Kashmir’s New Bourgeoisie

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For five years, 33849 elected individuals would decide over the basic socio-economic development of 76 percent of J&K’s population. Kashmir Life looks into Kashmir’s new power elite who access to Rs 1500 crore a year and authority to develop, operate, and supervise a host of services.

A woman Panch speaks to a gathering as Omar Abdullah, the Chief Minister, watches

More than a month after the completion Panchayat elections the government is yet to compile the cumulative data of the elected village council members giving an indication of the enormity of the exercise.

“It is not an assembly election in which you get the details of 87 individuals just on a fingertip,” an official in the chief electoral office said.

“Panchayat means more than 33000 elected people and it would take us two more months to give the exact statistics of what happened and where.”

The 16-phase poll process in which 79 per cent of the village voter population elected thousands to village councils was not an ordinary exercise (Zanskar is yet to poll for weather conditions). Holding these polls after 33 years in the backdrop of a separatist’s call for boycott and possible militant violence made it a tricky exercise.

In the entire exercise a woman contestant from Budgam was killed as a few sustained injuries in armed attacks. Sensing the mood, the separatist-militant combine avoided getting entangled in the affair that is expected to cost government more than Rs 100 crore. “By now Rs 20 crore stands spent by the CEO and the liabilities are piling up. There are expenditures by the home ministry and some more by the rural development department,” insiders in the government said.

“There are places where we had nobody contesting,” the CEO official said, adding, “At places we had disputes and we are working to hold re-elections and then, you know, many candidates were elected unopposed.” But how many such places exist across J&K may not be immediately available with the babus here.

On the political front, however, it has already started creating waves. Given the 2010 unrest, the political parties were under the impression that there might not be many takers if the polls are held on party basis.

National Conference (NC) initiated the idea and a divided People’s Democratic Party (PDP) supported it. The PDP patron Mufti Sayeed wanted these polls on party basis, an idea not supported by his daughter. As the confusion continued, the party skipped a vital meeting in which the idea of holding polls on non-party basis was finalized.

After initial inhibitions, the parties jumped into the polls and on ground it did not remain an exercise on non-party basis. Once the results were declared block after block, it added to the confusion as parties started staking claims over every result.

The PDP president Mehbooba Mufti recently claimed that they bagged seventy percent of the votes. A day after chief minister Omar Abdullah said that NC was number one and PDP second with Congress trailing at third position in the Panchayat elections. He admitted that the though the exercise was supposed to be on non-party basis, the parties were involved totally barring the use of party symbols.

Meanwhile, Congress in a statement claimed that they were number two as far as the number of successful candidates in Panchayat elections was concerned. However, the statement did not identify or say anything about the party that bagged the most number of Panchayat seats.

However, the grapevine in the civil secretariat is that the PDP has lost Lolab and Wachi as its performance is dented in a number of segments including Qazigund, Bejbehara, Sangrama, Bandipora, and Homshalibugh. NC has retained Kangan, Noorabad, wrested Lolab and Homshalibugh but lost Ganderbal, Chrar-e-Sharief, Kupwara, Handwara and Sonawari.

It has gained substantially in Tangmarg and a few other segments especially in south Kashmir. Congress has retained its position and taken a good chunk of votes at places otherwise belonging to NC or PDP. Sajjad Lone’s Peoples Conference has taken the maximum chunk of seats in Kupwara and Handwara as engineer Rashid has retained his Langate belt. Comrade Tarigmai has not done very well in his home district.

“If you are talking about overall performance, it is PDP taking the maximum votes in Kashmir and parts of Jammu’s Muslim belt,” says a middle rung officer who keenly watched these polls. The officer said, the BJP is completely routed as Congress almost swept Jammu’s Hindu belt. “The actual loss and gains would be available once the block councils are set up,” the officer said.

This is exactly what PDP spokesman Naeem Akhter says. “I do not know how you count loses and gains,” said Akhter. Explaining the Wachi constituency, for instance, he says NC has 19 Sarpanchs and PDP 18. “But as for as Panchs are concerned, we are more than two-third,” he said. “Sarpanch does not make a difference as long as he does not have support of the majority of panchs.” This, he asserts, will show up once the block council elections will take place. “In the block council elections sarpanchs and panchs have one vote each and then it will get decided who has lost and who gained,” he insisted claiming PDP has swept the polls.

