A Panchayati Kashmir: The importance of holding the Panchayat polls

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Jammu, Feb 10 (ANI): Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah announced (on Twitter) yesterday that the State Cabinet had cleared, as expected, the holding of Panchayat Elections for the three-tier Panchayat structure in the state.

These elections will be completed by May in the state, in all likelihood immediately after the Budget session of the state legislature. The last Panchayat elections in the state were held in 2001, and before that, in 1978. Unlike other states of the country which have the three-tier Panchayat structure as per the provisions of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of 1992, Jammu and Kashmir has its own Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act of 1992, which is at variance with the 73rd Amendment.

As per the final electoral rolls prepared by the state's Chief Electoral Officer, the total number of electorate for these elections is 50,78,268 in the state - 25,18,639 in 12 districts of Kashmir division including Ladakh, and 25,59,629 in 10 districts of Jammu region. Out of these, nearly two lakh voters will be exercising their franchise for the first time. Following the updation of the electoral rolls, there are 77 Blocks, 2164 Panchayats and 15960 Panch constituencies in Kashmir, while the figures for the Jammu region are 143, 4131 and 29710 respectively.

The term of Panchayats formed through the 2001 polls ended in 2006, and despite continuous promises, no polls for the local bodies have been held since then. Because it has not held these elections, the state is unable to get central funds for rural development .

Rumours for holding these elections have gained a lot of momentum since 2009, with many dates floated - and discarded - in the last few months. There were differences within the ruling coalition, with the Congress party objecting to holding the elections under the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1992.

These differences seem to have been resolved with an agreement between the two ruling partners to commence holding these polls under the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1992, and implement 73rd Amendment in due course of time for subsequent phases of elections. This means that along with lowering age of the candidates to 21 years, a State Election Commission and a Finance Commission are likely to be constituted in the state soon.

During the Panchayat polls of 2001, very few Sarpanch and Panch constituencies in Kashmir Valley actually went to poll. Polling took place in 208 of a total of 2348 constituencies in Baramulla, 152 of 1695 constituencies in Kupwara and 53 of 759 constituencies in Srinagar. No poll was held in any of the 1022 constituencies of Badgam. This is explicable due to the extremely high level of terrorist violence in the state at that time, and the fear invoked due to the calls by the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Hurriyat Conference to boycott the polls. The 2001 elections, however, evoked an enthusiastic response in the Jammu and Ladakh regions with these two regions recording more than 75 percent voter turnout.

Over the last two decades, most political processes and institutions in the Kashmir valley have suffered from a crisis of credibility, if not of legitimacy. However, the high voter turnout in the last state assembly and parliamentary polls has negated that perception despite continued attempts by the separatists - and even the mainstream political opposition parties like the PDP - aided in good measure by mishandling of certain events by the Omar Abdullah government, to damage the credibility of the State.hile the Hurriyat Conference is certain to oppose the holding of these polls, there is a fair chance that the PDP may also issue a call to boycott the polls. The BJP, much like the Congress party, is insistent on the polls being held only after the 73rd Amendment is implemented in the state.

Despite loud protestations, it will however go ahead and participate in these polls. In fact, the public stance of the political parties won't count for much in the end because these polls are not held on party lines. This means that no party symbols are issued to the candidates. Bar a threat of violent retribution by the militants, the grassroot workers of almost all mainstream political parties, and even organisations like the Jamait-e-Islami and the Hurriyat Conference, are likely to participate in these elections in their individual capacity.

If conducted successfully, and in a visibly fair manner, the holding of these polls will lead to reinvigorating the political climate at the grassroots in the state. It will create a new strata of local leadership which will be a stakeholder in the political system. The successful conduct of the Panchayat polls is however only the first step. The real challenge will be to build the institutions and empower them to leverage the maximum benefits from this model of local self-governance.

These Panchayats would have to be meaningfully empowered through massive transfer of resources as well as administrative powers. When coupled with a grassroots level approach of participatory planning whereby the developmental programmes are identified and implemented through the Panchayats, these institutions can emerge as effective agencies for the implementation of developmental programmes.

The Panchayati Raj system, if implemented correctly, is perhaps the best way to connect the existing structures of governance in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to the aspirations and choices of the people. Conducting peaceful and fair elections to the Panchayats is a necessary, but not sufficient first step in actualising that process. o quote Aristotle's favourite proverb, "Well begun is half done." (ANI)

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: Sushant K Singh heads the national security programme at the Takshashila Institution. The views expressed in the above article are that of Sushant K Singh.

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