On December 19, 2018, 48 sarpanchs from Jammu & Kashmir elected just days ago called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They had contested the polls risking militant attacks, with both the National Conference and PDP boycotting the elections that were held under Governor’s rule, and 708 of 2,135 halqas in the Valley saw no contestants. Most had filed nomination papers as Independents.
The Centre had made big promises to them – including transfer of Rs 2,500 crore a year to panchayats, and handing over decision-making powers regarding 19 departments/subjects in villages to sarpanchs and panchs. The PM asked them to serve the people.
More than six months later, in July 2019, just about a fortnight before the Centre abrogated the special status of Jammu & Kashmir, senior officials in the J&K administration facilitated an interaction between mediapersons and more than two dozen sarpanchs, including women, in Srinagar. One of the major points discussed was how the decentralisation of power through panchayats would create a new political base at the grassroots.
But, the bureaucracy has its own pace. Two months later, in September 2019, Shafiq Mir, the president of the All J&K Panchayat Conference, along with some panchs who had met the PM in December 2018, said empowerment still eluded them. Eight months post elections, in many cases, panchs were yet to be notified, the release of funds was slow, and few departments consulted panchayats or attended gram sabha meetings.
Lack of funds, support
With mainstream leaders barred from political activity, the Centre had hoped panchayat-level politicians would fill the governance vacuum in J&K. But close to two years since the polls of panchs and sarpanchs, this grassroots democracy has been hobbled by lack of funds and support from the bureaucracy.
Among the people the panchs met during a Delhi trip on September 4, 2019, post abrogation was Union Home Minister Amit Shah. As The Indian Express reported at the time, he told the panchs he expected 20 of them to be elected MLAs as and when Assembly elections were held. He called them the leaders of J&K, and told them it was their responsibility to ensure that the benefits of government schemes reached the people. He also tried to allay their fears, assuring them security – a long-pending demand – and insurance cover.
But it’s only now, just under a year later, that this promise has materialised. On July 18 this year, the administration council under Lieutenant Governor G C Murmu approved an insurance cover of Rs 25 lakh for each panch, sarpanch, Block Development Council chairperson, and elected member of municipal bodies, in case of death in militancy-related incidents.
Meanwhile, over the last nine months, two sarpanchs – Syed Rafi on November 27, 2019, and Ajay Pandita on June 9, both from Anantnag – were killed in militant attacks.
The slow progress notwithstanding, in its big gambit in J&K, the BJP-led government at the Centre continues to see panchayats as crucial, both to push its development agenda and for the far ambitious aim of “bottom-up” revival of politics. This has gained more urgency since the abrogation of special status of J&K on August 5, 2019, when mainstream political leaders were detained and barred from any political activity.
Almost a year since, The Sunday Express visited a panchayat each in South Kashmir, where militancy continues to pose a challenge to the state, and North Kashmir, which is relatively more peaceful. Kralweth in Kunzer Block in Baramulla district sits in the lap of Gulmarg in North Kashmir, and is home to middle-class and lower middle-class families. The population of Veerseran in Pahalgam Block in Anantnag district in South Kashmir, on the other hand, is more than two-third tribal and overwhelmingly poor – 95 per cent of its people live below the poverty line. In South Kashmir, 462 (58%) of 798 sarpanch seats remain vacant; in North, 218 (28%) out of 937 halqas don’t have sarpanchs.
But, the dissimilarities end here.
Kralweth, Baramulla; North Kashmir
Kralweth is a sleepy cluster of four hamlets, surrounded by dense apple and cherry orchards, and around 6 km off the Srinagar-Gulmarg road. Until a few months ago, the Kralweth halqa (one of 12 in Kunzer block) was represented by Aftab Ahmad Beig. In October last year, Beig was elected the Block Development Chairman (BDC) of Kunzer, vacating the sarpanch seat.
Beig, who comes from a politically active family with his grandfather Saifullah having held the sarpanch post back in 1957, was one of the sarpanchs who met the PM and Amit Shah after the abrogation of special status. The 53-year-old remembers the PM’s promise to them, of empowerment.
In the last 18 months since the panchayat elections, the grass-roots democracy has brought Kralweth a culvert, a drain, few tiled paths, and fencing of the local graveyard.
Beig takes pride in showcasing these as his works, but says the government’s failure in implementing the Panchayati Raj Act in letter and spirit is holding back all-round development in villages.
“Our biggest problem is that we have not been accorded the status that we were promised,” says Beig. “When we approach officials, they don’t pay heed to our requests. Barring the Rural Development Department (RDD), all other departments ignore us. They don’t turn up at the gram sabhas, let alone doing anything after consulting us.”
Under the Panchayati Raj Act, representatives of 20 departments that cover a village have to be present at gram sabha meetings where projects are to be decided following consultation. For example, to extend electricity supply into the interiors of the village, Beig needs more poles. Even officers from industries or education departments never attend these meetings.