Aware about the elections to the block councils being a major test, the political parties have started approaching their rivals from the elected lot.

The law governing the Panchayat system has an interesting difference from the one governing Assembly. In assembly elections, all the lawmakers are elected by people and they choose the chief minister. In Panchayat polls, the voters cast two votes – one for the panch who represents their ward or village and the other for the sarpanch who presides over the Panchayat. At certain places, majority of the panchs belong to one party and the sarpanch belongs to another party.

The law has a grey area and the rival parties are contemplating to use that. The law allows the panchs to move a no-confidence motion against the sarpanch and with a two-third majority against can see his or her ouster, necessitating a new election. The threat is being used at certain places by the rival parties to force a crossover.

“Yes, it is a huge lacuna,” an officer associated with Panchayat polls said. “While sarpanch is being elected directly by people, he can be ousted by the people who, though elected at their own level, do not form the electoral college of the sarpanch.” The government foresees the lacunae being challenged by somebody in the court of law and the process getting stayed. Then the government will, probably, initiate processes to amend the law.

But the real issue right now is the empowerment of the Panchayats. PDP which is claimant to the number one position, at least in Kashmir, insist the party will use this basic tier of governance and service delivery to forward their agenda and trigger a change. Its president Mehboba Mufti told reporters last week that empowerment is the real big challenge. “They (read NC) would have empowered them had they won the polls,” Ms Mufti said, adding, “Since we have won most of the Panchayats, we doubt they will ever be empowered.”

The government, however, refutes the allegations. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in a news conference said that the government was in the process of empowering Panchayats despite the apprehensions being expressed that it will belittle the legislators. “That is not the case because responsibilities are clearly defined,” he said, adding, “After the high powered committee of bureaucrats will submit its report about the transfer of functions, finances and the functionaries, the cabinet will approve it next week.” He, insisted, that the cabinet will decide about the polls for the next tier within days. However, he said he was not sure whether these polls would be held on party or non-party basis.

Chief Secretary Madhav Lal is heading a high powered panel of officers tasked to examine how and to what extent the pancahayts will be empowered. “They are essentially concentrating on 3Fs – the finances, the functions and the functionaries,” said an officer in the Rural Development Department. “All the departments have got a letter from the panel asking them which functions they would like to handover to the Panchayats.”

The law governing the system is clear in the authority and the powers (read box) that the Panchayats will enjoy but the panel will see if they can do more. “Panchayats have to play a much larger role, they will have to maintain the assets already created, supervise the services delivery in the respective area and operate certain new system to manage basic requirements,” the officer, not authorized to media, said. “It will take some more time.”

But the apprehensions over the empowerment have not come from Ms Mehbooba alone. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was perhaps the first politician to do so. “The resistance to empowering them from within the system will have to be tactfully dealt with, but with a strong will a way normally emerges,” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah wrote on micro blogging site twitter last week. “I never, in my wildest dreams, expected such a smooth ride through 16 phases.” He reiterated the concerns but asserted that the roles and responsibilities are clearly defined so the legislators should not feel worried.

Concerns are there and so is the resistance to empowerment of Panchayats. Lawmakers who have helped in passing the law are actually at the epicentre of the resistance to empowerment. On record none of them is ready to say anything other than: “Had we not been comfortable with the law, why should have passed it in the first instance?” A three-time lawmaker from north Kashmir told Kashmir Life, “We are not opposed to the empowerment (of Panchayats) but we only want (that) the status and standing of the lawmakers should not get eroded or compromised.”

However, when lawmakers talk on the empowerment issue off record they are more forthcoming. “If most of the developmental activities that are specific to the villages are being taken over by the Panchayat, what is our role?” one of the lawmakers said on condition of anonymity. “Most of the votes that I have been getting are the outcome of the constituency development fund that I spent in a trickle but if I lack the authority to decide on which work it has to be spent and where, what will happen to me?”

