Grassroots Failure?

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Panchayt elections were meant to be an international political statement as well as an exercise to experiment democracy at the grassroots level. Just a few months in place, members of the elected village bodies are already feeling disgruntled. Could it be a result of their impatience or a mismatch between expectations and pace of delegation of powers? Sameer Yasir and Majid Maqbool find out.

Powerless

Naam kay sarpanch, Kaam kay nahi. That’s how many Sarpanches describe themselves six months after they were elected with much fanfare and promises of empowering them were made by the state government.

A lot of the Sarpanches and Panches on ground feel as powerless as the people they were supposed to serve. The government is yet to release funds for the development works in their villages. Despite promises by the government, they have not been given any authority to execute any of the public works. They have not even been paid any monthly remuneration since the

Having earned a bad name among people, unable to do anything on ground, some of them also fear for their lives now. Mohammad Shafi Lone is a Sarpanch from Kralhear village in Baramulla.

He is disappointed and angry, and regrets being elected as a Sarpanch.

“We have not been given any funds yet although it’s been more than four months since we were elected,” he says. The people of his village too are angry with him, but he says he is helpless, as the government has left them on their own. He does not have the powers to execute developmental works for his village. “They don’t even release funds for central schemes like NEREGA. And even laborers are not paid for their work,” says Shafi.

Another Sarpanch from a village in Baramulla, Ghulam Mohammad Magray shares the same story of powerlessness and government’s indifference towards their plight.

“In our village there are no roads and drains. We have not been given any powers after the elections. We are here for name sake,” says Magray. The government doesn’t release funds for development works in their villages, and they are not given any authority, too. “Then for what have they kept us here,” he asks.

These sarpanches and panches say they fought elections at personal risk and now they are unable to do any work for their villages, which is earning them a bad name. They are not able to solve the problems their villages face. “There is a personal risk element as well. People are already angry with us for fighting the elections and trusting the government at that time,” says one Sarpanch.

Many of the elected members of Panchayats face a hostile environment for not meeting expectations of the villagers who elected them. Many of them feel dejected and say people call them “mukhbirs” (informers) now.

If the government pays one lakh rupees per month as salary to the assembly members, asked one disgruntled Sarpanch in Baramulla, why don’t they have funds for Sarpaches and Panches. The Sarpanches Kashmir Life talked to say they have not been paid anything since they were elected. Even the promised Rs 6000 for every elected Sarpanch has not been released yet.  “Hum naam kay sarpanch hain, kaam kay nahe (we are Sarpanches just for name sake, not for work),”  laments one Sarpanch, adding that the government put their lives at risk and they feel exposed now.

“They have kept Sarpanches in the line of fire. Already we have a bad name among people as we are not able to do their work,” says Mohammad Shafi.

“The government had announced at the time of elections that they will give Rs 6000 to every Sarpanch, but even that amount has not been released,” says Magray. “We have not been given the Panchayati powers as promised by the government.”

Many Sarpanches from various villages in Baramulla say wherever any development work in their villages is executed, preference is given to the areas where influential people reside.  A Sarpanch from Kralhear village says in his area there is a macadamized road for just three homes, but in the localities where they are more than 50 homes the roads are in bad shape.

Another Sarpanch, Ashiq Hussain, from Kalampora says for the last 10 years there has been no development work in his village. “We have a big problem of water scarcity as well. I am unable to do anything about these problems as the government is yet to release funds for these works,” says Ashiq.

A sarpanch from Delina, Baramulla says the government keeps telling them that the funds will be released soon, but they haven’t received anything yet. “In our area a new hospital has been built but they don’t release funds to acquire even an ambulance vehicle,” says Abdul Rashid Baba.  In Delina, residents say, only three roads have been macadamized so far. For the rest of the roads that are in bad condition, the Sarpaches tell people that the government doesn’t release funds to carry out more work.

