The panchayat outrage

It was a vote for self-governance, not self-determination. No panchayat election in the country ever created as much hype as that of Jammu and Kashmir last year. Both voters and candidates defied militant threats to make the first state-wide panchayat polls in three decades successful. Yet about 900 panchayat leaders have resigned in the past seven months following threats from militants. Many of them face an even greater threat: the state government’s reluctance to devolve powers for self-governance. The state is yet to put the three-tier Panchayati Raj system in place more than a year after the village panchayat polls. Powerless, panchayat leaders increasingly face the anger of communities.

Caught between militants and restless voters, quitting seems to be the best way out for them. Richard Mahapatra reports from Srinagar and Baramulla

 
By Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The panchayat outrage

On September 25, 2012, about 40 panchayat leaders published their resignations as paid advertisements in The Daily Kashmir UZMA Srinagar

Imtiyaz Afzal Beigh carries an unbearable burden on his shoulders. In the past quarter century, he is the first to have contested an election from Duroo, the village of separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani in Jammu and Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Not a single vote had been cast in the village since 1987 due to Geelani’s call for boycott of elections. Beigh defied Geelani’s fatal fatwa to contest the panchayat polls in April last year, and was elected sarpanch. “Azadi (freedom) is a different issue. Local development cannot wait for that,” he says.

Beigh’s conviction is, however, losing steam. Accompanied by an armed personal security guard round the clock, he is often seen speaking to sarpanchs and panchs over the phone, requesting one thing: “Don’t resign.” But most of them who, like Beigh, contested the polls amid threats from militants no longer listen to him.

A personal security guard accompanies Imtiyaz Afzal Beigh, sarpanch of Duroo, round the clock; (below) a threatening poster issued by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen

In a snub to militants’ threats, panchayat polls were conducted in Jammu and Kashmir over 17 phases between April and June 2011. These were the most comprehensive polls since the outbreak of militancy in the state. A staggering 79 per cent of voters came out to exercise their franchise in the party-less election for local self-government institutions and elected some 33,000 representatives in 4,200 panchayats.

The elections were showcased as the “tightest” slap on the face of the separatist movement in the valley. The elections, for the first time in the electoral politics of the state, brought village development into focus.

A threatening poster issued by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen But within a year the valley’s development dreams seem distant again. In the past seven months various militant groups have put up posters threatening panchayat representatives in case they do not resign immediately. In mid-April this year, threatening posters, reportedly issued by militant outfits Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, appeared in several pockets of Phulwama, Shopian and Anantnag districts in southern Kashmir.

Some 400 panchayat representatives resigned in June. Five panchayat leaders have been killed since the elections, though the police are not sure about the involvement of any militant group. The latest killings in Baramulla in September have triggered another spate of resignations: about 500 panchayat representatives have put in their papers in the past one month, bringing the total number of resignations to more than 900 (see ‘Crumbling under threat’...).

crumbling

Instead of going through the time-consuming official procedure of tendering resignation, panchayat representatives are taking the quickest route. They publish their resignations as paid advertisements in regional newspapers, each declaring that henceforth the representative has nothing to do with the panchayat. Those who are unable to pay for the advertisement, flock to the nearest mosque on a Friday to announce their resignations. Officials of the state Panchayati Raj Department say that of the 900 panchayat members who have stepped down, only 50 have resigned officially. This is a replay of the early 1990s scenario when workers of political parties resigned en masse following threats by militants.

“I am taken aback by the widespread resignations,” says Ali Mohammad Sagar, Panchayati Raj Minister of the state. His shaken government has informed district commissioners not to entertain formal resignations of panchayat representatives, and has announced that advertisements or declarations in prayer gatherings will not be accepted as resignations.

The number of panchayat leaders killed in comparison to the total elected may be negligible, but in Kashmir even a small threat to peace makes a loud impact, particularly when the valley has begun reporting the lowest militancy-related violence.

