Deeper Designs

After dismembering the Jammu and Kashmir state and downgrading it to twin Union Territories, the focus of reorganising is now the third tier of governance which is being changed uniquely and irretrievably, reports Masood Hussain

The lieutenant governor of Union territory Jammu and Kashmir Manoj Sinha addressing Press conference at Raj Bhawan Srinagar on Thursday, October 15, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Ever since the hollowed Article 370 was read down and the state of Jammu and Kashmir was reorganised into two federally managed Union Territories (UT), the process of reorganisation is still an ongoing project. Interventions are taking place on daily basis and quite a few come to the public domain.

The most recent is the tweaking with the Panchayat Raj law that would envisage an election across Jammu and Kashmir to create a brand new tier – the District Development Council (DDC) in all the 20 districts, 10 each in Kashmir and Jammu. A process is underway to identify 14 ‘territorial constituencies’ in each district and the new superstructure will be placed over the entire developmental tier starting from the Panchayat. Under this new system almost 60 lakh people are expected to vote to elect 280 members to the 20 DDC across Jammu and Kashmir. However, voters who have already elected their representatives in the local bodies’ elections – municipal committees, municipal councils and municipal corporations – will not vote because they are outside the DDCs control.

Amended Law

The Union Cabinet presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the amended Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 – the amendments were piloted by Ministry of Home Affairs, the de facto ruler of Jammu and Kashmir on October 16 – that will pave way for the creation of DDCs through a direct election.

Gupkar Declaration Signatories addressing a joint press conference after meeting at National Conference President Dr Farooq Abdullah’s residence on Thursday, October 15, 2020. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

The law envisages a three-tier system under the Panchayat Raj – the Panchayat at the grassroots level, the Block Development Council (BDC) at the block level and the DDC at the district level. The original law envisaged the election of Panchs and Sarpanchas directly. For the second tier, the elected Panchs and Sarpanchs were voting for the BDC. It was the DDC that has seen the change. Under the normal practice, all elected members in a district – the BDCs, the state legislative assembly, the state legislative council, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were automatically members of the DDC and it was presided over by a cabinet minister, usually from the same district. This has been changed. Now, the DDC will be a 14-member house and all the members will be elected directly. Once elected, they will choose their Chairman and Vice-Chairman.

“Now, we have a three-tier system in Jammu and Kashmir also,” Prakash Javdekar told reporters while announcing the cabinet approval to the DDC. “This was promised by the Prime Minister in Kashmir, and it was promised by the Home Minister in Parliament. Now that stands redeemed. Now there will be early elections, and the power to manage local bodies will go to the people.”

DDC are replacing the District Development Board’s (DDB) that have remained the key unit of identifying and prioritising the developmental requirements of the district. Since most of the members were directly linked with the key elected bodies in the state assembly and the Lok Sabha, the DDC decision-making was automatically becoming a priority for the legislative bodies. Till 1998, DC would head the Council. Then DC became the member secretary as Chief Minister or his nominee would head the council. It would meet once in a year and decided the developmental priorities.

Though the MLAs of the district will continue to be the members of the DDCs, an overwhelming number of DDC’s directly elected members will prevent, what is being said, as their monopoly. The members to DDC will be elected on a 5-year term and the additional DC will be its Chief Executive. Supposed to meet every quarter, the DDC will be responsible for overseeing the functions of the Halqa Panchayats and the BDCs in addition to the line departments in the district.

The amended law also suggests the creation of District Planning Committee under the leadership of the local MP with MLAs, heads of DDC, BDCs and the municipal committees, the DC and the ADC as members. It will identify the district developmental priorities and annual district plans.

Polls By This Winter

Reports appearing in the media suggest that the elections to the DDCs will take place any time in the next two months n non-party basis. It is expected to be a seven-phase exercise. How the “constituencies” will be carved out and what will be the process of the elections will be soon anytime in the next 15 to 20 days. Some of these segments will be reserved for women, STs and SCs for which the process is underway.

The elections to the two tiers have already taken place. Within months after the BJP pulled out of the BJPDP coalition, the administration of Governor Satya Pal Malik held the 9-phase Panchayat polls on non-party basis, ending December 11, 2018. Kashmir centric parties, the NC, the PDP and the CPI (M) stayed away from these polls but Peoples Conference, Congress and others participated. They, however, did not ask people to boycott the exercise.

Voters outside a polling station in Jammu on during the first phase of Lok Sabha elections in Jammu, on April 11, 2019.

