the administrative dispensation, political analysts contend. But procedural delays in formulating rules of the DDCs have kept the councilors in a state of confusion regarding their roles and responsibility.

Why did the councilors protest?

Keshav Dutt Sharma, chairperson of the Samba district council and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that the current decree had placed councilors at the mercy of the bureaucratic administration. “DDC members should not have to stand behind administrative officers for getting work done,” he said. “They should at least have the power to demand work from administrative officials.”

Sharma said that the councillors felt betrayed as the government had reneged on promises made at the time of elections. “Unfortunately, the case is entirely different according to the order of precedence issued. We have been placed quite low, at number twenty-six, in the protocol.”

Further, Sharma pointed out the confusions being created in assigning similar roles and protocols to different layers of governance. “If the district-level elected DDC members have the same powers as the block-level councillors (BDCs), then effectively it’s just two posts for the same work,” he pointed out. “Then what difference will the elected DDCs make in administration? I can’t understand what model that they are following.”

 The councillors also referred to the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils or Mayors of municipal corporations as being more empowered than the district council members according to the protocol of precedence issued on March 8.

Even as councillors won’t explicitly say it, the honorarium fixed for councillors is paltry — rubbing salt onto their wounds. The chairpersons of the council are entitled to 35,000 a month while the vice-chairpersons and councilors are entitled to 25,000 and 15,000.

Safeena Beigh, chairperson of Baramulla district council told Kashmir News Service (KNS) that the DDC elections in J-K were “a dream initiative of the Prime Minister of India to implement self-governance at the grassroots level” and “by holding these elections, (the) aim was only to empower the people of J&K economically, politically and developmentally…”

In her statement to KNS, Beigh said that since the members of district councils are public representatives who would be responsible for implementing schemes concerning development, if they are not empowered, it would be the failure of people’s mandate.

‘Toothless tigers’

The Panchayati Raj Act was amended after the abrogation of J-K’s limited-autonomy and subsequent bifurcation into two federally governed territories in August 2019. The amendment brought in the tier of DDCs, district-level development bodies comprising elected councilors.

The DDC elections were also the first electoral exercise after the abrogation and were hailed by New Delhi for setting in motion the wheels of development in the erstwhile state. The elections went peacefully, even in Kashmir where a boycott was expected, and was publicised as a ground-changing event integrating J-K with mainland India.

Prior to protests against unsatisfactory powers, DDC members had voiced concerns regarding lack of clarity in the functioning of the newly-formed rural governance bodies. Even two months after DDC representatives took oath in December, they had not been made aware of their roles and responsibility.

Six days after the councilors met the L-G, the ambiguity surrounding the warrant of precedence for the DDCs still persists. Sohail Shahzad, a councillor from Surankote in the Poonch district, told us that there still was no definite resolution on the issues raised by the councilors. 

Calling it “a state of crisis”, Shahzad alluded to a media report in the Daily Excelsior that suggested that DDC chairpersons would preside over meetings of councils, with MLAs, after assembly elections are held, as members. 

The report, that quoted anonymous sources, added that the DDCs would likely be in control of two dozen departments, have more financial powers and be in control of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) to conduct development work in their areas. 

Shahzad, however, pointed at the continual absence of transparency in administrative decisions pertaining to the district councils.

Shahzad said that the councils were deliberately being disempowered. “It’s really unfortunate that we are being made nominal heads without any power in our pen or ink,” he said. “Bureaucrats don’t want to overshadow their powers.” 

Shahzad, too, said that the precedence of protocol rendered the councillors “toothless tigers” who also had no authority to seek conduct of developmental works. “If a DDC member doesn’t have any legal authority to get any work done, why will bureaucrats listen to them?,” he asked. “Every councilor represents 20-30,000 voters, how will we face their expectations?”

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