Why the anticlimax

After being plagued by militancy for three decades, Jammu and Kashmir is crawling out of a devastated economy. The peaceful panchayat polls last year thus came handy for the state government to declare the return of normalcy in the valley. “My fear is we should not miss this opportunity to get development to villages,” says Sagar. Fear is a powerful weapon in the valley. To bring back the sense of security, the government has to ensure physical safety of each and every panchayat leader. It is almost impossible. Providing security to 4,200 representatives requires exclusive deployment of the state’s entire constabulary. So in the first week of October, security forces began what they call “area domination exercise” in villages where panchayat members have been threatened. The exercise involves intensified patrolling. This is the kind of operation they had staged earlier to flush out militants, and these are the villages from where they had withdrawn just a few months ago, letting out a loud message of normalcy.

Panchayat leaders protest in Srinagar for adoption of the Central Panchayati Raj Act

“The Kashmir problem needs a political solution. Panchayats have nothing to do with it,” says Sagar in a desperate bid to delink the two issues.

But the panchayat crisis has already evolved into a political battle. It has pushed the ruling alliance of the National Conference and the Congress to the brink of collapse, with the latter threatening to withdraw support, citing lack of security to panchayat leaders and demanding devolution of power to them. In the last week of September, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi met a delegation of panchayat leaders in Delhi and followed it up with a high-profile meeting with them in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital.

An embarrassed Chief Minister Omar Abdullah declared elections to the Block Development Council (BDC), the second tier of the three-tier Panchayati Raj system, within a week. Formation of BDCs is critical as it takes financial decisions for the village panchayat body. The following week saw vociferous debates in the state Assembly about the fallout of militant threats. Every party offered a solution to empower panchayats.

In the end, in a turnaround, the government postponed BDC elections indefinitely through an extraordinary Cabinet decision, leaving the already shaken panchayat members in limbo. The government reasoned that the postponement is to provide for reservations for women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in BDC. With this, the state’s much-hyped tryst with local governance ended in an anticlimax.

Polls had rekindled hope

This was the first state-wide panchayat election since 1977. The state did go to the polls in 2001. But elections in Kashmir, which accounts for 50 per cent of the panchayats in the state, could not be held due to militancy. The government did not notify panchayat elections till 2011. (See ‘Evolution of devolution’ on p32) “People wanted to deviate from the usual political discourse and focus on local development. Panchayats came as a link between the long-forgotten villages and the state,” says Sahanawaz Alam, professor at Jammu and Kashmir State Institute of Rural Development, who is involved in capacity building of the newly elected panchayat representatives. Such was the defiance that militant groups withdrew their fatwas mid-way through the election.

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The sentiment also reflects in the demography of the elected representatives. About 60 per cent of them are under the age of 50. This is the generation that bore the brunt of militancy for 25 years. “They suffered complete collapse of governance. When they contested elections to bring some semblance of governance, people overwhelmingly supported them,” says Alam.

The 2011 panchayat polls were held on non-party basis. “This further gave hope to the youth that local development will be the only focus of the new panchayats,” says Haji-Abdul Gani Khan, former president of the All India Local Self-Governance Association and veteran Congress leader from the valley.

Sarpanch Beigh is an imposing symbol of this defiance. “When I filed nomination, I faced pressure from several militant groups. There were other candidates who withdrew,” says Beigh. He won unopposed. “The desperation for development was so high that immediately after my election people came to me, offering support for village development,” he says, suggesting that militant threats had ebbed after the polls.

Hatlangoo is one of the few panchayats that got land for office. About 2,000 panchayats lack this basic facility

The elections also opened up the much-sought-after treasury for the cash-starved state: the Centre’s funds for rural development. The Central Finance Commission makes sure that a major portion of these funds are transferred through local elected bodies. The 12th Finance Commission (2005-2010) had awarded Rs 281 crore for the state’s rural areas. But it lost Rs 228 crore of the funds due to the absence of panchayats. This time, of the Rs 918 crore earmarked by the 13th Finance Commission, Rs 600 crore will be directly disbursed to local elected bodies between 2010 and 2015. The state has lost much of this, but not all. “We are expecting Rs 400-Rs 500 crore annual grant from the Centre under the 13th Finance Commission award, which shall be spent by panchayats throughout the state,” Omar Abdullah told the media immediately after the elections. Last summer expectations soared in the valley with both manpower and money ready to unleash village development and democracy. But the expectations fizzled out within a year.