“We want all the rural development schemes to be implemented by the Panchayat but I don’t think they should be permitted to touch the central sponsored schemes, the district plan and the CDF,” the lawmaker said.

Another lawmaker admitted that the rise of Panchayat would essentially mean a threat and a competition to the MLAs especially when block councils will be constituted. “Now MLAs need to put in extra-efforts to retain their status or otherwise new leaders will emerge and replace them,” he said.

In the first incident of its kind, some elected Panchayat members had a scuffle with Assistant Commissioner Handwara. Omar Abdullah got the news when he was addressing newly elected Panchs and Sarpanchs in a central Kashmir district.

He immediately ordered the attachment of the officer. Later, sources said, Sharif udin Shariq, Saifullah Mir and Chowdary Ramzan met him to express their resentment over the ‘hasty decision’ besides advising the CM to resist impulsive action as such incidents were bound to happen.

Given the provisions of the law and the indications emanating from the system, the Panchayats are going to be wealthy institutions with lot of authority, power and resources. Unlike lawmakers who need to legislate and manage a majority vote to trigger changes, Panchayats are small systems that can do whatever they want within the confines of a cluster.

Jalil Ahmad Khan, state’s economic adviser told Kashmir Life that the state 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,” he said. 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.

“We have already set aside Rs 50 crore for strengthening the basic infrastructure of the Panchayats,” said a senior state’s planning ministry officer. “Then you have funds which could come directly from the central government and many other functions that will be channelized through state government to the Panchayats.”

The schemes that fall in the jurisdiction of Panchayats are too many. NREGA on which J&K booked an expenditure of Rs 378 crore last fiscal will go to the Panchayats. Indira Awas Yojna that is more than Rs 40 crore will also be there. 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 expected to go to this new tier of elected governance.

“The panel led by the chief secretary has sent a letter to all the departments asking them to identify the function that they want to transfer to the Panchayats,” a senior officer said. “There is thinking that in the long term Panchayat might be tasked to collect service fees like water usage charges, power tariff and other things for the government.”

Put together, it is a substantial sum that will go directly to the villages. It can not be less than Rs 1000 crore a year and if they are fully empowered it can cross Rs 2500 crore a year.

All these funds, says adviser Khan will go to the account of a particular Panchayat. “It will have a system in which the local official will be the secretary to the Panchayat and they will operate the account,” he said, adding, “The money shall remain with treasury.” The finance department is busy discussing if the Panchayats can become their own drawing and disbursing authority.

A strong votary of the Panchayat Raj, Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar even suggested incorporating a separate component for Panchayats while framing budget. At the outset he suggested one crore rupees to every Panchayat. He believes a sarpanch knows much better what to do in his village than an IAS officer who sits in his luxurious home.

“The IAS officers are good when it comes to deciding when should India go to war with Pakistan but they fail to prove their mettle when it comes to development in villages,” Aiyer, a former bureaucrat, said. “Under Indira Awas Yojna villagers are given a shed but without a latrine and under another sanitation scheme the same ministry gives a latrine but not the shed. I asked about this dichotomy to the minister concerned who said it is because we have two secretaries for two separate schemes. This is absurdity.”

Even after the government empowers the Panchayats and block councils, two critical issues will remain – the capacity and the accountability. Apparently the accountability part seems missing in the law that offers enormous authority to a Panchayat. Given the socio-economic background of the panchs and sarpanchs, it is also possible that they will play second fiddle to the officials who are supposed to assist them in planning and implementing the schemes.

Apart from proposing to pay sarpanch Rs 6000 and a panch Rs 3000 every month, the government is planning a series of training courses to train the elected lot. But everybody within and outside the civil secretariat is keeping fingers crossed. New power elite is taking off?

