For weeks, they waited for people to turn up at their office and file ‘objections’ to the draft electoral rolls. No one came.
“No one is prepared for these polls,” says a senior official at the Block Development Office at Sangrama in North Kashmir’s Sopore town.
Sitting in his office on the Srinagar-Baramulla national highway, the official adds, “The announcement came as a bolt from the blue.”
On August 31, the J&K State Administrative Council, headed by Governor Satya Pal Malik, announced that panchayat polls would be conducted in the state in eight phases between November 8 and December 4.
But recently, after the National Conference announced that it would boycott the local polls if the Centre failed to clear its stand on Article 35A, which provides special rights to permanent residents of J&K, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also said that it would “stay away from the electoral exercise at this juncture”.
The political developments, the escalation of violence across the Valley and threats from militants have left voters in fear and made the work of district officers difficult.
Inside a cramped room at the Sangrama office, three officials are sorting out the draft electoral rolls, which were finalised on September 11. “We kept waiting for people to file objections such as the addition of a name or deletion if someone has passed away. There were very few,” says one of the officials.
For years, Sopore has been the hotbed of militancy in north Kashmir. It witnessed the lowest turnout in the previous municipal, panchayat and state Assembly polls. With a population of 44,749, Sangrama has 24,369 votes and 15 panchayats. The Block will elect 129 panches and 15 sarpanches.
Panchayat polls have not been held in the state since 2011.
Through the day, people turn up at the Sangrama office but only with queries about local projects, not the polls. “These issues would have been resolved at panchayats, but in their absence, we have to shoulder these responsibilities,” says the senior official.
He recounts a recent trip to Ringi village, seven km away, to set up a camp for voters. “Since no one was coming to the office, we decided to go and ask them about their objections to the electoral rolls,” he says. “We waited at the panchayat ghar for over two-and-a-half hours, but only five men and two women showed up. They wanted to add names of their children. Even they said they were not going to vote in the polls and were only registering for voter cards as it is an identity proof,” he adds.
Soon, a BJP worker from Chandkote village and a former deputy sarpanch arrives at the office. “Who will come out to vote in these circumstances? Forget voting, where will they get candidates for these polls,” he says.
The candidates have not been finalised yet.
Dismissing his party’s instructions to prepare for the polls, the BJP worker adds, “Militants have issued threats. Why will anybody stick their necks out? The government has done little for sarpanches.”
Later, he clarifies that he isn’t visiting the office for the polls. “I just want to know if the funds for the construction of the drain in my area have been released,” says the 50-year-old.
Late in the afternoon, the senior official receives a call informing him that the Sopore police “are not satisfied with the selection of a few of the polling stations.”
“We have 129 polling stations but we have been getting calls for clubbing stations because it is difficult to provide security at some of the places,” says the officer. “While identifying a polling station we have to keep in mind the population of the area, number of voters… We also have to ensure that the voters don’t have to travel for more than two km to get to the booth. A tentative list is then drawn up and it is forwarded to the Deputy Commissioner, who takes it up with the police for security inputs. The list is then finalised,” he explains.
Later, as he prepares to leave for a meeting, the official says, “These are election days and there are no official timings, no holidays. We have been working on Sundays as well. Yesterday, our meeting started at 6.30 pm and went on till late into the night”.