Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in the State of Jammu and Kashmir always remain a distant dream for the public at the grassroots as prevailing violent situation in Kashmir becomes the immediate excuse for every political party in the State to defer Panchayat elections. This had been seen in the past also and we are observing the same again.
The all-party meeting chaired by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on 4th of February this year to discuss and decide on holding the long-pending Panchayat poll in the State failed to evolve any consensus with regard to the holding of polls. But it was apparent that Panchayat polls will not be held any time soon on the pretext of situation not being conducive. Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Abdul Haq Khan was quoted in the saying: “The majority view in the meeting is against holding the elections at this point of time”. The meeting reportedly found coalition partners speaking different languages to the holding of the elections with BJP favoring for elections to the Panchayats immediately and PDP in the mood to defer on account of situations in the valley. Earlier, in the month of December last year, State Government had announced to hold elections soon to reconstitute PRIs which had completed their term in July 2016. Crores of central funds to be spent only through the elected PRIs have stopped coming into the State due to the absence of Panchayati institutions and also because of the delay in elections.
If the situation in the Valley is not found conducive for polls then why should Ladakh and Jammu suffer for no fault of their? Can’t the government hold elections at least in Ladakh region where despite hiccups and glitches in the smooth functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions in most parts of State of Jammu and Kashmir, several initiatives by Panchayat leaders and steps taken to empower them by LAHDC were exemplary when the institutions existed from 2011 to 2016?
The Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989
provides a three-tiered structure with Halqa Panchayat (HP) at the grassroots, Block Development Council (BDC) at every block and the District Planning and Development Board (DPDB) at the district level. However, the three-tier system has not yet seen the light of the day in the State on account of many grounds including lack of political will and feeling of insecurity amongst politicians as the new institutions are often seen as threats to the established politicians in the State. When Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) were in place from 2011 to 2016, Block Development Council elections were never allowed to be held, sometime even postponed abruptly at the last minute on the pretext of bringing reservations for women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in BDC.
Stories in Ladakh, however, are little different because LAHDC Act 1997 provides Hill Councils to function as the District Planning and Development Board (DPDB) or Zilla Parishad – third of the three tiers of J&K Panchayati Raj system. After the enactment of J&K Panchayati Raj Act in 1989, Panchayat elections were first held in the State in 2001. Soon after the formation PRIs, Leh was perhaps the first district to take steps towards empowerment of grassroots leaders. Students Educational Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) with support from ActionAid India and Dan Church Aid organised a month-long study tour for Panchayat members of Leh to States like Kerala, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh in February 2002 to study best practices of grassroots governance in other parts of the country where Panchayat institutions had evolved with the backing of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. Ladakh Development Organisation (LDO) also provided leadership trainings and workshops to the Ladakhi panchayat leaders to enable them to function as efficient grassroots leaders.
After Panchayat elections in 2011 in the State which saw an astonishing 79 per cent voter turnout, Leh district took several initiatives to empower Panchayat leaders. As a part of the TATA – LAHDC Development Support Programme called the ‘Gyurja’ (a partnership between LAHDC Leh and TISS Mumbai implemented in Ladakh with IDBI support), an exposure tour to the Sarpanchs of Leh district was organised in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh with training workshops at Hyderabad and Mumbai with the aim to ‘help strengthen the decentralisation process leading to an increased ownership of the development process by village communities in the region’.
After PRI elections in 2011, Sarpanchs of Leh formed the Panchayat Coordination Committee (PCC) to strengthen PRIs in Ladakh and work in close coordination with the Hill Council. In addition to the schemes and functions transferred to the PRIs as per the J&K Panchayati Act 1989, each Halqa Panchayat in Leh is allocated an amount of rupees three lakh each financial year by LAHDC to be spent for development schemes at grassroots at the discretion of PRIs.
If BDCs are formed, the chairmen BDC become ex-officio members in the General Council sessions. Councilor of the respective bock will be an ex-officio of the BDC as the Panchayati Raj Act says that ‘in the case of districts of Leh and Kargil the Councilors of any Council Constituted under the section 3 of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1997 representing the area falling in any block shall be ex-officio members of Block Development Council for such block’. As Leh believes in participatory governance process and devolution of powers, amendments with the LAHDC Act 1997 to harmonise it with the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 has been a unanimous demand as roles and functions of two democratic dispensations need more clarity. Experts believe that LAHDC Act needs to be suitably amended to clarify its roles and functions vis a vis the PRIs.
In view of the State Government’s intention not to hold Panchayat elections on the pretext of violence in Kashmir, can representatives of Ladakh, both Leh and Kargil,join hands together to demand for Panchayat elections separately for Ladakh regions?
(Author is the Leh Bureau Chief for State Times)
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