A Panch from Daer, Chake Delina in Baramulla says there are no roads in his village and drinking water is scarce. “They fool us at the time of elections, but afterwards they are not bothered about the problems the villages face,” he says. The animal husbandry department in their village is without a doctor for the last 10 years. There’s scarcity of medicine as well.

The story of Sarpanches is the same in South Kashmir too. Mohammad. Sheikh, a Sarpanch from Pulwama district says on ground they have not been given powers, neither are any funds released for development works in their villages. “People question us about what we are doing, but they don’t know that the government has left us on our own,” says Sheikh.

He is now worried about the risks he may face. “We have been made into a Qurban Kath (sacrifice animal),” says Sheikh. “Among people our reputation is very bad and our lives are at risk as well. Besides, government is not giving us any authority to execute developmental works for the areas we were elected from,” he adds.

Ghulam Rasool Chopa, a Sarpanch from Khai-Tangan, says they fought elections for development and local issues in their areas.  “But it has been six months and no work has been allotted to our areas despite our repeated attempts with the administration,” says Ghulam Rasool. “Even the district administration doesn’t recognize us when we approach them with our grievances,” he adds.  Chopa says there is a drought-like situation in his area and when they approach the concerned authorities about their problems, no one entertains them. “Despite telling them that I am an elected Sarpanch, they refuse to entertain us and tell us to go to the chief minister,” says Chopa.

He won by 450 votes in the recently held Panchayat elections, defeating three candidates. “We wanted to do work for the betterment of our people but we have been cheated,” he laments. “We were told that every Sarpanch would get one lakh rupees for area development. Leave alone the money for development, we have not even been given powers to execute works in our areas.”

Syed Abdul Majid Bhukari, a Sarpanch from Hajibal village in Baramulla says he feels used at the time of elections and now left to fend for himself. “I live in a jungle. It was during the time of PDP that the road was provided which connected Baramulla town with the village,” he says. “We fought in Panchayat election to get better schools, water, dispensaries and other facilities, but no one listens to us now.”

“We have become mere players in a big game of political football,” Bukhari says. “The chef minster says we have decentralized the system but on ground there is nothing.”

Bukhari also complains that every Sarpach was promised a meager salary, but the fact is that even money for their meetings is not paid. “The Baramulla chief education officer recently did not even allow us to enter his office,” he says.

He had recently called a meeting where all the panches of his village were present to discuss the future course of action. “We don’t even have a Panchayat Ghar required for such activities.”

“We were made scapegoats at the time of elections,” says Syed Amin, a Panch from a village in Baramulla. “Those in power said it is the win of Indian democracy but people on ground voted for the local needs,” he points out. “They did not choose between India and Pakistan. This election was for the local needs of people, but even those needs were not fulfilled. We were made easy targets for the militants.”

Amin says they left their families at risk by contesting in the elections, but now there is not even a single benefit for them. “The government said a Sarpanch would be given Rs 6000 for election expenditure and Rs 3000 will be given to every Panch, but it has been six months and to this day we have not received a single penny,” says Amin.

He says even a peon doesn’t entertain them when they approach government offices with their problems. “Where are the powers which were promised to us,” he asks.

Majority of the candidates who fought in Panchayat election did it with a hope of fulfilling the development and local needs of their areas. However, decentralization of power remained confined to the newspaper headlines and political posturing.

Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, a resident of Sheeri, Baramulla says that they had expected radical changes because of the hype given to the Panchayat elections, but no development work happened on ground after the Sarpanches were elected.

“We had made a list of development work to be done in our area and given it to our Sarpanch after he got elected,” says Manzoor. “But leave aside the work, we have not even seen the Sarpanch after that day. We expected a lot after the chief minister had himself said that the Panchayats would be empowered.”

Showkat Ahmad Malla, a resident of Kreeri, says they recently went to meet the deputy commissioner in Baramulla with their Sarpach so that a school building in their village could be repaired.

