This article describes the efforts made in Jammu and Kashmir to reintroduce the panchayat system
A nascent step to bring back democracy firmly put on the ground a year ago by reintroducing the Panchayat System in the state of Jammu & Kashmir after a long wait of over a decade is again being jeopardized by militancy. In June this year, over four hundred Panchayat members from South Kashmir resigned from their posts following the warning issued by a militant group through posters threatening them with dire consequences unless they published their resignation in newspapers and carried those newspapers with them.
The immediate bow-out response of the Panchayat members indicates a threat which is more from within than outside the system. To understand the whole scenario, we need to rewind and visit the spring of last year when lakhs of people participated in the state’s first panchayat election in a decade, with the tacit approval of the militant groups.
The current coalition government conducted the 2011 Panchayat elections in a hurry. The hastiness was evident from the lack of awareness of both, the contestants and the voters, regarding their rights and responsibilities which define the true functioning of the Panchayat in any region. A state having little knowledge of Panchayati Raj Institutions was rushed into participating in a process that requires more than just the counting of votes. Many considered it to be a perfect method to annihilate the infamous tradition of protests by stone pelting that paralyzes the state for months together. Whatever the reason, the stated aim was to help resolve day to day problems of the villagers. Believing in their government, villagers participated in the elections to elect thirty nine thousand panches and sarpanches who today stand as disillusioned as the villagers. The promise of the state government to devolve powers to the elected panchayat members in fourteen departments where they would handle the funds for various projects is yet to be fulfilled.
“We are required to go from one office to another with officers tossing my demands around like a football,” said one of the Sarpanches. As a result, the entire one year has seen reports pouring in from various regions highlighting scuffles between the Panches and Sarpanches with government officials. The elected candidates have created their own organizations at block and state level which has only added to the ruckus in spite of helping the government. Most of the representatives rued that despite winning with an overwhelming majority, they are unable to fulfill the promises they made at the time of elections and feel helpless when fingers are pointed at them.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s intentions become quite clear when he says that there would be a significant shift in the transfer of power to panchayats during the next six months. He understands the devolution of powers to the panchayats will make their job easier with lesser public problems for his government to deal with. But the very idea of sharing powers, as also the ensuing ‘problems‘ expected is not acceptable to many legislators in the state. Devolution of powers to panchayats means sharing authority – an idea that does not go down well with members of the Assembly, irrespective of political affiliations.
These members fail to understand that a well-functioning Panchayat is one of the key tools of democracy to help resolve people’s problems. The insecure legislators must start thinking about their state first keeping all of their personal benefits aside. Panchayats allow local representation of people – they themselves get a firsthand experience of the problems faced by the villagers and understand their requirements.
The issues of roads, electricity, water and sanitation are sorted out by Members of the Assembly with the help of these local representatives. As Panchayats have their own style of functioning, they can resolve issues within the limits of the village. People don’t rush to police stations to report minor issues as these are resolved amicably at the Panchayat level, thus, reducing the number of files at the police stations. One cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the Panchayati Raj has contributed a lot towards the development in the rural regions of the country. Kashmir was deprived of this for decades. But when the wait for a democratic set up at the grassroots level was met last year, few expected the forward journey to be this way.
Except for the right intentions, nothing has fallen into place in the valley. Things have gone drastically wrong at the level of implementation which has become a cause of disappointment equally for the government, the locals and their representatives. And now, adding to the already vulnerable Panchayats, threats from the militant groups have raised doubts over their successful governance in a region where conflict has been a part of its history.
A stronger relationship between the government and these local representatives could have altered its fate where trust between the two would not have allowed the Panchayat Members to give up in the face of threats. But as they say – it is never too late, State Government has after a year, once again, promised to provide powers to the panchayat in fourteen departments. Along with the devolution of powers, the Government must take initiatives to make the beneficiaries and their representatives of the Panchayat System aware of their powers and responsibilities as this will give them a clear vision of this momentous step towards meaningful democracy. As the scriptures say, “The situation of the people will never change, till they want to change it.” And for that they must be aware!
Written by Shagufta Wani, a Jammu and Kashmir based journalist for Charkha Features and republished here in arrangement with Charkha Development Communication Network.