OVERWHELMING VOTE

Ongoing panchayat polls have seen heavy voter turnout. Different people have different reasons to contest and participate but will it trigger a change. P A Mushtaq reports.

The more than 80 per cent voting in the first six phases of 16-phase panchayat polls in Jammu and Kashmir has surprised many. More surprising are the reasons given by the people standing in queues outside polling booths, who say that are not just voting for sadak, bijli and pani (roads, electricity and drinking water) but for a structure and a development space that can de-link them from out-of-bounds politicians and government’s hierarchical bureaucratic messy staircase.

Sheikhpora constituency in central Kashmir’s Budgam district reflects a new reality emerging at the ground. Located just five km from Srinagar, Sheikhpora witnessed an interesting contest. It was mainstream political parties versus a local mosque welfare committee.

Mehraj Ahmad, vice-president of local mosque’s Auqaf Committee, which has fielded six candidates to contest for six Panch and two Sarpanch seats, aims to keep both the ruling National Conference and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-backed candidates at a distance.

“If the mainstream political parties come to power, they will reduce the role of the mosque and its activities. One has to come out and vote out of compulsion to keep the political parties at bay,” said Ahmad. More than 10 Sarpanch seats in Budgam district have already been bagged by candidates, who don’t have any overt political affiliations.

The panchayat polls are being held in the state on non-party basis but many political parties are allegedly fielding their candidates or supporting a particular candidate.

Sheikhpora area, a well to do village, with many residents involved in construction material business, like other parts of Kashmir valley was seething with protests during the 2010 unrest fuelled by a cycle of violence that left 117 people dead. Ahmad too was part of the protests and faces three FIRs for joining pro-freedom and anti-India protests in Budgam. Eight people, including a woman, died in security forces’ action against protesters in Budgam district.

“Kashmir is a dispute and I am for its peaceful resolution. We do not dispute Geelani’s ideology and approach but there are day to day problems too,” said Ahmad while Auqaf’s panch candidate Haji Nazeer Ahmad Khan, a businessman, nods in agreement.

“The polls are held to address local issues. We have no intention to contest any other polls like assembly. It’s just to uplift the village,” said Khan.

The queue outside Sheikhpora polling booth is not a group of people living miserable lives without roads, electricity and drinking water. Many people who voted came in cars and lined up their Marutis and Santros outside polling booths. Almost all the houses in the locality are concrete ones and a good number of well-off businessman and government employees live in the area.

“When I voted, I had neither India nor Pakistan or resolution of Kashmir in my mind. I voted for development as the tax-payers money allocated for villages are embezzled half-way before it reaches to those who deserve it. I voted for change and institutions which will be an asset even in independent or resolved Kashmir,” said Tahira, a well-educated voter of Sheikhpora. She voted for better hospital facilities and for a flip in the number of government jobs for the unemployed youth of the area.

In north-east constituency of Kangan, a bastion of stalwart and influential NC leader Mian Altaf, at least 11 of the 49 sarpanch seats have seemingly gone to candidates who don’t have affiliations with any political party. Here too, like Shiekhpora, many people said that they voted to get rid of mainstream political parties. It was believed that the people in Kangan blindly follow Altaf but anti-incumbency had a huge chunk of voters turning its back on the NC leader. Same stands true for PDP’s senior leader Qazi Muhammad Afzal, who shot to fame for defeating Omar Abdullah in 2002 assembly elections.

“Afzal lost most sarpanch seats to the NC and independent candidates in his own village and constituency, a reflection of his dipping popularity,” a retired school teacher of Lar area in Ganderbal district wishing not to be named said.The phenomenal voting percentage occurred despite boycott calls from separatists. All Parties Hurriyat Conference-led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani had given a boycott call.

Political analysts say that Geelani was bound to  call for boycott of the polls as he does not believe in any Indian institution being credible in Jammu and Kashmir besides New Delhi consistently playing out the valley voting to the outside world as referendum.

“The polls are being held purely for administrative issues. We also participated in the elections. But, from our experience, we have learnt that elections are only to mislead the international community about the Kashmir dispute. India only speaks a language of gun in Kashmir,” said 82-year-old Geelani to a gathering in Bandipora in the first week of April while exhorting people to stay away from the polls.

Useless exercise like elections, Geelani said, can’t be substitute for the right to self determination. “Though nobody will become an Indian after voting, but at international forums New Delhi portrays it in a wrong way that Kashmiris are satisfied with the Indian rule,” said Geelani. He was quick to add: “Though I am aware about the civic problems of the people, but they should understand that for attaining right to self-determination they have to offer sacrifices for prosperous future of the next generations.”But the voters, despite the boycott call, came out in hordes. Political analysts term it a statement of huge populations being bereft of any access to basic amenities to the extent that “local issues have become bigger than the sentiment for the time being” besides the people looking for ways and means to keep pace with times despite the ongoing conflict.