“The officials at the DC office told the Sarpanch that there is nothing they can do about the school as they have not received any orders from ‘higher authorities’,” says Showkat. “We don’t know who these higher authorities were, but when he told them that he was the village sarpanch,

Abdul Rehman Khanday, of Delina says in the past Sarpanches were considered to be chief ministers of the village because it was almost impossible to meet them. “Todays Sarpanches are “lori daster”. Their work exists only on papers and they don’t exist on ground,” says Rehman.  “We used to have huge Panchayat meetings in our village in the past and work was done afterwards. But today there are not even Panchayat Ghars for these meetings,” he says.

The Jammu and Kashmir government had recently announced the transfer of the first set of powers to the recently elected Panchayats in the state. Chief Minster Omar Abdullah said that his government had promised to transfer the power to Sarpanches and Panches, and that they have fulfilled their promises.

“There were apprehensions created by certain elements in the minds of sarpanches and panches with regard to the transfer of power but I announce the first installment of powers to the panchayats removing all such speculation in this regard,” the chief minister had announced.

The chief minister said that after the first set of powers will be transferred, there would be transfer of more power to the Panchayats, and that would be deliberated by the Cabinet and subsequently by the Legislature to make these institutions more effective and powerful.

“I have interacted with panchayat members in some 40 Assembly constituencies and found them capable enough to shoulder responsibilities being entrusted to them,” the CM had said.

Many central government schemes fall in the jurisdiction of Panchayats. NREGA, on which J&K booked an expenditure of Rs 378 crore last fiscal, and Indira Awas Yojna, with an expenditure of more than Rs 40 crore, falls under Panchayats. Sarva  Shiksha Abiyan that entails expenditure of Rs 800 crore a year also falls into the mandate of the Panchayat.

Implementation of a series of rural specific schemes like minor irrigation, rural employment, primary education, NRHM, rural water supply schemes and a series of social welfare schemes are also supposed to fall under this new tier of elected representation.

The Election Authority, vide its Notification dated 24th November, 2010, had fixed the limits of expenditure for different categories of candidates. For Sarpanches it was fixed at Rs. 6000 and Rs. 3000 for Panches.

The state had failed to avail a substantial sum last year from the 13th Finance Commission award because Panchayats were not in place.

“This year this fund will come and get used in creating enabling systems so that the institutions are strengthened,” said a government source.

Apart from creating buildings, the Panchayats will acquire everything that they need to function, monitor and supervise the basic functions. It is expected to be around Rs 300 crore.

The Sarpanches and Panches on ground cry fowl and feel powerless and betrayed by the government.

The Panchayat elections were held this year in 16 phases from April 13.

Around 50.68 lakh voters elected 4130 Sarpanches (2164 in Kashmir and 1966 in Jammu) and 29,719 Panches (15,959 in Kashmir and 13,760 in Jammu). The state has not had a complete local body election in last 33 years. Last time the Panchayat elections were held in the state was in 2001. The last elected Panchayats concluded their term in early 2006 and the urban local bodies concluded their term in 2009.

Jammu and Kashmir has its own Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act of 1992, which is at variance with the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India.  The 73rd amendment envisages elections at village, block and district levels and planning and executive powers entrusted with the heads of these local bodies, thus reducing the role of the state government and the ministers. The Jammu & Kashmir government, however, has not implemented the 73rd amendments to the Indian Constitution to J&K’s Panchayat Act, whereby Indian Panchayati Raj was strengthened.

Recently dozens of Sarpanches and Panches from north Kashmir staged demonstrations in the city against the alleged corruption and highhandedness of government officials.

“We’re being snubbed by the officials everywhere,” the angry Sarpanches told the media. “We were administered oath and promised devolution of powers, but nothing happened. Why isn’t Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah keeping his word.” This was before the CM announced delegation of the first set of powers. But not anything has changed even after that announcement.

Many political analysts believe that the institution of Panchayat can be made strong with a grassroots level approach of participatory planning, whereby the developmental programs are identified and implemented through the Panchayats. But that clearly is not happening on the ground so far.

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