Threat beyond militancy

“The current crisis is more to do with the government’s resistance to empower panchayats than threats from militants,” says Shafiq Mir, convenor of the J & K Panchayat Conference, an association of panchayats formed to push for devolution of power. “Much before the threats of militants, we perceived the threat of the government to local bodies,” says Mir.

On February 13, panchayat leaders staged a rally in Srinagar protesting the state’s reluctance to empower them despite a year of elections and threatened to resign. They clamour more for devolution of power than protection against militants. On October 1, panchayat leaders under the J and K Panch Sarpanch Association met at Anantnag and signed a resolution to resign en masse in front of Parliament if the promised powers to them are not delegated soon.

No village judges
 
Jammu and Kashmir has been experimenting with community civil and criminal justice system for the past five decades. The state Panchayat Act has the provision for setting up a participatory Panchayat Adalat (court). The village panchayat sends a list of names to the state government for selection of judges. The government selects five of them for five years. The nominated members select one among them as the chairperson of the Adalat. All members get a fee and are considered public servants. However, the government retains the power of removing any of them after an impartial hearing. Panchayat Adalats have more criminal justice roles than civil ones. The state has a special penal code called Ranbir Penal Code for these courts. But their power to penalise is limited to a maximum fine of Rs 3,000, and their verdicts can be contested in session courts under the mainstream judicial system. Currently, no such court is functional. Within three months of the polls, elected bodies forwarded lists of people to the government to nominate judges. But the government is yet to do so.
 

Under the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act of 1989, local bodies have the power to plan and implement a large number of programmes. Besides, they enjoy the judicial power over civil litigations under the Panchayat Adalat system (see ‘No village judges’, p31). Going by the Act, soon after the polls, the state government should have transferred functions of 14 of its departments and 16 Centrally-sponsored schemes to panchayats, which include flagship schemes like those under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). By now, the panchayats should be implementing programmes with a budget of over Rs 1,000 crore a year. But the state government seems to have a different script for the local self-government institutions.

The state’s Panchayati Raj system comprises three bodies: village panchayat, Block Development Council (BDC) and the apex District Planning and Development Board (DPDB). Village panchayat leaders form the electoral college for BDC, while members from both form DPDB. These bodies are crucial as they plan and budget for village panchayats.

In a strange decision, the state government did not notify the results of panchayat elections for close to three months. This delayed formal constitution of the panchayat and thereby BDC elections, which should have been held within 45 days of village panchayat polls. DPDB elections can be held only after the formation of BDC. To make matters worse, on October 14 the government indefinitely postponed BDC elections. “Without the three tiers in place, panchayat leaders can hardly do anything,” says Alam. “This is where the political will to empower panchayats is doubted.”

In fact, the 14 state departments are yet to hand over their functions to village panchayats. Under the state Panchayati Raj Act, the block planning officer should have called a meeting of the panchayat representatives immediately after the formation of village panchayats, and handed over their responsibilities. But no such meeting has been called, according to a memo issued by the Rural Development Department in July to the additional district development commissioners, who are responsible to oversee transfer of responsibilities. This means the first step of devolution of power has not taken place.

In the absence of BDC and DPDB, village panchayats are without any dedicated budget to take up development work.

Since the polls in 2011, the state government has presented two budgets. But panchayats did not find mention in any of them, and the government departments continue to control budgets for all the panchayat functions.

This swung the tide against the elected members. “Now both people and militants target us,” says Mir. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs has on several occasion warned the state government on the law and order fallout of delayed empowerment. The ministry’s latest letter to the state government in the first week of September notes: “The delay in constituting block committees and district councils had left the panchayat heads without the power due to them, besides making them vulnerable to terrorist outfits opposed to grassroots empowerment in the valley. The latest trend of targeting of panchayat heads has only added to the disenchantment and led to the spate of resignations.”

More than the threats from militants, the panchayat leaders are worried about their credibility and election promises. On September 28, Afroz Ahmed War, sarpanch of Warpora in militant hotbed Sopore, resigned through an advertisement. “I didn’t resign due to militant threats. I couldn’t do anything for my community in the past 16 months and have lost credibility,” he says. Flashing records of his trips to the faraway block development office to push for water supply in his panchayat, a promise he made to win, War says, “I visited the office a hundred times but to no avail. Fear of militants is just an opportunity to wash my hands of this experiment.”