Given his stint in politics and public life, Beig says he has also come to believe that bureaucracy has been a hindrance to progress in J&K. “I met the L-G a few days ago and presented him a list of works to be done in my block.”
Since January 2018, the Kralweth panchayat halqa has taken on 14 works. “During the last one year, we have received five installments under the Fourteenth Finance Commission. The total amount disbursed is Rs 16.48 lakh,” says Ali Mohammad, the panchayat secretary, adding that even while the labour part is covered by the MNERGS, this is far less than the Rs 19.68 lakh they need to finish the projects.
Apart from the slow flow of funds, the panchs rue powerlessness in deciding priority works. “None of the department representatives attends the gram sabha. And if we go to them, they shoo us away.”
Beig has spent his entire life in Kralweth, in a house located by a fresh-water stream with Chinar trees in the backyard. With his family having lived in fear of militant attacks due to its involvement with politics, Beig says he was reluctant to fill the form when panchayat elections were announced in 2018. It was only after some village elders sat him down that he submitted the form. “Even then, we didn’t tell anyone about it,” he says.
Of the 1,800-odd votes in the village, 1,700-odd were polled, with Beig getting as many as 1,500-plus. “People want panchayats,” the 53-year-old says. “They want someone to help them when they face problems. Say, for instance, when a house catches fire… It is worth all the risk only if departments respect the gram sabha and the elected panchayat members and honour the law in letter and spirit.”
Veerseran, Pahalgam Block, Anantnag District, South Kashmir
ALMOST 90 km from Srinagar, Veerseran, in Lidder Valley, is a village that overlooks the river that gushes through Pahalgam before joining the Jhelum. With about 62 per cent of its population tribal, the panchayat, which has 445 households, is reserved for Scheduled Tribes.
“Nearly 95 per cent of the people here fall Below Poverty Line, with the working population engaged in farm labour or construction work. Most people do not have any steady income,” says 55-year old Gul Mohammad Kohli, the sarpanch of the village.
Kohli, 55, just like Beig of Kralweth, was not keen to contest the panchayat elections, but was coaxed by well-wishers. Earlier in the PDP, Kohli won the panchayat elections as an Independent since the NC and PDP had boycotted polls. He has since then joined the Apni Party led by Altaf Bukhari.
In 2018-19, the panchayat awarded nine works, which include three toilets, one road and a couple of drains. “All these works were carried out under MGNREGA, and payments for the material component – about Rs 8-10 lakh – is still pending,” he says.
Driving a vintage red Maruti 800, he points to the panchayat office that has remained under lock and key forever. “It was taken on rent in 2012, but rentals haven’t been paid,” Kohli says, adding, “Land is available, the government should make the office functional.”
Another hurdle Kohli encounters is while interacting with the bureaucracy.
“There is no accountability,” he says, noting that government officers do not respond to his calls.
Under the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, as many as 20 departments are required to get the consent of the gram sabha before undertaking works in the area. “But the Rural Development Department is the only one which transfers MGNREGA funds into the joint account of the sarpanch and the panchayat secretary,” Kohli says.
Further, when a gram sabha is convened, no bureaucrat from the block or the district attends. “Nobody cares,” he says. His village needs filter water pipelines, electricity poles, but there is nobody to take note of the demands, he adds.
“There was disappointment among all following the abrogation of J&K’s special status, but then the promise of development gave hope. But there has not been much difference,” says Kohli.
When asked about Central leaders heaping expectations on sarpanchs and panchs, he says, “When you came to my house, I offered tea because I could afford it. But if I do not have the resources to take care of the needs of people, what can I do?”
Panchayats cannot replace an elected government, he says. “In the panchayat, we discuss issues and have a view. But big decisions can only be taken by an elected government,” he adds, referring to subjects such as domicile, delimitation, etc.
When asked why other departments wouldn’t consult the gram sabha, Sheetal Nanda, Secretary, Department of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, said, “The entire Panchayati Raj system in J&K is a year and a few months old. Earlier also there were panchayats but there was no devolution (of powers). For the first time, we are trying that all functionaries get involved with them.”
Nanda said at least 21 subjects or departments fall under the jurisdiction of the panchayats and the sarpanchs are empowered to take decisions under these subjects within their villages. These include: agriculture, animal husbandry, sheep husbandry, horticulture, education, forests, irrigation, and industries, among others.
She added that some schemes under the Integrated Child Development Services are being implemented through the panchayats, and that the government had recently decided that mining rights “up to a certain extent” be given to them. Another department that has started working in tandem with the panchayats is Jal Shakti or what was previously called the Public Health Engineering department.
But before anything else, Veerseran sarpanch Kohli says he needs an office. “I give MNREGA payments out of the porch of my house. But I can’t possibly do the same with mining permissions or collection of taxes.”