Panchayat: Privileges And Authority
For a five year term, the Panchayat will be the epicentre of governance in the state. While Panchayat has to meet every month, it has to convene (Halqa Majlis) meetings with its voters twice in a year – the first in which it gets approval to its yearly budget and plans of works. While the Sarpanch is directed elected, the panchs will elect his deputy among themselves in the first meeting of their constitution. The Village Level Worker or Multipurpose Worker or Gram-Sevika shall be the Secretary of the Halqa Panchayat though it reserves the right to appoint any person(s) to assist in delivering the services it is tasked to.  While two-third majority of panchs can move a no-confidence motion against the Sarpanch, the government can takeover the functions of a Panchayat for six months to hold new elections in case the existing Panchayat is a non-performer. Sarpanch will get honorarium and the panchs fee for every meeting they attend.

Powers and Functions
The powers are immense so are the functions. The Panchayat has to prepare the plans for the development of the halqa, undertake measures for the implementation of the developmental plans, deal with the problems of soil conservation, water management, social forestry, rural industrialisation, agriculture, sheep and animal husbandry, sanitation, health and other welfare programmes, regulate buildings, shops and entertainment houses and  checking of offensive or dangerous trades, construction and maintenance of slaughter houses, regulation of sale and preservation of meat and processing of skins, hides, fish, vegetables and other perishable articles and food, besides, regulating fairs and festivals. Most of the special developmental plans for alleviating poverty and employment generation through programme like Integrated Rural Development Programme, National Rural Employment Programme, Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme and Housing of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes will have to be carried out by Panchayats besides implementation of scheme of universalisation of elementary education and other educational programmes.

Property
Public roads not under the control of any department, movable and immovable property that government transfers to it, buildings, slaughter houses, manure and night soil, dumping sites, structures and water reservoir built by Panchayat from its own funds or from contribution by government, rubbish, sewage, filth, bones, village cleaning, carcasses, trees and grass growing on property belonging to it, fruit and other produce, drains, tanks, ponds, wells, springs, streams, khuls, ghats, nallahs and quarries, public lamps or lamp posts and apparatus connected therewith forms the main property of the Panchayat. The Panchayat shall have power to acquire, hold and dispose off the property and enter into any contract.

Panchayat Fund
Taxes, fees levied by Panchayat, proceeds from the property and enterprises run by it, court fees, fines and compensation paid to it besides public donations and contributions, proceeds of the sanitation cess collected by the government on the revenue being loaned within Panchayat area and grants from the government and loans approves by the government will go to this corpus that will fund the local development. The Panchayat is empowered to levy taxes on any trade, calling or profession within its jurisdiction including a maximum of Rs 50 per person per year, Rs 25 per day for theatre, cinema and other places of entertainment, Rs 20 per animal per year plied on hire, Rs 50 for a commercial vehicle and Rs 100 for a tractor for a year. They can impose taxes on boats, pilgrims, watermills, brick kilns, oil mills, hawkers and pheriwallas (vendors), and seek fees from slaughter houses, encamping grounds, temporary occupation of village sites, roads, for permitting re-creation of buildings, bus stands, meadows, cattle ponds and horse-carts.

Panchayati Courts
It is a five member court that would be selected from the panel that Panchayat will submit to the prescribed authority. An illiterate, anybody below 30 years of age and a member of the Panchayat can not be a member of the court. These members will elect their chairman and the secretary of the Panchayat will be the judicial clerk. The government reserves the right to remove the chairman or its members who would be covered by the provisions of the Judicial Officers Protection Act, 1971. This court can not impose any sentence other than a fine not exceeding Rs 1000. An unpaid penalty will be recovered by District Panchayat officer in case of default. It is authorized to admonish offenders below 15 years of age. These courts can take suits for ascertained sums, damages, compensation, and specific movable property not exceeding Rs 3000.

The Last Panchayat Poll
Held in January 2001 after a gap of 24 years, the eight-phase elections were “contested” on non-party basis in select areas. More than 30 elected and nominated individuals were killed in the notoriously sham exercise. Some of the persons declared elected were on Mecca pilgrimage and did not know of their nomination back home. Dozens later resigned even in peaceful belts over executives’ unwillingness to share power with the new entities. They were never empowered. All the 2710 Panchayats were dissolved on August 11, 2006 almost a month after their term expired and their powers still remain vested with executives at block level.

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