A stumbling block

Re-organization of J&K into 22 districts left the block levels unchanged. With Community Development blocks getting more importance in wake of thrust on specific centrally sponsored schemes, legislators are under pressure to get voters their due. A Kashmir Life report.

The constituency I represent, PDP’s rabble-rousing president Mehbooba Mufti told the state legislature, is divided in three (developmental) blocks in three different districts. “Part of Wachi falls in Kulgam, part in Pulwama and part in Shopian. And the inconvenience that it results in is quite clear,” she said.

But in the fierce debate that ensued, Mehbooba was not alone. Almost every third lawmaker had a problem. “In my Rajpora constituency, there are 53 Panchayat’s but it is not a block. My people face enormous problems,” said Syed Bashir.
Sajjad Kitchloo and many others have similar tales to share.

Regardless of the panchayats being elected or nominated, the block is emerging as the basic development unit with large amounts spent strictly at the block level. Right now, there are 143 blocks across J&K and according to Rural Development Minister Ali Mohammad Sagar, the finance and planning ministry is not recognizing 24 of them for more than one reasons. “We barely manage these blocks with internal adjustments,” he said. With politics in mind, these ‘un-recognized’ blocks were announced by successive regimes since 2000 to address various local problems.

The issue of blocks has been there for a long time but it crystallized into a sort of ‘crisis’ after the creation of new districts. As the number of districts jumped from 14 to 22 and even smaller towns like Shopian and Kulgam emerged as districts, the blocks remained unchanged. “There is a dire need for reorganizing the blocks, if not going with adding many more,” a senior officer told Kashmir Life.

Dr Sudhir S Bloria, who was at the helm of a delimitation commission that carved out new districts and tehsils, was later tasked to reorganize the blocks as well. This week the Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather said the Bloeria Committee had been wound up after it left the job incomplete. He said the government would discuss the issue in the cabinet and possibly come up with a new committee for the task.
In view of the importance of block as a development unit, the confusion on ground gives rise to animosities.

“We spent over Rs 400 crore through blocks in the last financial year under various schemes and for the current fiscal the target is Rs 600 crore,” Syed Mohammad Khan, Secretary Rural Development said.

The Rural Development Ministry handles certain flagship programmes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Indira Awas Yojna (IYS), Swaran Jayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojna (SGSY) directly. Besides, it partially handles some of the schemes like Pardhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY), Border Area Development Plan (BADP), Member Parliaments’ Local Area Development Schemes (MPLADs) and Constituency Development Fund (CDF). This all means devolution of huge money to grassroots with blocks as the main bridge.

“This is the only department that had a direct interaction with 25 lakh people on the development front,” says Khan.

Besides, the block undertakes small works having more local impact and not major flagship projects. Compared to major departments like PWD and R&B, Rural Development is mandated to take up small works and makes it happen at low costs.

The amount that PWD will invest in a kilometre of road will help block mechanism to create more than two kilometres. This helps the legislators create better impression at the grassroots even by investing comparatively smaller amounts.

“We have 250 junior engineers and each one of them spends an average of one crore rupees a year on as many as 200 works,” says Khan.

The Union Panchayat Raj ministry is, in the meanwhile, in the process of collecting block specific information on selective social and economic indicators to determine the status of blocks with regard to development and backwardness. The exercise is aimed at examining the possibility of identifying backward regions based on Community Development blocks as units. This is going to give another tool of mobility at the block level. Already, the government has launched Rashtriya Sam Vikas Yojna (RSVY) in Kupwara, Doda and Poonch districts. Later these RSVY districts were covered under Backward Regions Grants Fund (BRGF) on basis of the prevalence of high BPL population. Since Doda was trifurcated in Doda, Kishtwar and Ramban, J&K has now five districts falling under BRGF. Of the approved Rs. 45.83 crores, these districts have already been given Rs. 40.76 crores though no expenditure has been booked till date.

Khan admits the dire need of rationalizing the block system. He sees the requirement of creation of around 15 more blocks across the state. But ask him should the government opt for it, he is unwilling to commit. “A minimum 30 Panchayats are required for a block but we have as many as 53 panchayats falling under a single block,” he admits.

“Creation of a block means an investment of Rs 35 lakh and given the narrow base of resources it would prove costly,” he says. “Of the 4939 panchayats, we have 2200 panchayats without a panchayat ghar so we need to put in to increase the infrastructure.” Rural Development has committed revenue expenditure of around Rs. 150 crores a year.

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