Violence rages, war looms in J&K and Ladakh. Is it a good time to hold panchayat polls?

Real grassroots empowerment means holding bureaucrats to account. That will only happen if district boards are elected as well.

ByDavid Devadas
Violence rages, war looms in J&K and Ladakh. Is it a good time to hold panchayat polls?
Photo via Twitter

Gunfights occur almost daily in Kashmir now, with a foreign terrorist involved in most. Arms are apparently being dropped by drones. And China’s army not only remains belligerently deployed at the edge of Ladakh, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah seemed to hint last weekend that war could be in the offing.

If it does happen, Sino-Pakistan jointmanship is likely. That could put Kashmir and areas south of the valley in danger of attacks. A number of Kashmiris seem convinced that this could happen in November.

That could prove a dicey month. The United States has backed India robustly, and the visit by the secretary of state and the defence secretary on October 26-27 is likely to boost that. But in November, the US may get embroiled in a tussle over its election results. There may even be a lame-duck US government for a couple of months thereafter if Donald Trump loses.

All these internal and external trends should have made the powers-that-be gird for the possibility of increased violence. But no. They are instead getting set to try and hold by-elections to panchayats and municipalities across Jammu and Kashmir.

That sounds like a shot in the dark (pun intended), not only because of the internal and external violence, but also the impact terrorist violence has already had on morale among those who were elected two years ago. A number of them have been killed, often at or near their homes. And that has led to a wave of fear among other councillors and panches, and a spate of announcements of resignation (300 according to one estimate).

As if these problems weren’t enough, there is the little matter of the coronavirus pandemic.

So, on the face of it, the idea of holding elections in every little village and town across Jammu and Kashmir at such an unsettled time is audacious at the least. Cynics might call it outright crazy.

Elect district boards

However — yes, even in the face of all the violence, one has to say however — empowering the grassroots is itself a good idea. Not only was it one of the central government’s promises when constitutional changes were made 14 months ago, it’s really required.

Panchayat polls are not enough, though. If grassroots empowerment is to be meaningful, it must go all the way to a three-tier structure, with block-level and district bodies too. And a finance commission must be appointed for the union territory, to oversee disbursement of funds to each block, village, and town body.

The erstwhile state’s Panchayati Raj Act of 1989 provides that presidents of block development councils (who should be directly elected), town councils, and municipalities be members of a district board. These ought to elect a chairperson from among themselves, not have a chair appointed by the government, as has been the practice.

The law also provides for the MP and MLAs from each district to be members but, since no one at ground-level seems to miss MLAs, the boards should function without them. If and when an assembly is elected, MLAs could join.

Only a district board would have enough clout to influence civil servants, who tend to think of themselves as twice-born potentates — ruling sahibs, rather than servants of the people.

No wonder. Over the years, they have turned District Planning and Development Boards, which the Panchayati Raj Act envisaged as a partially elected body, into top-down extensions of the state government. The entire cabinet, chief secretary and secretaries have held annual meetings in each district to decide on project priorities, with not a single member elected directly to the board. The result is that we have panchayats beholden to a sarkar, not Panchayati Raj.

Mechanisms for accountability

True grassroots empowerment would make bureaucrats accountable to people’s representatives — and elected bodies to the community.

The accountability of grassroots elected bodies can best be achieved if gram (or halqa) sabhas are held — and occasional town meetings for the people of a town. Gram sabhas have been effective in some parts of the country for people to take their panches to task. The law in J&K vaguely provides for “voters’ meetings”, which have generally not been held.

As for making bureaucrats accountable, nothing less than an elected district committee would be able to effectively rein in the bureaucrats’ potential for high-handedness and corruption.

As the first two rounds of “back to the village programmes” last year proved, bureaucrats’ own outreach to unempowered people can be an eyewash. No wonder people, who were enthusiastic the first time, largely ignored the just-concluded third round.

Take also the fact that the bureaucracy has cussedly refused to restore fast internet connectivity across most of the union territory for more than 14 months now. Ironically, one reason why GC Murmu, the first lieutenant governor of the newly created union territory, was eased out was his willingness to ease the restrictions. Various security agencies too were willing. And yet the dogged bureaucracy stalled it.

The Supreme Court then disempowered the lieutenant governor and the security agencies by entrusting the responsibility entirely to two bureaucrats, the chief secretary and the union home secretary.

Bureaucrats are naturally uneasy about empowered grassroots institutions, as also an empowered (with phone cameras) citizenry. One reason for this is that corruption is a rampant part of the way Jammu and Kashmir works. In the absence of ministers, bureaucrats rule the roost. So does corruption.

Although there is no gainsaying the political aspects of alienation in Kashmir, there is also a level at which people at large are frustrated and disgruntled about the lack of responsive administration, and about corruption, which can easily descend into extortion in a place where the authorities have special powers.

Since bureaucrats tend to be blinkered, and stick to narrow ruts, they are unlikely to chart new paths to regenerate economic systems or social buoyancy. And yet, there is no hope for the future if the place is not economically and socially regenerated. With such a sharp focus on the political and geopolitical aspects of its future, most people tend to miss the extent to which the place has been hollowed out economically and socially.

Vast vacancies

There are certainly signs of hope in the fact that, while scores of panches and councillors have announced their resignations, more than 95 percent of those who were elected two years ago have chosen not to quit in the face of terrorist killings.

To be sure, hundreds of them have been kept in places like Gulmarg and Pahalgam for their security, but it would surely have been easier for them to simply quit than to risk their and their families’ lives. Instead, many of them continue to run their panchayats and municipalities.

In fact, I know of some who insisted on leaving the safe places to which they had been taken without consulting them, and returned to overseeing the work of their panchayats and municipalities.

It would seem then that there is life in the process, however lacklustre its start may have been two years ago. A very large number of seats remained vacant then — not contested by even a single candidate. Of the more than 18,000 panchayat and municipality seats in the union territory, about 13,000 are vacant.

Even those seats that were filled were often unopposed, if only one person was nominated. Most got no more than half a dozen votes amid a widespread boycott. In at least one case, a nominee was declared elected with zero votes. She had not even gone to vote for herself.

Eight Jammu-based Kashmiri Pandits were the only ones elected to the Shopian municipality, while nine of its 17 seats remain vacant. One of those elected goes to Shopian from Jammu every now and then to oversee the work of the municipality.

Some entire municipalities — Khrew, for example — remain unconstituted since no one contested or voted in any of the wards.

In several places, some of those who were rounded up to contest were not exactly the cream of society. Quite the opposite in many cases, despite incentives. It was messy.

Admirable chutzpah

Since substantial amounts have been given to some panchayats since then for local development, and the prime minister announced a new package of Rs 520 crore on October 14, the by-polls might draw in more competent candidates than was common the last time around.

Therefore, although the government’s desire to hold by-polls may seem harebrained in light of the increasing violence, war clouds, and terrorist threats to the renewed process, I can’t help feeling a tinge of admiration for this gung-ho determination to get grassroots democracy up and running — provided it actually empowers.

I guess one ought to keep trying to improve things until the various threats of violence actually become overwhelming, and hope that things won’t get that bad.

In fact, trying to build grassroots democracy is slightly less batty than replacing commanders in what could well become more heated battle zones in November. The corps commanders in both Ladakh and the Jammu region (which has seen extraordinary shelling in recent days) were changed on October 13.

If the grapevine that predicts war in November turns out to be well informed, the country should be ready. It would be better to be overprepared — on both fronts — than underprepared.

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