Disempowered panchayats of J&K

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
The idea of making Panchayati Raj institutions autonomous, workable and free from any Government interference seems to be a Jammu & Kashmir after cumbersome task. There are various reasons for it. The kind of support Government was supposed to provide to these institutions is lacking. The members of village Panchayats have been the soft targets of militants. In many cases the Panchayat members themselves have been involved in serious mismanagement and embezzlement of Government funds. Keeping these things into consideration it can be said that Panchayats as an institution could not be established in Jammu & Kashmir. According to news reports as many as 14 panchayat members (Sarpanches and Panches) have been killed in militancy related incidents in Kashmir valley from January 2012 to July 2015.In 2014 alone, seven Panchayat representatives were killed. According to news reports around 150 Panchayat members resigned in J&K during the year 2015 alone following threats from militants. Other than threat from militants the Panchayat members feel that Government didn’t empower the Panchayats. Few weeks back I had a long discussion with a well educated Sarpanch from Tangmarg block of Baramulla district . While I asked him about his preparations for the upcoming Panchayat elections , the Sarpanch started yelling at the authorities.This elected village representative has made his mind not to contest the election once again. He feels disempowered and dejected as Government didn’t implement the Panchayati Raj Act of 1989 in letter and spirit. This is not the case with this Sarpanch only, but majority of Sarpanchs and Panches elected during last Panchayat election which was held in May –June 2011, have the same story to tell . According to Section 12 of J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 the Halqa Panchayat is supposed to undertake following activities:
(i) To prepare plans for the development of the Halqa (village panchayat)
(ii) To undertake measures for the implementation of the developmental
(iii) To specifically deal with the problems of soil conservation, water management, social forestry, rural industrialization, agriculture, sheep and animal husbandry, sanitation, health and other welfare programmes.
(iv) Regulations of buildings, shops and entertainment houses and checking of offensive or dangerous trades.
(v) Construction and maintenance of slaughter houses, regulation of sale and preservation of meat and processing of skins and hides.
(vi) Regulation of sale and preservation of fish, vegetables and other perishable articles and food.
(vii) Regulation of fairs and festivals.
(viii) Preparation and implementation of special developmental plans for alleviating poverty and employment generation through and besides programme, like Integrated Rural Development Programme, National Rural Employment Programme, Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (MG- NREGA) and Housing of Scheduled Castes, Backward Classes and homeless people (IAY).
When implementation of these sub sections of J&K Panchayati Raj Act is seen, except the works being executed under MG-NREGA , the panchayats have no role. Panchayats have no role to play vis a vis Forest conservation , health , sanitation , and other issues.
Adalti Boards not constituted :
When contacted, to Shafiq Mir a known Panchayati Raj crusader and Sarpanch said that he is fed up with the state of affairs in J&K. Shafiq who has been raising his voice for implementation of 73rd amendment of Panchayati Raj in J&K , says that Government even failed to implement J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 in real spirit . “ According to the provisions of J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 Adalti Board ( Judicial panel) was supposed to be constituted in each village Panchayat. The members of Panchayat body had to recommend some names of respectable people from the village who would constitute this “Adalti Board”. The village panchayats forwarded these names more than 3 years back to their respective Block Development Officers (BDO’s) , who further send them to Rural Development Directorates in Kashmir and Jammu , but the said boards are yet to be constituted” Mir added
Pertinent to mention that village Adalti Board has a legal status under J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989. These boards were supposed to hear cases related to local village disputes etc . The main objective of setting up of these boards was to prevent people from going to police stations , courts and other places for grievance redressal. The order of the Adalti Board could only be challenged before District and Sessions court , lower judiciary (CJM , Munsif , Sub Judge etc) have no power to qash the orders of the Adalti Board. These legal provisions of J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 make it clear that village Panchayats are not mere meant to look after developmental aspects of the village , but the Panchayats have a bigger role which includes its role in social , legal , economical & cultural aspects as well.
No role in Tourism sector :
G M Ahangar who is a Sarpanch from Yusmarg Nagbal in Budgam district says that local Tourism Development Authority hardly consults his Panchayat while it frames its policies. “ I have been asking Yusmarg Development Authority (YDA) to provide me a copy of its Master Plan , but I am being denied even the copy of this plan which otherwise should have kept available in public domain. Concrete structures are being raised in the green meadows of Yusmarg which is part of my village panchayat , but I am a mute spectator as authorities hardly care that I am an elected representative of local population “ G M Ahangar said . He added that Panchayats have no role in Toursim sector as village Panchayats located near Tourist destinations of J&K have no say when any developmental model is discussed for the area by authorities.
