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.

The basic problem, however, is the lack of political will to decentralise power. Legislators fear that their monopoly over voters is going to be eroded once a strong grassroots political class emerges. They fear that an empowered panchayat threatens their monopoly over the administrative affairs of the state. This undermines the idea of panchayats as an extension of federal logic and the third tier of the federal system. It also explains the inadequate government funding and the utter powerlessness of elected panchayat members.

The violence against panchayats has, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, demonstrated its instrumentality in creating a fear psychosis that contributed to the recent en masse resignations. The government maintains it is not possible to provide security to all 33,000 panchayat members. That, in a way, would also defeat the purpose of decentralisation, as it would lead to a kind of state appropriation of this lower level of governance. Panchayat members are an integral part of the day-to-day culture of villages. They should not be isolated and insulated from the community.

The key concern should be to depoliticise the panchayat system in the state. The major political parties, especially the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party, entered into a race to claim victory in the 2011 panchayat elections, grossly politicising the issue. This has resulted in an unhealthy system of political patronage, extended to various elected panchayat members. The sarpanches should be more a part of the community network than the government.

A sarpanch from central Kashmir's Budgam district, confided, on the condition of anonymity, that even if they got funds from the district administration, they had to run around for clearances. This disillusionment is widespread in the valley. The recent killings have only sharpened their opinion about government apathy.

Many panchayat bodies, including the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference (JKPC), have announced that they will not be cowed by the attacks. Indeed, most of them have not technically resigned, choosing to announce their intention to quit in the media. This might well be a way to pressure the Omar Abdullah government into providing them with a cause worth fighting for.

The writer is a research scholar at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, express@expressindia.com

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