Panchayat Gamble?

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Amid trade hope that 2018 summer will break the slump triggered by 2014 floods and the 2016 unrest, the ruling BJPDP coalition has announced Panchayat elections. Will the polls take place and can it help change the perception that Kashmir is getting “better”, reports Masood Hussain

KL File Image by BILAL BAHADUR

Within days after the ruling coalition announced it will hold Panchayat elections after February 15, 2018, the Finance Minister Dr Haseeb A Drabu dedicated a separate budget to the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRI). Since his takeover and even earlier, the power sector would get preferential treatment only to convey, according to him, the larger reality that in absence of loses incurred in the power sector, J&K is actually a revenue surplus state.

Though the situation has not changed (J&K would spend Rs 7400 crore on power in 2018-19) but his priority shift from power to Panchayat, already having an 80-year old history, indicated a sense of urgency. But his reasoning for the separate budget was simple: “.. while 25 of the 29 allotted functions have been devolved to Panchayats, only three of them are backed with budget heads. And even those are not allocated any funds.”

Apart from setting up the State Finance Commission, co-terminus with the recommendation of the Fifteenth Finance Commission, Drabu announced allocation of Rs 1000 crore to the PRIs, appointment of an Ombudsman to act as a watchdog and announced reinventing a new bank, by merging three co-operative rural banks, to act as a financial institution for the Panchayat’s and the rural cottage sector for which he would infuse Rs 250 crore fresh capital.

Besides, he offered a plausibly clear line about finances and functions, in addition to what they already have, and how they will be funded.

A few days later, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was seen presiding over a Unified Headquarters (UHq) marathon meeting at her official residence where the entire security grid was present. On the table were many things including PRI election.

Though every agency termed the elections a challenge and importance to hold it, the security grid exhibited a slight difference. The armed forces and the central agencies were supportive of holding it as early as possible. “There were a few who questioned the decision on basis of timing and had apparently valid reasons,” one officer who was part of the meeting said. “They said the timing was bad for four reasons. Firstly, there is the apprehension of violence, mostly in south Kashmir. Secondly, it will witness the least participation. Thirdly, it will have diplomatic repercussions which delay can avoid.”

Insiders in the political circles suggest the BJP is keen to see elections taking place. “They want to invest enough of resources to get into areas where they normally may not get an entry,” one top source said. “They see a chance in working in a market that is witnessing severe liquidity crunch.”

But the question being asked by the lawmakers and the bureaucrats more frequently these days is: “Will the elections take place? Is the situation so conducive?” An NC lawmaker told the assembly bluntly that how can the state government hold polls when the lawmakers with so much of security bandobast are unable to go home in the rural Kashmir?

A PDP lawmaker told the House that how can government announce polls at a time when the entire lawmakers are busy in the session until the first week of February. “We tell them please go ahead,” NC leader and former Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, told Kashmir Life. “If they are sure, they can hold it, we welcome.”

Even the ruling party members are talking in whispers on the issue. “We postponed a Lok Sabha election simply because of the situation as eight people were killed and the turnout was too petty,” one lawmaker said. “How can we manage the scare that the militants will be able to create?” Militants had threatened throwing acid on the people contesting these polls and the separatist triumvirate comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik have already asked people to stay away.

But a senior minister, who usually speaks for the government said elections will be held and the security grid is supportive of the idea. “Which was the last election in which the situation was normal?” he asked. “Note it, we have pressure from our own cadres that we must hold elections as early as possible.” He said “Kashmir has militancy, not terrorism” and they will not “go against their own people.”

A senior bureaucrat who has served as Deputy Commissioner in various peripheral districts in Kashmir said the ruling coalition might require sending its people to the grassroots and help create some positivity towards the elections. “Madam has been spending time in districts but what is the follow-up?” he asked.

But militants and separatists are not the only force, which are against elections. There are many others stakeholders, too.