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FUNCTIONS Hands over 29 functions to panchayats Not specific about devolution of 11 of the functions
 
ELECTIONS Mandates direct election to all tiers of local governance Allows direct election to only village panchayat
 
ADMINISTRATIVE MECHANISM Mandates setting up of State Election Commission to hold regular elections The state does not have an election commission. This makes elections to panchayat uncertain
 
GOVERNMENT INTERFERENCE The government retains no power to nominate members to local bodies The state retains the power to nominate as many members as it feels are needed


In the Janwara panchayat, sarpanch Abdul Rashid Mir is about to resign, but as he insists, “not due to threats from militants”. Soon after winning, Mir took up road construction work under MGNREGA. For the first time in a decade his village saw some development work. “But people have not received wages for six months,” he says. Mir made several trips to the block office to meet concerned officials, which cost him both money and time. In the last week of October he finally met the public health department engineer, whose signature was required to clear the wages. “He told me, ‘Why don’t you resign? You will be free’,” says Mir. He is now back to working full time in his apple orchard.

Add to this the lack of basic infrastructure for panchayats. Of the 4,128 panchayats, 1,788 do not have office. “We just roam around. Government officials don’t come to us, citing non-availability of place to meet,” says Riaz Ahmed Baba, a panch of Hatlangoo. Although they are entitled to Rs 600 a month to rent an office, many say they have not received any money. The state government recently pooled funds from the Backward Region Grant Fund and MGNREGA to build panchayat offices.

But there is no clear land allocation for this and several panchayats face opposition from the revenue department.

Who wants to share power anyway

In the absence of panchayats in the last 30 years, the state evolved a mechanism called District Planning Board. It gave enormous powers to MLAs. The board has now been merged with DPDB. Sensing loss of influence after the elections held on non-party basis, political parties scrambled to bring in as many panchayats under their folds as possible. MLAs became respective party’s point person to cajole panchayat members to join them or face repercussions. Panchayats now face the onslaught of the deep rooted nexus between MLAs and government officials.

“Every time I go to officials with village development plans, they ask for recommendations of MLAs as was the case earlier,” says Ali Mohammad Lone, sarpanch of Hatlangoo. When he met the MLA, he said interest of his party workers comes first. Lone has not been able to implement any work in his panchayat. He plans to change his party affiliation to please the MLA.

   
  Panchayat leaders say they are being treated as a threat to the established MLA raj in the state  
 
 
“The panchayat leaders are being treated as a threat to the established MLA raj in the state,” says Mir. Even the chief minister admitted this: “MLAs don’t want to cede their powers. They are the threat to panchayats.” During a debate in the Assembly on October 8, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, former deputy chief minister and leader of the opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), said, “There are many indicators that suggest political mischief beyond militancy.”

With the declaration of BDC elections (now postponed), political parties had intensified their hunt for panchayat members’ affiliation. For anybody can contest for the BDC chairperson’s post, though he or she has to be voted by panchayat members. Political parties usually field their candidates for the post to influence the block’s overall development budget. “Panchayats have become the new pool of voters that can be captured through sarpanchs. Political parties started influencing them, keeping in mind the Assembly elections in 2014,” says a senior state government official.

The competition is intense between the ruling alliance and PDP, which claims that majority of the panchayat leaders are affiliated to it. “Of the 17,960 panchs and sarpanchs in the valley, 8,600 belong to PDP,” claims Baig. But going by the state Panchayati Raj Act, the government can still nominate its people to key positions like chairpersons of BDC and DPDB. Small wonder, except the ruling alliance partner National Conference, all political parties advocate for changes in the state law to free panchayats from government influence.

The most vocal demand is adoption of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution that ensures direct elections to all tiers of panchayats and their autonomy. The National Conference and the chief minister in particular have been opposing this move, citing violation of the state’s autonomy under the Article 370 of the Constitution. In fact, this is the most contentious issue between the alliance partners. The Congress has been promising implementation of the Central Panchayati Raj Act since the 1996 Assembly elections. “The 73rd Amendment must be adopted, in letter or spirit, to empower panchayats in the state,” says Saifuddin Soz, the Congress head in the state.

