Centre banks on J&K panchayats but sarpanchs are restive and waryhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/centre-banks-on-jk-panchayats-but-sarpanchs-are-restive-and-wary-6029778/

Centre banks on J&K panchayats but sarpanchs are restive and wary

Many put up in hotels, militant fear keeps them away from home.

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Even as the Centre and the state governments showcased the panchayat elections as one of their major accomplishments in Jammu and Kashmir, there has been little forward movement in the past nine months to strengthen the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI).

In September last year, Abdul Rashid Dar was picked up by militants from his home at Pinglish Tral in Pulwama district. While a group beat him up, another filmed a video that went viral. In the video, the militants asked Dar to stay away from elections and asked him to force his son, a special police officer (SPO), to resign. A former sarpanch, he agreed and also apologised.

Two months later, Dar was the only sarpanch from his panchayat halqa (each panchayat halqa includes around 8-10 wards) to contest the elections held in J&K after a gap of three years. But there was no contest, he was elected unopposed.

For nine months, Dar has been staying put at a hotel in uptown Srinagar that is home also to some 180 panch and sarpanch from different parts of valley – Sopore, Baramulla, Kupwara, Budgam and Pulwama.

Now that the government has issued notification for the Block Development Council (BDC) polls in the state – for the first time in its history – Dar calls it a “farce”.

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“I am a single elected sarpanch in my panchayat and the government is yet to notify my name,” he says. “I have put my life on line by defying militant threats. How would they conduct BDC elections when most panch and sarpanch seats are vacant? Why don’t they conduct by-polls for the panchayats first?”

Even as the Centre and the state governments showcased the panchayat elections as one of their major accomplishments in Jammu and Kashmir, there has been little forward movement in the past nine months to strengthen the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI).

Official figures reveal that 61% of panch wards in the Valley are vacant. Of the total 18,833 panch wards, panch have been elected only in 7,596 wards. The government, however, has notified only 7,308 panch, since in the balance 288 panchayats, only one panch was elected.

Similarly 45 per cent sarpanch wards too are vacant. Of the 2,375 sarpanch wards in the Valley, 1,558 have been elected and only 1,311 notified.

In fact, most panch and sarpanch have been elected without a contest. Of the 7,596 panch elected in the Valley, more than 3,500 have been elected unopposed. Amongst sarpanch, 530 were elected unopposed out of 1,558 elected panch.

Those elected also feel deceived. Nine months later, the panch and sarpanch say even though the government “promised the heaven”, funds have not started flowing into schemes.

“It has been almost nine months, but I haven’t spent a single rupee as of now. It is true for most of us,” says Mehraj-ud-din Rather, a panch from north Kashmir’s Baramulla district. Like Dar, he is also putting up at a Srinagar hotel. “It is true that money has come into the accounts of some of us recently, but nothing has been utilised so far. Many among us have already submitted the plans (development work plans), but government approvals are awaited.”

A senior official of the Rural Development Department (RDD) agrees. “The process of approval is multi-tier. After consultation of panch and sarpanch, the panchayat submits a plan to the (Block Development Officer) BDO. After collecting all the plans from his block, the BDO forwards it to District Planning Officer (DPO), who in turn forwards it to the District Development Commissioner for final approval,” he says.

“While it is a fact that we haven’t spent any money so far, it is also true that execution of work has started in some panchayats, around 10 percent, especially in Baramulla, Kupwara and Shopian districts,” said a senior official, who did not want to be named.

While the government agrees that money is yet to be spent in the Valley, it says a big portion of the money has already been released for the panchayats.

“Under the Fourteenth Finance Commission, we have earmarked Rs 3,000 crore for the panchayats,” Secretary Panchayat and Rural Development Sheetal Nanda told The Indian Express. “Of this, we have already released Rs 1,300 crores so far to the panchayats.”

Hamza Mir, a 70-year-old panch from Batagund in Tral says his works plan has been approved – a rare case – but work has not started yet. “I can’t go to my village to get the work executed,” he says sitting in the Srinagar hotel. “Only last week, my son came to meet me here and asked me not to visit the village. How could I get the works executed? It can happen if only I am provided security.”

For the government, the security to panch and sarpanch is also turning out to be a major headache. Hundreds of them have been accommodated in hotels in Srinagar. Mir is one of them.

Officials say they have hired at least four hotels in Srinagar for the panch and sarpanch – a room each for two panch or sarpanch. In one such hotel in uptown Srinagar, around 180 panch and sarpanch from Baramulla, Kupwara, Budgam and Pulwama, are staying for the past nine months. Another hotel at high security Indira Nagar, Srinagar has been reserved for the migrant Pandit panch and sarpanch, who contested from south Kashmir.

“In these nine months, I have not spent even a single night in my village,” says Nisar Ahmad Bhat, a sarpanch from Khigam in Pulwama. “I have visited my village a few times only during the day and have not stayed there for more than a few hours.”

Bhat, who is a BJP sarpanch and recently met the Union Home Minister in New Delhi, praises the arrangements made by the government for their hotel stay but some of his colleagues disagree.

“Our life revolves around this hotel room,” says Rather, who has spent two years in jail in 2006 under PSA. “In jail, you have all basic amenities; a doctor visits you once a week. But here, we are cramped in a room without any amenities. All we get is rice and dal.”

Staying away from their villages has only compounded the problem for these grass root democracy representatives. “We go to our block office once a week or a fortnight. Usually the concerned official is absent that day,” says Rather, a panch from Krankshivan village of Sopore. “How can we follow our cases staying in a hotel 50 km away?”

The government has not yet opened joint bank accounts for the panchayats. An official of the Rural Development Department says that the panchayats have to make separate bank account for each scheme they conceive. A sarpanch and a panchayat secretary – a government employee – are the joint account holders. “There are 21 departments that come under the panchayats and the number of schemes is more than that,” he says. “But as of now, we have been able to open only two bank accounts for each panchayat – one for resource generation and the other for the 14th FC (financial commission).”

In panchayats that are without a panch and sarpanch, the government has appointed administrators – who are gazetted officers from any government department other than the Rural Development Department – to run them.

“In simpler terms, half the Valley would be run by the administrators as it was done before the conduct of panchayat polls,” says a RDD official. “In the earlier set-up, we had BDOs running the show, now we have administrators. Each administrator is given the jurisdiction of two to three panchayats.”

Of the 310 blocks that go to BDC polls, 168 belong to the Valley. Of these, elections won’t be held in six blocks – there is no panch or sarpanch elected in two blocks while no woman has been elected as a panch and sarpanch in four blocks reserved for women.

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With the situation in the Valley still fluid after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the government is now concerned about the participation of panch and sarpanch in the BDC polls.

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