J&K Panchayats: Much ado about Power
by Sandhya Jain on 09 Oct 2012 4 Comments

When Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi triggered a walkout by elected Panchayat members in J&K last Friday by saying it was the state government’s prerogative to implement the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, he was hinting that a deal had been clinched with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Should this pan out as expected, it will mollify the state Congress leadership which has been raising temperatures over Panchayat empowerment, but will leave elected sarpanchs and panchs feeling betrayed.


There are multiple facets to the Congress-National Conference face-off on the Panchayat issue. The major issue for Congress was the loss of two important cabinet berths. Education minister Peerzada Muhammad Sayeed had to resign in February 2012 after reportedly being indicted by the state crime branch for helping his son pass the class X board exam in 2009 through unfair means. Previously, in August 2010, Roads & Buildings minister Ghulam Mohammed Saroori, a close confidant of Union Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, had to resign amidst allegations that his daughter used an impersonator for the medical entrance examination. However, the CBI gave him a clean chit in August 2012.


Since then, Congress has been agitating for immediate return of the berths assigned to it under the power-sharing agreement, but the chief minister has been prevaricating as the National Conference has one vacancy for which there are too many aspirants. Mr. Rahul Gandhi has probably resolved this issue with Mr. Abdullah.

The Panchayat issue is more complicated for the National Conference. When Panchayat elections were held after 18 years in April 2010, the public response was an overwhelming 80% voter turnout, despite militant threats to boycott the polls. This unleashed great expectations for panchayat empowerment and devolution of financial powers to the local bodies, which never happened.


Furthermore, under the state’s Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, the chairmen of the Block Development Councils have to be elected by the elected Panchayat members of the respective blocks; the vice-chairmen are to be elected from amongst the council members themselves. Similarly, the chairmen of the District Planning and Development Boards have to be elected as per rules. The National Conference wanted to nominate the district chairmen and vice chairmen in order to control the bodies, which was resented.


More importantly, in the 36-member State Legislative Council, the members of which are chosen under various categories in the statute, four MLCs must be elected by the Panchayats (two) and Local bodies (two) equally from Jammu and Kashmir provinces. But no elections have been held in over 18 months as the National Conference fears it cannot win.


The rising violence against elected Panchayat members has to be seen in the context of this growing grassroots pressure for empowerment, and for extension of the 73rd and 74th amendment to J&K so sarpanchs can meaningfully intervene with government departments and local administrations. So far, three officials have been murdered in the past one year, two in September alone, and another four injured. Mohammed Shafi Teli, 42, deputy sarpanch of Nowpora Jageer, Baramulla district, was shot dead on Sept. 24, 2012, while Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo, sarpanch of Palhalan village, Baramullah was shot dead on Sept. 10. Earlier, sarpanch Ghulam Mohamad Dar was killed in Nowpora; all belonged to the National Conference.


Simultaneously, mysterious death threats from little-known organisations asking Panchayat officials to resign from their posts have been appearing all across the valley, though no murders have taken place in the valley. So far, over the past one year, over 800 panchs and sarpanchs have resigned out of a total of 33,000 elected members in 4200 Panchayats.


Fearing that the National Conference may use the violence as a pretext to dissolve the Panchayats in order to defer elections to the block and district bodies, and also to the Legislative Council, a Panchayat Empowerment Committee was set up in Jammu on October 2 to ward off this threat. It observed a one-day hunger strike to demand devolution of powers.


Mr. Abdullah is adamant that incorporating the 73d and 74th amendments will dilute the special status of J&K, but this time local sentiment is unmoved by appeals to Article 370. The All Jammu & Kashmir Panchayat Coordination Committee has urged Congress to withdraw support from the government if the NC is not ready to bring in the 73rd amendment. Though Congress has decided not to rock the boat at present, the issue has been taken up by the main opposition People’s Democratic Party.


The PDP has tabled a private member’s bill to devolve more powers on Panchayats, which Congress state unit chief Saif-ud-din Soz had promised to support. But that was before the Rahul-Omar entente. Incorporation of all features of the 73rd amendment would make Panchayats independent vis-à-vis planning and execution of development works and utilization of funds. Also, an elected Chairman, not a Cabinet minister, would head the District Development Council.


Since Mr. Abdullah had previously alleged that two Congress ministers had written to him opposing increased powers to the panchayats, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti had demanded that he name the ministers. Even Saif-ud-din Soz had demanded disclosure of the names, but he may now prefer discretion.


Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s backtracking will cost Congress its public credibility. As the issue of the security and empowerment of Panchs and Sarpanchs has become highly emotive, Mr. Abdullah has promised to conduct elections to the Block Councils in October itself. The legal requirement was to conduct them within a month of the panchayat elections.


Sarpanches who met Mr. Gandhi in Delhi prior to his visit to the valley had complained that the Panchayats were not getting rights even as per the state Panchayati Act. The issue of security was serious, but they felt that if Panchayats received their due rights and powers, they would not need security. The delegation later said that the Congress general secretary had nothing concrete to offer them on crucial issues such as salaries of panchs and sarpanchs, security, and rights. They expressed anguish at being used as informers for the security forces and as an anti-militancy force, which is not their mandate.

One positive outcome of the controversy is that Mr. Omar Abdullah has lost the moral authority to claim that law and order in the state is perfect and that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act should be revoked. A regime that cannot protect its own sarpanches should think of retirement.


The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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