By Sant Kumar Sharma
In an apparent effort at deepening the grassroots democracy in Jammu and Kashmir, elections to panchayats were announced on Sunday. During these elections, ballot papers will be used, Chief Electoral Officer Shaleen Kabra said in Srinagar.
Elections to panchayat will be completed in nine phases. Dates for casting votes will be November 17, November 20, November 24, November 27, November 29, December 1, December 4, December 8 & December 11.
The polling will be held on the respective dates from 8 am to 3 pm.
According to the schedule for these elections, gazette notification for the first phase will be issue on October 23. The dates for next phases will be October 26, October 29, November 1, November 3, November 6, November 9, November 12 and November 14.
Last dates for filing of nominations will also be staggered phase-wise, starting with October 30 being the last date for filing nominations for the first phase of polling. For the ninth and last phase of polling, the last date for filing nominations will be November 22.
It is now clear that the boycott by two major regional parties, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has not deterred Governor Satya Pal Malik from going ahead with the elections. These parties derive their strength from the Kashmir province mainly.
The bulk of legislators of the PDP, having 28 MLAs, were returned victorious in Kashmir. Similarly, most of 15 MLAs of the NC are also from the Kashmir valley.
In the Jammu region, out of 37 Legislative Assembly constituencies, the BJP had won from 25 seats. One seat, that of Udhampur, was bagged by Independent Pawan Gupta. The rest of 11 seats were divided between the Congress, the NC and the PDP, with the Congress ahead of the two other parties.
Of the four seats in the Ladakh region, the Congress had remained ahead of all other parties. It had won the two main seats of Leh and Kargil.
Incidentally, the political complexion of the three regions has metamorphosed a lot from ending-2014 when the elections for the Legislative Assembly were held last. This is to say that the voting patterns are likely to vary widely from these elections.
Usually, elections to the panchayats are keenly contested and the percentage of voting recorded is also higher as compared to the assembly or Lok Sabha elections. This is mainly due to the reason that in smaller panchayat constituencies, the candidates campaign more vigorously. Higher polling percentage in these elections is partly attributed to closer ties the candidates have with their electorates.
The elections to panchayats were last held in 2011 and the panchayats constituted then had completed their tenure in 2016. After that, no elections were held for the panchayats though assembly elections are being held regularly since 1996. These were later held in 2002, followed by 2008 and then 2014, more or less at regular intervals of six years.
It needs to be noted here that tenure of panchayats in J&K is five years only as elsewhere in India. However, the legislators has increased the tenure of the Legislative Assembly during Sheikh Abdullah’s time.
If the panchayat elections were held as regularly as assembly and Lok Sabha elections, from 1996 onwards, these elections should have been held five times till 2018. Unfortunately, these grassroots democratic institutions have remained largely neglected and disempowered.
The reason for their dis-empowerment is mainly the reluctance of legislators to share power with them. This also is the reason why successive governments have not implemented 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in J&K. These laws empower grassroots democracy with financial powers devolving to the lowest level, the villages and urban local bodies (ULBs).
It bears mention here that under the Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, the panchayats in the state can be given more powers than their counterparts throughout India. On paper, J&K is the most autonomous state of the Indian Union but in fact gives the least autonomy to its own institutions.
This paradox is baffling since most state governments drop the word autonomy too often in any discussions at the national level. The officials, as also politicians, also quote a chronic resource crunch.
The fact is that empowering panchayats and ULBs will lead to a massive fund inflow from the Centre to these bodies. However, these funds will not be routed through the state government and accrue directly to the elected representatives of panchayats and ULBs. These representatives can prioritise the expenditure, without any reference to MLAs, or MPs.
The panchayats that existed between 2011 and 2016 received Rs 1 lakh each only once during this period. This comes to Rs 20,000 per annum for each panchayat. Panchayats elsewhere in India received, up to Rs 10 lakh per annum in many cases.
Legislators in J&K fear that once panchayats and ULBs are flush with Central funds, their representatives will care little for them. Presently, legislators of various political parties keep representatives of panchayats and ULBs on their toes by tightly controlling the funds released for development works.
All this may change drastically if the panchayats and ULBs are truly empowered in J&K. These bodies will not remain financial liabilities for the state government then.