Village plans not implemented :
In many cases it has been observed that the village panchayat committee which prepares plans for undertaking the developmental works are not implemented on ground and instead officials of Rural Development Department (RDD) change these plans according to their will and wish. Such acts are a direct attack on the autonomy of village Panchayats. There are also allegations against the members of panchayat (Sarpanch and Panches) who make these plans without the consent of “Deh Majlis” also known as Ghram Sabha. The Deh Majlis or Ghram sabha consists of all the residents of panchayat above 18 years of age , but there are instances where the panchayat members prepare plans in closed door meetings which is against the basic principles of Panchayati Raj.
73rd amendment :
In a major decision, the state Cabinet in February 2014 which had met in Jammu under the Chairmanship of the then Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah approved amendments to various sections of Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989.The amendments cleared by cabinet provided for the Election of Chairman and Vice Chairman of a District Planning and Development Board by the members of the Board from among themselves. The amendments also provide for the Chairman of a Block Development Council to be elected by the Sarpanchs and Panchs of the concerned block from among themselves. It also provides for reservation in respect of the SC and ST categories to the extent of their population in specific constituency and to the extent of 33% for women. The amendment also provides for reduction in the age of candidates for contesting elections for the positions of Panchs and Sarpanchs from 25 to 21 years. During that cabinet meeting Jammu and Kashmir Ombudsman for Panchayats Bill, 2014 was also approved for introduction in the State Legislature. But all that could not mature as the bill was not cleared by the state legislature. The state cabinet had also agreed on the 73rd Amendment provisions by virtue of which separate Finance Commission and Election Commission are to be constituted besides ensuring reservation in second and third tier of Panchayats. Pertinent to mention that National Conference was against the implementation of 73rd amendment in the state Panchayat Act earlier as they were of this opinion that it would be an attack on J&K’s special status guaranteed under article 370. NC had more than twice called the implementation of these amendments as “anti-state”.
Corruption within Panchayats:
There are serious allegations of corruption , mismanagement and embezzlement of Government funds by members of village panchayat across state. The funds which were supposed to be spent on construction of houses for homeless under Indira Awaas Yojna (IAY) have been embezzled to a great extent. In Kutabal Jeddan village Panchayat of Chadoora block (Budgam district) a Sarpanch along with his father (Deputy Sarpanch) and some panches swindled lakhs of rupees which was provided to the panchayat under IAY. The Sarpanch had distributed 27 IAY cheques @ Rs 48500 each to his 27 relatives and after this information was sought under RTI Act by local whistleblowers , the Sarpanch was forced to deposit Rs 5.53 lakhs into Government treasury. In many villages the MG-NREGA funds have been swindled by the Panchayat bodies. There are authentic reports that panchayat members do not consult fellow villagers during preparation of plan by organizing a Ghram sabha (Deh Majlis). People also allege that Sarpanches and Panches act as contractors during execution of developmental works uner MG-NREGA which is totally illegal and against the norms of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MG-NREGA)
Conclusion :
I am of this opinion that Sarpanches and Panches were merely used as cannon fodder by political parties in J&K. Government must make it mandatory that anybody intending to contest Panchayat elections must be literate and at least matriculate (10th pass). This will ensure non interference of Block Development offices in day today affairs of Panchayats. Previous coalition Government miserably failed to empower Panchayats as they could not even hold elections for Block Development Councils and District Development Boards which is an important provision of J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989. The State Panchayati Raj Act discusses role of Panchayats in organizing festivals and fairs , but on the other hand Wakf Board and other religious boards / trusts continue to play their own politics while organizing religious festivals, fairs etc .
As Govt plans to conduct panchayat elections in the upcoming months , it is impressed upon the present Government that before holding these elections , it must be ensured that a III tier Panchayati system must be put into action soon after the village panchayat elections within a given time frame. Necessary amendments must be made in the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 so that Panchayats are institutionalized and empowered across state, otherwise there is no urgency of holding these elections. I would also recommend that Government officers should be sensitized about the importance of Panchayati Raj and its constitutional status. Due to lack of knowledge and information , these officers hardly respect orders of Panchayats which is a serious issue indeed.