Last week when finance minister Arun Jaitley presented annual union budget in the parliament, apart from the usual hike in luxury goods etc., there were a few surprises in the offering. The major one was when Jaitley announced Rs 2.87 lakh crore grant for the Panchayats in coming financial year, something that will empower Panchayats and local bodies. The budget also links a number of schemes like MNREGA etc with Panchayats. This means each Panchayat will have funds worth Rs 2.25 crore at its disposal for spending, huge by all previous standards. This will automatically make Panchayats active in terms of work and participation in the overall development of an area.
But in Kashmir context, where Panchayat system is relatively in its infancy when compared to mainland India, how are these new numbers going to translate.
The new financial empowerment to Panchayats, as promised by Jaitley in recent budget, is path breaking in many ways. First it will instil the much needed impetus to this grassroots level institution which is the first window of governance for a common man. But in Kashmir context, where Panchayats are more about local politics than redressing grievances or getting work done, are these new numbers going to make any difference. The big question is, are our Panchayats in a position to spend such a big amount, that too transparently.
In Kashmir, last Panchayati election took place in 2011, but after a gap of 33 years. But the elections did not come easy; it had its own costs, mostly human. There were a series of attacks on newly elected Panchs and Sarpanchs, forcing a few to make public announcements about their non-attachment with Panchayats. The big challenge that Delhi is facing in Kashmir’s Panchayat context is that the term of present elected body expires in July 2016. Conducting elections in trouble torn Kashmir is not an easy thing for any government; it needs huge security setup and extraordinary expenses. Kashmir’s Panchayat system, despite its shortcoming, is going to be at the centre of attention when the new financial package will finally land in local coffers.
Interestingly, Panchayats in Kashmir spent Rs 1000 crore in 2013 under MANREGA. After Jaitley’s announcement focus is back on Panchayats and how they will operate with new found wealth. In Kashmir’s where Panchayats have worked under the shadow of MLAs, it will be interesting to see how this new spending power is going to change the equation for them. Are they finally going to find their space and work as they are expected to or will get carried away? Only time will tell.