The government has announced to hold Panchayat elections in the state. In the absence of Panchayats for 33 years, the state has been losing central funds meant for execution through the local elected bodies. Athar Parvaiz reports
The government has finally decided to hold Panchayat elections in the Jammu and Kashmir from April 13 in 16 phases. The state has not had a complete local body election in last 33 years. Last time when the Panchayat elections were held in the state, was in 2001, but the exercise was carried out only in 1600 segments and the Panchayats could not be constituted for lack of requisite quorum.
Elections were held in just a few constituencies in Kashmir valley during the 2001 elections. Out of 2348 constituencies in Baramulla polling took place only in 208 while polling was not held in any of the 1022 constituencies in Budgam. Similarly, only 152 out of 1695 constituencies in Kupwara went to polls and in Srinagar elections were held for 53 out of a total of 759 constituencies.
This was, however, not the case with the Jammu and Ladakh regions where more than 70 percent voters participated in the Panchayat elections. The people of these regions have been continuously demanding holding of Panchayat elections ever since the term of their Panchayat members ended in 2006.
The last elected Panchayats concluded their term early 2006 and the urban local bodies concluded their term in 2009.
This time around, the Panchayat elections are being held on non-party basis, which, many political watchers say, will help in attracting more voters and the candidates fighting the elections will be more comfortable.
“The candidates will undoubtedly feel a great deal of comfort level given the fact that these elections are being held on non-party basis,” says Dr Gul Mohammed Wani, who teaches political science at Kashmir University.
Wani says that it “is indeed a risk to hold these elections”, but he maintains that holding of Panchayat elections is a compulsion for the state government and that both the coalition partners, Congress and NC, are keen to see these elections held successfully.
“Even political workers are getting killed these days as well. The point is that you are providing security to MLAs, but the Panchayat members are too many. To how many you will be providing security?” he asks.
But he adds that the non-party label is likely to have an impact on the confidence level of the prospective candidates. As per Wani’s analysis, Omar will definitely get a feather in his cap, should he be able to hold these elections successfully. “Jammu and Kashmir continues to suffer both financially and economically with no Panchayat structure available to it,” he says and adds, “there are many central and international schemes which are implemented through Panchayats, but since J&K had its own problems, it couldn’t benefit from these schemes.”
State government is suffering loss of revenue in absence of the Panchayat set up. From the Twelfth Finance Commission Award, for instance, the central government released only Rs 52.83 crore against an entitlement of Rs 281 crore for 2700 Panchayat.
According to Wani holding of these elections will act as a political cushion for getting the political demands pursued with an edge. Wani says, “Lack of the devolution of powers affects you politically as well. When you demand autonomy for the state, you could well be asked when you don’t have Panchayats and municipalities functional in your state, what would you do with the autonomy?”
However, questions have been raised by some circles about the effectiveness of the Panchayat structure which would emerge as a result of the elections being held as per J&K’s own laws or as per its own Panchayati Raj Act. Jammu & Kashmir government has not implemented the 73rd amendments to the Indian constitution to J&K’s Panchayat Act, whereby Indian Panchayati Raj was strengthened.
The 73rd amendments to the Indian constitution envisage elections at village, block and district levels and planning and executive powers entrusted with the heads of these local bodies, reducing the role of the state government and the ministers. The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) has been demanding amending the Panchayati Raj Act as per the Indian Constitution.
“Without adopting 73rd amendment in totality, we would not achieve the real objective of holding elections to these grass root level democratic institutions”, BJP leader Prof Chaman Lal Gupta said. After the state government announced the schedule of the polls, BJP termed it a farce.
On the other hand, even if Congress wanted to implement the 73rd and 74th amendments in J & K’s Panchayat Act to stave off any point-scoring by BJP, it opted for avoiding any confrontation with NC on this issue and showed much keenness for holding of elections since Panchayats – of any form– will entitle J & K for funds under various schemes. The opposition political party in the state, Peoples Democratic Party can also ill-afford to stress on the implementation of the central amendments given its demand for self-rule.
Wani says that the amendments, which could further strengthen the Panchayat Raj of J&K, are not too difficult to implement. “There is an alternative available with the state government… they can move a Bill in the assembly like they did in the case of RTI Act. There were certain good provisions in the central Act which they incorporated in J&K’s RTI Act through a bill,” Dr Gul Wani observed. “The same could be done in the case of Panchayati Raj Act.”
However, the officials say that J&K had a functional Panchayat system, which was much better than the ones in vogue in other states.
“Unlike most of Indian states, we had a functional Panchayat system in J&K state which is still much ahead of the system being encouraged in the plains,” an official in law ministry said.
There are 33 percent reservations for women and also for SCs and STs under the law in vogue and it is a three tier-system from village, block to the district. For every election the women reserved constituencies would comprise one-third of the total panchayats and will keep on rotating. The elected Panchayats can collect taxes and make expenditures besides convening Panchayat Courts which is a concept that does not exist in J&K.
The elections to local bodies will be a 16-phase process starting April 13 and will conclude on June 30. Around 50.68 lakh voters will elect 4130 Sarpanches (2164 in Kashmir and 1966 in Jammu) and 29,719 Panches (15,959 in Kashmir and 13,760 in Jammu).
With the announcement of the Panchayat elections, rural area and suburbs in Srinagar will elect 10 Sarpanchs and 79 Panchs, however, there is no proper accommodation to run this basic unit of democracy in the district.
Panchyat Ghar in every village are meant to house the offices of Panchayats.
In Srinagar Block out of the 10 Panchayats only two have a Panchayat Gahr (Panchayat office building). A top official of the Rural Development department said that major portion of the Srinagar is looked after by the Srinagar Municpal Corporartion (SMC) which also has to have an elected body with corporators chosen from different wards and a Mayor as head to run it from a corporation office. A similar pattern is to be followed in rural Srinagar, where Panchs and Sarpanchs will run the local affairs, but many are devoid of their offices.
In past, Srinagar District had 25 Panchayats that later on merged with the ever expanding city limits and the erstwhile facilities were taken over by SMC. Left with only three Panchayats, Khimber, FakirGujri and Dhara, expansion of district towards rural Budgam and Bandipora added seven new Panchayats to it taking the number of Panchayats to ten.
The officials said that Srinagar now has Panchayat halqas in Fakir Gujri, Dhara, Khimber, Soiteng which have one Halqa each, while as Nowgam, Lasjan and Panzinara have two halqas each.
Khimber and Dhara are the only places where the Panchayat Ghars are in place, while the one at Fakir Gujri is under occupation of troops.
The one built at Soiteng Panchyat halqa has not been handed over to the department, while others do not have a Panchayat Ghar at all.
Once the Panchyats are elected, these will have to run a number of centrally sponsored schemes including the schemes under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
In states across India Panchayat Ghars have been linked with district headquarters via internet resulting in improved monitoring of schemes.
The officials say that government is keen to go for elections even before looking at the needs to run this system, with the elected representatives now having to build Panchayat Ghar on priority basis.
In the elections for Srinagar Panchayats, 14946 voters will cast the votes with 7673 males, and the rest females. There will be 79 constituencies in these halqas.
However there will be a separate poll for choosing of the Sarpanhs and Panchs on the same day. The voting will be carried using ballot boxes instead of Electronic Voting Machines.
The main functions of the Panchayat will be keeping the village area clean and safe, construction and maintenance of village roads and waterways, maintain greenery. Provision of clean drinking water and solution of water problems in the village and organizing welfare programmes for the benefit of the people of will also be done by them.
The last elections to the Panchayats were held in 2000-01, after a gap of 23 years with the term ending in June 2006.