“India, Pakistan and Kashmiri leadership will resolve Kashmir. But we have to change ground situation and work for people who lack basic amenities. My village has no roads, no drinking water facility despite the potential for prosperity because the village is full of lime material and spring water. The water can be bottled. There are slopes fit for heli-skiing. Despite the potential, the area is backward so one has to work on a change,” said Parvaiz Mir, a Sarpanch from Lachipora in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. 27-year-old Mir defeated a 72-year-old candidate, an Imam in the area. “People voted for change not age,” said Mir.

Mir said around Rs 36 lakh might be allocated to a sarpanch for development of the village. “We need to understand how it will come and how it can be spent. Immediately after the polls will be over, we will meet the government to fix salaries for sarpanchs. There is no salary for sarpanchs so far. The MLAs will be drawing Rs 80 lakh month, we too should be given salary to sustain ourselves and meet travel expenses. I need money to carry people’s grievance from Kupwara to Srinagar,” said Mir.

The polls have also emancipated women, otherwise an apolitical lot in the valley. Many believe it will go a long way in grooming women politically and chisel their ideologies and approach. Women have bagged at least 146 sarpanch seats in Kupwara district in six phases of panchayat polls.

“Women will have to shoulder bigger responsibility and take democracy to grass-root level. It was a good sign that women have emerged as a force in this polls,” said NC leader and Minister for Rural Development and Panchayats Ali Muhammad Sagar.

A woman candidate from Kulgam wants women to grow politically and sees panchayat polls as a space to help fair sex in “understanding ground realities”. “We were always told that women are meant to work in kitchens only. We would be asked to keep mum if there was a discussion over politics at home. But with many women becoming part of Panchayati Raj, it will develop decision-making faculties of women and increase their say in the Kashmir problem. But first we need to understand the issues better,” said the Kulgam candidate on the condition of anonymity.

“We can bring change through panchayats the way village affairs are run and the way development happens. There are destitute woman in the village. Once there will be woman panchs, it will help to uplift such woman. It’s because of this fact I decided to contest polls,” said Muneera Bano, a panch contestant from Budgam district. She is facing tough competition from Fareeda Bano, Jameela Jan and Asiya Bano, who too have jumped in the poll fray to “improve life in the villages”. There are 9,000 seats reserved for women in Jammu and Kashmir.

Panchayat System guide
It is a three tier system which starts from the village level.

Halqa Panchayat
A Halqa Panchayat is the basic unit comprising of one or a cluster of villages. Every Halqa electorate, divided into sub-constituencies (for Panchs) elects a minimum of six or a maximum of 11 members (one for each Panch sub-constituency). The same electorate elects the Halqa Sarpanch, in a parallel ballot. In every Panchayat, thirty three percent of the member Panchs are reserved for women.

Neither the Panch nor the Sarpanch will have a salary but government sources say an exercise is on to manage a monthly honorarium. The Panchayat’s in J&K, unlike in the mainland, will have powers to conduct courts for settling petty disputes within the populations they represent.

The Panchayat is empowered by law to manage part of the revenues locally–by levying certain taxes on slaughter houses, roads, animals, tractors, putting Panchayat properties on rent etc. They will have the final say in spending the public money that comes through Rural Development. Every year, they will have to draft the budget and prioritize the works they intend to take up.

Even the constituency development fund (CDF) – Rs 35 lakh per MLA/MLC – has to be spent through the Panchayats. In absence of elected Panchayat’s, state government says it was losing over Rs 350 crores of annual grants. From the Twelfth Finance Commission Award, for instance, the central government released only Rs 52.83 crores against an entitlement of Rs 281 crores.

Officials said there are 50.68 lakh voters who are in the process of electing 4130 Sarpanchs (2164 in Kashmir and 1966 in Jammu) and 29,719 Panchs (15,959 in Kashmir and 13,760 in Jammu). Around 9000 Panch seats are reserved for women.

Block Development Council
Block Development Council forms the second tier. All the Sarpanchs are members, who in turn elect one among themselves as a chairman. He will be working with the BDO in implementing the rural development funds that come to every single of 143 blocks in the state from central government.

District Development Board
District Development Board is the final tier to be headed by a minister in most cases. Unlike the Panchayat system prevalent in other states, the chairman of the DDB is elected. The state government has amended the law this year to have an elected vice chairman from among the chairmen of the Block Development Council chairmen who will have executive powers and the final say on issues compared to the ministers.

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