Let grassroots grow

Here's a disturbing fact for anyone wishing strong grassroots governance in Kashmir: after the success of the 2011 panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which saw a voter turnout of 79 per cent, about 1,244 sarpanchs and panchs have resigned. This includes the recent wave of unofficial resignations through newspaper advertisements. Fear is taking its toll, with about six panchayat members killed since the 2011 polls and several others injured in separate attacks. But there are deep structural and operational weaknesses in J&K panchayati raj institutions that have contributed to disillusionment among panchayat members.

The structural defects have roots in the Panchayati Raj Act, 1989. The 2004 amendment guaranteeing gender-based reservations and the 2011 amendment to provide for a state election commissioner have failed to make panchayats units of decentralised governance. Unlike the 73rd Constitutional amendment, the panchayats are not structured at all the three levels — village, district and intermediate — and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah rejected the demands for the extension of the 73rd amendment on the grounds that it eroded the state's autonomy, guaranteed by Article 370. With a government official acting as panchayat secretary at all the three levels, the state has hampered the self-governing structure and the functioning of panchayats. This undercuts the idea of decentralising planning through democratic, rather than administrative, structures and makes the panchayats virtually powerless.

Operationally, the absence of funding is crucial. Panchayats have been able to carry out only a limited amount of work through centrally sponsored schemes. They depend on funds from the same administrative agencies that have practically failed to deliver governance in Kashmir. Some analysts claim that the panchayats were instituted, not in order to strengthen grassroot politics, but out of fear that the large central funds reserved for such bodies would be lost otherwise.

The empowerment of panchayats requires fundamental changes in the administrative set-up, especially in rural Kashmir, with the transfer of functions, staff support and resources. There is no process to raise adequate funds, neither is there any source of income which guarantees them financial resources. No institution of self governance can perform meaningfully with such paltry resources. This is especially important for a state like J&K, where resources are scarce and need to be spent efficiently if they are to have a positive impact on development and on the quality of people's lives.

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