As against 83 per cent participation in Jammu, the voter turnout was only 41 per cent in Kashmir where polling was physically held in around 30 per cent seats. In Kashmir, 12776 of the 21000 seats remained vacant for lack of a candidate. There are no Sarpanchs in a number of Panchayat’s including 157 in Budgam, 152 in Pulwama, 137 in Anantnag, 149 in Baramulla, 132 in Kulgam, 50 in Bandipora, 42 in Ganderbal, 75 in Shopian and nine in Srinagar.

The Panchayat polls followed the local body polls– the municipal set up in urban and sub-urban belts, in October 2018. Barring Peoples Conference of Sajjad Lone, no political party participated on a party basis. Eventually, however, it was established that various parties had mandated its members to contest in individual capacities.

Jammu and Kashmir has 1145 ward’s in 79 municipal bodies having a voter population of 17 lakh. In Jammu and Ladakh, there was not any issue at all.

However, in Kashmir where 40 municipalities have 598 wards, there was an interesting crisis. Elections were held for 186 wards only; in 181 wards remained vacant because not even a single nomination came. In 231 elections, there was no election at all because the single nomination was declared a winner unopposed! Only 13 of the 40 bodies witnessed some kind of election.

In October 2019, the elections for the BDCs were held. Since most of the Panchs and Sarpanchs were already in the secured accommodations in districts and in Srinagar – in case of Kashmir, the police drove them to designated polling stations for voting. The percentage was impressive – 9* per cent.

This led the only tier unelected – the DDC. But nobody knew that the DDC will be as good an election to the state assembly, barring politics only development.

The electoral participation remained unchanged even in the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. In Jammu and Ladakh where all the three seats were bagged by BJP, the participation was 71 per cent. In comparison, Kashmir – where NC swept all the three seats, the participation was unimpressive – 34 per cent in North Kashmir, 14 per cent in Central Kashmir and 9 per cent in South Kashmir.

Why DDC Now?

At a time when there is no sign for assembly elections, the government intends to hold polls for DDC. So why is all this happening?

“This will be a historic transition from the decades-old system where politics was supreme and development a luxury. Previously it was democracy for politics,” one commentator in a Delhi newspaper wrote. “Now it will be a democracy for development and governance. The DDCs would have different committees, to be headed by a Lok Sabha member of the district.” He believes that the current delimitation process for identifying the 14 berths will have “a bearing on the dynamics and the prospects” of the future assembly elections.

Three former Chief Ministers’ who have cumulatively ruled Jammu and Kashmir for almost a quarter-century are leading the Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

The intervention is coming at a time when the politics of Kashmir is on margins. As the political class moved out of jail after yearlong detention in the wake of August 5, 2019, they have come together in a grouping, now named the People’s Alliance on Gupkar Declaration (PAGD). Though it is yet to make a detailed presentation of what it intends to do and how the pointers dropped by the concerned are self-explanatory – they want the restoration of status quo ante in Jammu and Kashmir.

The defiance is clear. Dr Farooq Abdullah, Kashmir’s five-time Chief Minister, who is the de facto PAGD head, was summoned twice in the cricket misappropriation case by the Enforcement Directorate in three days said regardless of what happens to him, the struggle for rights will continue.

Two days later, Mehbooba Mufti addressed a press conference in which she kept her party flag and the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state flag on her table to convey her defiance. “A robber may be mighty, but he has to return the stolen goods,” Ms Mufti said while asserting that she is personally ready to offer her blood for the restoration of status quo ante. “It is a difficult battle but not impossible.”

In such a situation, the Government of India is experimenting with a new model that will help separate development from politics. In fact, the politics will cease to exist, at least in forums that government has any control over. All three tiers of the development are mandated to take care of the development agenda. This leaves the assembly, if ever constituted, that would have not much of say on development and quite a few powers because Lt Governor is the most powerful person in a UT.

Panchayat’s Disempowered

This, former minister, economist Dr Haseeb Drabu believes has two separate, though linked, dimensions of the issue; one developmental and second, political. “As regards the developmental aspect, this is an example of decentralizing with a view of centralize. As it is, the administrative decentralization had not allowed democratic decentralization to take root. Now, with the DDCs being elected directly, independent of the BDCs, the panchayats will become powerless,” Drabu said. “What route will panchayats – the core of grassroots democracy – now have to get linked to or have functional linkages with the developmental institutional structures that exist at the halqa, block and district level? They have been sidelined, with no role in development, even as they are the constitutionally empowered third tier of governance. It is like a district assembly, the members of the DDC are development representatives of the people; an MDA, if you like, Member of the Development Assembly of Pulwama, let is say.”

