For Kashmir panchayats, an endless wait for powers

Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir government says it is gradually devolving powers to the grassroots level in the state, but the ground reality appears somewhat different.

With an average voter participation of over 75 percent, panchayat elections were held in the state in April 2011 after over a decade. The polls took place against the backdrop of the 2010 summer unrest, in which 110 people were killed in violent clashes between the security forces and unruly mobs.

Undeterred by cynics questioning the state government’s decision to hold the elections under such circumstances and braving separatist threats, nominations for the posts of panches and sarpanches (village council heads) were filed for the 2011 elections, which were fought on a non-party basis.

After more than a year of getting elected, these elected representatives of the local self-government are feeling toothless as they do not have the powers to fulfil the expectations of their voters.

“I was elected with an overwhelming majority. I promised change in my village. But now I go from one office to another with officers tossing my demands like a football,” said Abdul Rehman Mir, sarpanch of a village in Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s Ganderbal assembly constituency.

Although Abdullah has promised to work towards complete devolution of powers to the grassroots level, his own ministers are resisting the move.

“I fail to understand why we should resist the devolution of powers to the panchayats when it makes our job easier with lesser public problems to deal with,” said a senior minister, speaking on condition of anonymity on the plea that this was a touchy issue for the state’s political class.

While the state government claimed that the 2011 panchayat elections were a major success, absence of the much needed power to the elected representatives has apparently made the entire exercise futile.

“I do not have any legal authority to intervene in official matters… There is nothing in black and white. Although some officers at block and tehsil levels listen to us and try to help, others simply ignore our requests,” said Ghulam Rasool Bhat, a sarpanch from the central Badgam district.

However, some officials claim the elected representatives of local self-government are acting as brokers in rural development programmes to make quick money.

“The panches and sarpanches have become major beneficiaries of national rural programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).”

“They supervise muster sheets and manipulate these to benefit themselves and their relatives. I suspect that a massive racket is already going on in the implementation of the scheme in our villages,” said a state government official, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“The legislators in the state are not used to sharing powers with village level representatives. Devolution of powers to panchayats means sharing authority and every legislator in the state is not comfortable with this idea.”

This ego clash is also responsible for the inordinate delay in the devolution of powers, said Harbans Nagokay, a senior journalist from Jammu.

Whether the elected representatives are trying to make hay or they are feeling let down due to lack of authority to serve their people, the fact of the matter is that those who voted for them are already disappointed over the situation.

“It has made absolutely no difference in our lives,” said Abdul Majid, 65, a resident of Ganderbal district.


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