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PDP though opposes the amendment, suggests similar changes to the state law through a private Panchayati Raj Bill. Communist leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami has also introduced a private bill, calling for election of the chairperson and vice-chairperson of DPDB by sarpanchs. The opposition party at the Centre, Bharatiya Janata Party, demands adoption of the 73rd Amendment. In the past five months, panchayat leaders have also started demanding adoption of the 73rd Amendment. They contend that the amendment will not violate the state’s autonomy because the government has already adopted several Central laws. “It is for the first time in the state that a Central law has received such local support. The amendment will help protect panchayat leaders against militants,” says Mir.

State’s obsession with flawed law

The state’s panchayat system, adopted before the Central Panchayati Raj Act of 1992, suffers from government domination at all levels. Unlike the Central law, the state law mandates direct election to only village panchayats and indirect elections to block and district panchayats. Neither BDC nor DPDB comprises directly elected people’s representatives. Yet they are endowed with the supreme power of decision making. In DPDB, for instance, the government nominates the chairperson. Usually, a Cabinet minister or an MLA is nominated to this post. “As per practice, the meeting of the board is attended by senior ministers, including the chief minister and senior bureaucrats,” says Rekha Chowdhary, political analyst with Jammu University. “Their presence cannot allow the district-level panchayat to be a democratic body, independent of governmental control and influence.” The vice-chairperson having no role is elected, though indirectly. “At present DPDB is an appendage of the government,” Baig says.

Besides, in all the three tiers, the respective secretary is a government official who exercises control over finance. “This is a strange arrangement for local self-governance. It gives government nominee more power than the elected ones,” says Alam. If the Central laws are adopted, the state will have to do away with nomination and indirect election.

   
  For the first time a Central law (73rd Amendment) has received big support in Jammu and Kashmir  
 
 
Just before the panchayat polls in 2011, the government set up a high-level committee headed by chief secretary Madhav Lal to recommend devolution of power. The committee recommended abolition of the nomination provision, but said, it should be applicable to the next elected panchayat in 2016.

Anil Sharma, general secretary of Panchayat Coordination Committee, formed to coordinate the state panchayats’ struggle to gain power, says, “Our demand is to allow only panchs and sarpanchs to contest the BDC elections. This will effectively eliminate external influences on the block body.”

The 73rd Amendment also recommends setting up institutions like state election commission and state finance commission, and auditing of panchayat accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Such statutory bodies curtail government’s whimsical ways of dealing with panchayats. The state recently set up a finance commission but not as per the 73rd Amendment. The commission devolves financial powers to district panchayats but remains silent about village panchayats. The Amendment will give financial security to village panchayats. Similarly, the state does not have an election commission. Without this the state retains monopoly over when to hold elections. Since 2006, for five years, there was no elected panchayat in place. “The 73rd Amendment brings in a lot of Central provisions, demanding accountability from the state government. So the resistance is high,” says a secretary to the government.

Abdul Khaliq, a 68-year-old sarpanch of Botingoo, the village of separatist leader Abdul Ghani Bhat, is a living chronicler of the state’s troubled history of local governance. He was a sarpanch in 1971. “That time we didn’t have much work as per the law. Now we have work but I am helpless,” he says. This sense of helplessness among panchayat leaders is palpable across the valley. During conversations they often refer to the rigged Assembly elections in 1987. The election is regarded as the turning point in the valley’s history. Many of those who were winning but were fraudulently declared losers are now key separatist leaders. Geelani is one among them. “A similar situation is arising with the government’s resistance to panchayat leaders,” says Mir, hinting at the revival of militant activities.

On October 17, panchayat leaders gave the government a deadline to put the three-tier system in place by November. Unlike the 1987 Assembly elections, the 2011 panchayat polls saw unparalleled participation. And this was not for self-determination but self-governance with Constitutional stamp. Khaliq hesitates to hazard a guess on future but says, “Our elders have taught us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

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