Self Flagellation

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While flagging key ecological concerns in Kashmir peripheral eco system, Chief Minister talked bluntly about the massive corruption in the state’ rural development department. Talking apart, why is there no action if the situation is so grave, comments Masood Hussain

Speeches are always important and when it comes to the public talking of Chief Minister of J&K, it becomes all the more important. In the unwritten hierarchy of the Chief Ministers of various Indian states, the chief executive of J&K is on the top, thanks to the conflict and the contentions status of the territory. It is also important that the Chief Minister is the overall custodian of the state who presides over the governance set-up and is aware of the happenings across social layers and economic sectors.

Ms Mehbooba Mufti’s speech at SKICC when she presided over the grand function of the Rural Development Department on August 26, is very important, both in text and the context. She dedicated to the people as many as 159 assets that the department had created in last few years under various schemes that it is implementing. Though the opposition leader Abdul Rahim Rather, pinpointed some of the works from the list as having been completed and formally inaugurated earlier, it was not the quantum of works but the content of her speech that was very important. Ms Mufti identified some of the key areas that the rural development has consistently missed in its priorities.

The most important area she identified was about the water bodies in the periphery of Kashmir. She said that the local irrigating streams, ponds and the springs are in the worst state. She said that these water bodies have remained part of the village eco-system for thousands of years and perhaps for the first time in history, they are facing an existential threat.

Ms Mufti suggested that the Rural Development department must prioritize the protection of these water bodies, ensure they are revived, and they are kept away from the plastic and adequately protected. She insisted that the department should avoid taking cement into the springs and manage protection of the wells by traditions means using the stones.

Almost echoing her December 17, speech in Jammu, Ms Mufti said villages will continue to be the basic parameter of gauging the prosperity of a state, Ms Mufti said rural development department holds the key with new structure of Panchayat’s playing a supplementary role.

The concerns flagged by the Chief Minister are much gorier than she highlighted. The mass conversion of the agriculture land into the apple orchards in the countryside has left the Khuls, the irrigation streams into disuse and has even been reclaimed by the land-owners. Most of the springs have been filled up even in the urban and sub-urban habitations especially in areas where new housing colonies came up.

Though protecting the water bodies is the mandate of various departments, not a single department has taken any initiative on this front. Even the revenue department that is the main land records department in the state lacks any instance to its credit in which it would have helped revival of any threatened water body in the periphery. There are instance, however, in which the departments have de-notified patches of land of economic significance and permitted builders to create hosing and commercial infrastructure. This happened as much in countryside as it happened in the city. This is precisely why Ms Mufti’s concern is not misplaced and she has chosen a department which has adequate footprints in the countryside.

Chief Minister offered a very good reason for the rural development department to take up these works. Unlike the culverts, playgrounds and Panchayat Ghars which the department is building, these water body conservation works do not require huge budgets. These are important works that would change the face of countryside with minimal resource requirements as long as the people are involved.

But the real takeaway of her speech was her focus on the conduct of the department, the corruption. She made sweeping remarks on how the rural development department is neck-deep in corruption.

Everybody in the department is not corrupt, she said, but most of the people do resort to corruption. She said between the Block Development officer (BDO) and the Village Level Workers (VLW), the department functions with various layers of corruption. She went on to say that even commission is being deduced from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), the funds for which are being given by the local lawmakers. “The minister being honest, will not work as long as the ground does not reflect the same,” Chief Minister said. She cursed the officials for taking cuts from the public money saying how they survive on this and how they raise their families with this money that belongs to the people.

Ms Mufti talked so much on corruption in the department that the official spokesman could not resist taking part of it in the routine statement. “You are doing a lot, for changing the rural landscape in the State. But a stray complaint of corruption or sub standard work has a telling effect on the image of your department”, she told the officers and employees of the Department. Terming corruption as a scourge, she said history is witness that it has never done any good to the person indulging in it but put him in despair in the long run.

Rural Development department is not a small enterprise. It is a huge empire. Perhaps the only department that has foot prints in every village, the department has a huge hierarchy and all the layers are flush with funds. “By an average I think it has Rs 1500 crore available in every colander year,” one senior officer said. “This excludes the funds that go directly to the Panchayat in which the department has a clear supervisory and to an extent approving role.”

The department is managing some of the key centrally sponsored schemes which include the flagship           Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Rajiv Gandhi Panch Sueshkaran Yojana, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, Prime Minister’s Avas Yojna and many other schemes.

In a way, the rural development department is a completely political department. There is no other department that serves the ruling parties vote bank than this department. In J&K, the department has improvised the systems in the CSS and localised it to reach the targets. Invariably, most of the work contracts go to the party workers and till the onset of RTI, the support for rural poor would strictly follow the party lines.

Despite having this much of flexibility in its operations, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has seriously negative feedback of its operations. The working must be terribly wrong forcing the Chief Minister to public with her comments.

Officials who were part of the audience said they were embarrassed. “Not every one of them was corrupt and it was a huge demoralising speech,” one middle rung officer, said. “It was not in good taste.” The officer said that, for a moment, he felt that it was the opposition leader and not the Chief Minister speaking.

Presuming every single line that Chief Minister Ms Mufti said in her speech is correct; the real issue is who was being condemned? If the rural development department is facing so much of corruption, it is a reflection on the government. How can Chief Minister be seen as an entity apart, when she is presiding over the cabinet. Was Chief Minister passing a verdict on her own government?

A section of her cabinet says that the Chief Minister should have acted and not talked about the happenings in the department. “If there is so much of corruption in the rural development department despite the minister being honest, why should not the corruption be taken as his failure?” one senior minister asked. “In that case the minister must move to a department where he can manage the functioning of his department with honesty.”

The debate goes on. The fact is corruption is clear in rural development department because it has wider interactions with the people. That corruption exists as a way of life in J&K is also a reality. And Chief Minister knows all this is correct. And this is also fact that Chief Minister is keen to talk and apparently uninterested to act.

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