With all senior political leaders including Mehbooba Mufti released, the Centre on Saturday 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.
Each district will be divided into 14 territorial constituencies for which elections will be held, and the winners will elect a chairperson and a vice-chairperson from amongst themselves. The councils will replace the District Development Boards, which earlier (when J&K was a state) were chaired by a Cabinet Minister or a Minister of State and included MLAs, MLCs and Members of Parliament.
The DDC will comprise elected representatives from 14 territorial constituencies to be identified in each district. It will have jurisdiction over the entire district excluding parts under the municipal corporation. Each will have a fund comprising grants and its own resources. The Block Development Councils will function under the DDC.
When J&K was a state, the DDBs were the centrepiece of the planning and development architecture, and all funding to districts were routed through the development plan approved by them. The resources for the plan were drawn from the state Budget and also included allocations made under various Centrally Sponsored Schemes.
Sources in the administration said the notification for holding elections to the 14 territorial constituencies in each district may be issued within a week or 10 days.
A senior official in the Union Territory told The Indian Express that this would empower the third tier of the government — the local bodies, and was aimed at deepening the political process at the local level. But some other observers said this essentially disempowered the second tier of the government (the state or UT) and suggests that Assembly elections in the UT may not happen anytime soon.
While Omar Abdullah of National Conference said the party was still understanding the implications of the amendment, senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar said this would spell the end of politics. “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 later so that nobody would know who is in-charge. In such a scenario, the ultimate arbiter would be bureaucrat and the security set-up,” Akhtar said. A senior NC leader, who did not wish to be named, said the decision would have far-reaching consequences, especially in reducing the role of MLAs.
According to officials in the administration, it was important to conceive a structure at the local level to kick start the political process now that all mainstream political leaders had been released. “Some MLAs have indicated their willingness to contest the DDC elections,” said an official, who did not wish to be named.
Besides the 14 directly-elected representatives, the DDCs will also include MLAs (as and when Assembly elections are held) and Chairpersons of Block Development Councils within the district.
The first step towards the constitution of the DDCs will be the delimitation of the 14 constituencies. The Deputy Commissioners will be responsible for dividing the area within the jurisdiction of a DDC into 14 single-member territorial constituencies. There will be reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women in accordance with the provisions of the (Panchayati Raj) Act.
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 the 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.
The DDCs will be elected for a period of five years and the Additional District Development Commissioner (ADCs) of the District shall be the Chief Executive Officer of the District Development Council. Each DDC will form five standing committees: finance, development, public works, health and education, and welfare.
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Meanwhile, every district will also have a District Planning Committee, with Members of Parliament representing the area as chairpersons. The committee will comprise 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; district statistics and evaluation officer as well as the chief planning officer.
This 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 upliftment of the district. The committee’s powers will also include formulation of periodic and annual plans and formulating and finalising the plan and non-plan budget for each district.
J&K is also set to hold by-polls for nearly 13,000 vacant panch and sarpanch seats in November. Of the 39,521 sarpanch/ panch constituencies in 4,483 Halqa Panchayats for which elections were conducted in November-December 2018, 13,257 positions are presently vacant due to resignations, removals, election of sarpanchs as Block Development Council Chairpersons, deaths as well as non-availability of candidates at the time of election.