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District Development Councils (DDC): Why parties think this new layer of governance will kill politics in J&K

The District Development Councils (DDCs) are set to become a new unit of governance in Jammu and Kashmir. What is the Centre’s objective behind this new structure? How have mainstream political parties responded to this?

Written by Naveed Iqbal , Edited by Explained Desk | Srinagar | Updated: October 20, 2020 7:34:35 am
District Development Councils, Jammu and Kashmir District Development Councils, District Development Councils Jammu and Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir DDCs, DDC, Explained Politics, Express Explained, Indian ExpressMehbooba Mufti, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah speak to the reporters after their meeting on Gupkar declaration on Thursday, October 15, 2020.

The Centre on Saturday (October 17) amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, to facilitate the setting up of District Development Councils (DDC), the members of which will be directly elected by voters in the Union Territory.

What are DDCs and how will they be represented?

The District Development Councils (DDCs) are set to become a new unit of governance in Jammu and Kashmir. A legislation to this effect was brought in by the Ministry of Home Affairs on October 16 through an amendment to the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989. This structure will include a DDC and a District Planning Committee (DPC).

The J&K administration has also amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Rules, 1996, to provide for establishment of elected District Development Councils in J&K.

This system effectively replaces the District Planning and Development Boards in all districts, and will prepare and approve district plans and capital expenditure. Their key feature, however, is that the DDCs will have elected representatives from each district. Their number has been specified at 14 elected members per district representing its rural areas, alongside the Members of Legislative Assembly chairpersons of all Block Development Councils within the district.

The term of the DDC will be five years, and the electoral process will allow for reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. The Additional District Development Commissioner (or the Additional DC) of the district shall be the Chief Executive Officer of the District Development Council.

The council, as stated in the Act, will hold at least four “general meetings” in a year, one in each quarter.

What will be the process here onward?

The 14 constituencies for electing representatives to the DDC will have to be delimited. These constituencies will be carved out of the rural areas of the district, and elected members will subsequently elect a chairperson and a vice-chairperson of the DDC from among themselves.

The notification for the election is likely to be issued within the next 10 days. Meanwhile, J&K is also preparing for by-polls to over 13,000 vacant panchayat seats in November.

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Within the third tier, where do the DDCs fit in?

The DDCs replace the District Planning and Development Boards (DDBs) that were headed by a cabinet minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. For Jammu and Srinagar districts, as winter and summer capitals, the DDBs were headed by the Chief Minister. However, for Leh and Kargil districts, the Autonomous Hill Development Councils performed the functions designated for the DDBs.

The Councils will oversee the functions of the Halqa Panchayats and the Block Development Councils in tandem with the line departments of the Union Territory.

For every district there will be District Planning Committee comprising Members of Parliament representing the area, Members of the State Legislature representing the areas within the District, chairperson of the District Development Council of the District, chairpersons of the town area committees/municipal committees of the district; president of the municipal council/municipal corporation, if any; the district development commissioner; additional district development commissioner, among others. The MP will function as the chairperson of this committee.

The committee will “consider and guide” the formulation of development programmes for the district, and indicate priorities for various schemes and consider issues relating to the speedy development and economic uplift of the district; function as a working group for formulation of periodic and annual plans for the district; and formulate and finalise the plan and non-plan budget for the district.

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What was the earlier function of DDBs, and their composition?

The DDBs functioned as planning bodies, charting and formulating the district’s developmental plans. They functioned as working groups for the formulation of periodic and annual plans for the districts. All the funds provided by the government or any other agency, meant for the development of the district, would flow through the District Planning and Development Board as per the district plans.

The body used to meet once a year to deliberate and approve the district plans or oversee implementation of centrally sponsored schemes. Until 1998 the Deputy Commissioner of the district would head this committee, thereafter, elected members took charge of the body.

While the DDBs functioned under the chairmanship of a cabinet minister with MPS MLAs and MLC as members and the district’s Deputy Commissioner as its member secretary, the DDC will be headed by a chairman from among the elected representatives.

The scope of the functions of the DDCs have been amplified by the addition of the planning process being handed over directly to the elected representatives. Earlier, the DCs would prepare plans, and the DDBs would meet to approve them or make changes.

However, under this new system, with the Halqa Panchayat as the basic unit, the district’s yearly and five-yearly development plans will be finalised by a three-tier system of gram panchayats, Block Development Councils, and District Development Councils. The DDCs will receive plans from Block Development Councils and, after scrutiny, send them “for adherence to the Government guidelines, norms and rules” and submit the consolidated plan to the District Planning Committee.

Additionally the DDCs will form five standing committees, for Finance, Development, Public Works, Health And Education And Welfare.

What is the Centre’s objective behind this new structure?

The J&K administration in a statement said that the move to have an elected third tier of the Panchayati Raj institution marks the implementation of the entire 73rd Amendment Act in J&K. The idea is that systems that had been made defunct by earlier J&K governments such as the panchayati raj system are being revived under the Centre’s rule in the state through the Lieutenant Governor’s administration.

In the absence of elected representatives in the UT, senior government officials argue that DDCs will effectively become representative bodies for development at the grassroots in the 20 districts of the UT. They hope that this may draw some former legislators in as well.

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How have mainstream political parties responded to this?

This comes amid a deep trust deficit after the abrogation of special status, downgrade and splitting of the state and the sweeping detentions. Many consider this an attempt to replace and disempower the indigenous politics of Kashmir. They argue that “empowering grassroots cannot be at the cost of disenfranchising locals from legislating for themselves”.

The PDP has said that the Centre wants panchayat and block development, but does not want to give the people of J&K the right to frame their own laws. The party has also stated that there are “larger insecurities and concerns” such as those of demographic change that are not addressed by “such tokenism of democratic process”.

Senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar has said the move would spell the end of politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

“The aim is total depoliticisation so that there is no central collective voice. It is to cut to size the people of Jammu and Kashmir so that they don’t have a political voice. The aim is to sub-divide, overlap, create layer after layer, so that nobody would know who is in charge. In such a scenario, the ultimate arbiter would be the bureaucrats and the security set-up,” Akhtar said.

Other political parties, while not being opposed to greater involvement of local representatives, have questioned the need to set up such a structure in the absence of representatives to the state Assembly.

A senior member of the National Conference said the decision would have far-reaching consequences, especially in reducing the role of MLAs.

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So how should this development be understood overall?

The amendments are evidently intended to kickstart the political process in the Union Territory. The DDCs will be a first test – and the Centre may be calculating that getting enough people to contest the DDC elections would help weaken the Gupkar narrative, which in its third reiteration last week resulted in the coming together of a People’s Alliance of regional parties.

But for the DDC elections to achieve the Centre’s objectives, the exercise will need to be substantially different from the way the 2018 panchayat elections turned out. In that election, many candidates were not eager to admit they were contesting, and could not appear in public because they feared for their lives. Some of those who won because they were the only contestants in their Halqas, did not surface for months afterwards.

A democracy that has been only dressed up to give the impression of one can be expected to have limitations. India has the example of Sri Lanka in its neighbourhood, where an elected body with no powers except to lay roads and repair drains failed to satisfy the political aspirations that lie behind demands for greater autonomy.

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