From October 8 until December 11, Jammu & Kashmir will hold elections to local bodies. Both the municipal and the panchayat elections are being held after long delays, the former after 13 years. How has the absence of elected members affected the functioning of these local bodies? What kinds of contests are expected when the major regional parties have called for a boycott?
The elections and the delays
Municipal elections are being held for the first time since 2005. Over the last seven decades, these elections have been held only four times. The elections of 2005 took place after 27 years. The polls this year will be held in four phases, on October 8, 10, 13 and 16.
Panchayat elections will be held between November 17 and December 11, in nine phases. The term of the last panchayat bodies ended in July 2016. The outbreak of violence that month over the killing of Hizb-ul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani led to the elections being delayed.
The PDP-BJP government tried unsuccessfully to schedule elections from December 1, 2017. Elections were announced by former Governor N N Vohra after he took charge following the collapse of the coalition and the resignation of the government.
The visible costs of delay
Last week, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that in the absence of elected municipalities and panchayats, Jammu & Kashmir could not get any of the Rs 4,161 crore allocated to urban and rural local bodies by the 14th Finance Commission for the period 2015-20.
Issues taken up by local bodies, principally sanitation and solid waste management, have suffered. Srinagar is among the dirtiest cities in the country, with the constant traffic of tourists adding to the challenge.
In Jammu, a solid waste management project remains on the shelf despite the identification of nearly 200 kanals of land near Kot Bhalwal a couple of years ago. Seven places have been identified for multilevel parking to decongest Jammu city, but only one has been made operational. Tasks typically performed by the municipal corporation — street lights, food safety, keeping market spaces organised and encroachments at bay, small road and pavement works, municipal health facilities — have not got sufficient attention. The corporations are at present run by officials.
Former Jammu Mayor Narinder Singh recalled that during 2005-10, the elected corporation had collected over Rs 12 crore as building permission fees. After that five-year term ended, the corporation has not been able to collect even Rs 2 crore as files have remained pending for months together, even as unauthorised constructions and encroachments have continued unabated.
Development works under MGNREGA, formation of self-help groups in rural areas, and community sanitation have been hit by the absence of community involvement and elected panchayats. “Since we didn’t have elected panchayats, in the last two years we didn’t receive the Rs 1,100 crore meant for grassroots development,” Qazi Sarwar, Director, Rural Development, said.
The Ladakh region, comprising Leh and Kargil districts, has separate elected Hill Development Councils that take administrative decisions such as formulating a budget and development programmes. They decide how the district plan of the region is to be spent. In the absence of elected panchayats and urban bodies, the region has lost funds that are meant exclusively for these bodies. Also, representatives of the urban local bodies and panchayats have direct representation in the Hill Councils.
Boycott, security challenge
The elections are set to be a direct contest between the BJP and Congress, with the National Conference and PDP having boycotted the polls over the question of Article 35A of the Constitution. The provision, which provides special rights to permanent residents of the state, is facing a challenge in the Supreme Court. Militants and separatists have asked people to boycott the elections. In an audio message, Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo has said that those who want to contest the panchayat elections should buy a shroud together with their nomination form. The fear of militants is keeping people away, especially in South Kashmir. In 2005, the municipal polls turnout was 48%. In the panchayat polls in 2011, 80% turned out.