A delegation of All Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference calls on the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on November 05, 2016.

On the political front, it eats into the MLA. “This in turns cuts the MLA to size, into half actually. In any case in the UT, he is a poor cousin of legislators, now he has no developmental role. He will be the Member of, what can be seen as, the Political Assembly, MPA, from being an MLA,” Drabu said. “It is essentially aimed at cutting the grassroots of the mainstream parties. What is being created is a system that has been designed to prevent a consensus; be it political or developmental.”

National Conference Secretary-General, Ali Mohammad Sagar said the administration has already identified the new “territorial constituencies”. Srinagar is an urban body with a small rural section. “What I am told is that they have identified 13 of these constituencies in Sonawar segment alone,” Sagar said. “It is part of political disempowerment and we will have to discuss it threadbare.”

A Chinese Model?

But the model being chased is the one that failed in Sri Lanka but exists in China where the powerful Communist Party takes all the decisions. “This is aimed at de-politicisation of Kashmir discourse,” PDP leader Naeem Akhter said. “Now we will have sort of district assemblies that will talk about roti, kapda and makan; lanes and drains.”

Akhter said that what BJP is preaching in the rest of the country becomes a taboo in Jammu and Kashmir. “In his election rallies in Bihar, Prime Minister talked nothing about the 25 per cent fall in GDP, tanking of growth rate in which even Bangladesh is emerging the leader, the failure in managing the Covid-19. He did talk about two things – Article 370 and the soldier. But here, he is offering prosperity sans politics.”

Kashmir, he asserted, is all about politics. “Congress retained Kashmir as a bilateral issue and BJP made it trilateral,” Akhter said. “With this intervention, the BJP is trying to create a new politics that will not have depoliticised at birth.”

“I have always been supportive of empowering the panchs and sarpanchs,” Communist leader and 4-time lawmaker, Yousuf Tarigami said. “But this all is part of the disempowerment process – they first took our constitution, then they decimated the state and made two UTs thus undoing the history of a state. They did not do with us alone – they took every money through GST and did not give anything to states, they arbitrarily intervened in education policy and more recently in legislating the three disempowering laws on agriculture, Now they are talking of empowering the people of Jammu and Kashmir by giving DDC. This is the process of disempowerment and control.”

Political Class In Crisis

This does, however, put the political class in a sort of dilemma. “We are being pushed to a sort of double-edged sword,” one political leader, who wished not to talk on the record. “We avoid participating and we end up giving legitimacy to BJP and their proxies in Kashmir and if we participate we end up landing in a situation where the parties will have to make a lot of explanation in coming days.”

Paramilitary troopers stand guard outside a polling station Balahama on Srinagar outskirts on Saturday 17 November 2018. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Most of the political class in individual capacities are of the opinion that boycotting the panchayat polls had a very bad impact on the ground as it gave room to people to rise and control society who were lacking legitimacy. One former MLA talked about a person who initially was militant and later switched sides and this shift created a situation that he migrated from his village to the town. “Now he and his wife were elected unopposed to the BDC and his wife is now taking revenge from the villagers they migrated from,” the lawmaker said. “Crisis is that the assembly was the major force that pushed the system to give a lot of powers to the panchayat system and when they got the authority, the political class exited from the system. Now we are in a situation that we wait when our BDC chairman will take a flight from Jammu and put a seal on a paper in Srinagar so that the work will start on a lane project”

This issue is expected to dominate the PAGD in coming days. “For the first time all the political parties are together,” a former minister said. “Let us hope that they respond to the issue wisely. It is not as simple as it looks. It has a wider and long term repercussions.”

Project Democracy?

With the DDC election, Jammu and Kashmir will have a new democracy that the centre would attempt selling to the world. How will people respond to it will partly rest partly on what PAGD will do in the coming days and how BJP and Apni Party will position itself. Right now, the idea has the potential of succeeding simply because the political class is vulnerable to irrelevance.

With an elected DDC, Jammu and Kashmir will have a complete theatre of democracy and quite a sizable one – 33592 Panch, 4290 Sarpanch’s; 1145 ward representatives in urban and sub-urban belts; 310 BDCs and now 480 members of the DDCs – all elected, all committed to roti, kapda, makan and no politics. If and when constituted, the assembly will have 100-elected members. In the amended law, the MHA had dropped the honorarium clause for the elected panchs and sarpanchs but Manoj Sinha, the Lt Governor issued a rider.

Naya Kashmir is in making, which is newer and pretty different from the one Sheikh Abdullah wanted to create.


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