The lawmakers have historically remained opposed to the PRIs. They have a simple reason. PRIs once set up, will be resource-rich as central government will directly transfer funds to them. Their resources would be quite huge in comparison to the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) that MLAs have access to. Once able to manage Panchayat’s, some of them would get into the assembly. The existing assembly has various members who were Panchs, Sarpanchs, five years ago. Engineer Rasheed articulated this sentiment in his speech that Deputy Speaker ruled should not be printed. “Nobody looks at the MLA who is chocked between ministers and the Panchayats,” he cried. “Nobody is actually talking about the CDF which should have been increased.”

The second category of the people unhappy over the elections is much larger with massive spread: the trade. Their viewpoint is simple: 2014 floods devoured 2015. The year 2016 was unrest and in 2017, the misreporting about a deluge and a high-decibel noise on TV channels created a perception preventing tourists to come. “Right now, when the budget wants to build the economy by public spending, any bloodshed in February will create a crisis for the entire season,” one senior trade leader said. “We are trying to come out of the crisis created by demonetisation and GST and can not afford another failed season. Why not elections in November 2018?”

Despite having a long history of Panchayat system of basic governance, there was no Panchayat election for various decades. By the end of its post-1990 first term in power, Dr Farooq Abdullah led government held polls in 2001. The exercise was bloody and it reached a level that some people who had gone on Haj pilgrimage were declared elected. The exercise did not complete but it introduced a section of people to the new system, both willingly and involuntarily.

Omar Abdullah government did an apparently better exercise in 2001, when a 16-phase election between April 13, and June 18, led to the election of 4130 Sarpanches (2164 in Kashmir and 1966 in Jammu), and 29719 Panches (5,959 in Kashmir and 13760 in Jammu). More than 79 percent of the five million voters participated at 29,000 polling stations and voted. Though 9424 women were elected as Panchs, only eight became Sarpanches.

The exercise threw up interesting faces. Election of Asha, a Pandit woman in Tangmarg belt became almost a statement after a Muslim village elected her to the office. There were carpenters, professionals and some very well read men and women who joined the system at the ground zero. A few years later, the legislative council, for the first time in more than 30 years, filled four berths for which the Panchs and Sarpanches voted: Shahnaz Ganai, Ghulam Nabi Monga, Ali Mohammad Dar, and Sham Lal Bagat.

This new tier of governance structure, however, emerged as the new set-up of representatives of the state. So when the militants had to react and get a target, the Panch or the Sarpanch was around. Almost 12 of them were killed in the first year of their term, triggering mass resignation by their scared colleagues. In 2013, militants triggered a scare by hitting a few in a series. Police ruled out the possibility of extending personal security to nearly 34,000 elected people saying it would require additional 70,000 more men. A desperate government started hunting for an insurer and promised them a monthly honorarium. Though insurance did not happen, they were paid an honorarium of Rs 1000 per Panch and Rs 2000 per Sarpanch, a month.

“Between 2010 and 2017, we had 32 attacks on the Panchayat members,” a senior officer said. “20 were killed and 11 survived injured.”

Braving threats, the best of the lot, within months of their election, launched a campaign for devolution of powers so that they can take over the gross root level decision-making on developmental activities. This forced the government to take them seriously and certain devolutions took place a year before their term ended. The government released Rs 150 crore for constructing the Panchayat Ghars, gave them Rs 25000 for furniture, another Rs 1 lakh for other basic requirements. More Village Level Workers (VLW) and Multi-Purpose Workers (MPW) were appointed to lend support to the new structure at the village level.

With the last Panchayat’s term concluded in July 2016, the government is now facing the crisis. If there are no elections, the government faces losing substantial resources at ground zero that Delhi may retain in absence of PRIs. A bad PRI election could impact the Lok Sabha turnout a year later and eventually the assembly election. This is happening at a time when Panchayat activist Shafiq Mir says the incumbent government has disempowered the institution by amending the relevant law.

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