LEAVING THE Centre and the J&K administration red-faced, members of the newly elected District Development Councils from all parties, including the BJP, boycotted a two-day training and workshop programme in Jammu Tuesday and jointly staged a demonstration seeking better status and facilities.
The immediate trigger for the protest was the revised warrant of precedence issued Monday that placed DDC chairpersons on par with administrative secretaries or divisional commissioners, vice-chairpersons with vice-chancellors of universities and members with district magistrates.
But the agitation captured the growing anxiety among members, who were elected two-and-a-half months ago, about “lack of powers” in the councils that are being showcased by the Centre as the first step for J&K to return to the political mainstream.
The Indian Express spoke to several newly elected DDC members cutting across party lines in Jammu and the Valley and found a groundswell of anger and despair about the lack of clarity — from the delay in formulating norms to being ignored by the local administration and lack of basic office space.
“It has been a long time since we took oath but the government is yet to delegate powers to us. In fact, the Government has failed to even formulate rules and regulations for the DDC councils to work. There has been no ground work prior to these elections,” said Bari Andrabi, the DDC chairperson for Pulwama. Andrabi, a PDP member, contested the election for the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD).
Monday’s order, for instance, made it clear that the new protocol for DDC members, including their chairpersons and vice chairpersons, “is meant purely for state and ceremonial occasions’’. “We will not talk with anybody unless the Government revokes the revised warrant of precedence,’’ senior BJP leader and Jammu DDC chairperson Bharat Bhushan said.
“The administration has insulted us by lowering the status of DDCs and its members. Where are the powers Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised before the first DDC elections? The Government has adopted the Puducherry model of Panchayati Raj and there, DDC chairpersons enjoy the status of Cabinet ministers and vice chairpersons of Ministers of State,’’ Bhushan said.
The latest order has fixed the monthly honorarium of a DDC chairperson at Rs 35,000, a vice chairperson at Rs 25,000 and a member at Rs 15,000, including Rs 1,500 as travel allowance and Rs 500 for telephone charges.
But another BJP leader and chairperson of Samba DDC, Keshav Dutt Sharma, accused the Government of being “discriminatory”. “While the heads of Ladakh Hill Development Councils in Leh and Kargil districts have been given status of Cabinet ministers, DDC chairpersons in J&K have been equated with administrative secretaries and divisional commissioners,” he said.
“Even the Mayors of Srinagar and Jammu enjoy the status of Minister of State,’’ said Budgam DDC chairperson Nazir Ahmad Khan, who had won as an Independent candidate.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Ganderbal DDC chairperson Nuzhat Ishfaq, an NC member who was elected as a PAGD candidate, said: “All of us are perturbed. The people have voted us to power, they come to us for their work. But we are unable to help them. Nobody is listening to us, not even a Block Development Officer.”
The results of the DDC elections were announced on December 22 last year, and those elected took oath in the last week of December. In the first week of February, the members elected chairpersons for the councils — each DDC has 14 elected members — to complete the process.
“But even now, the government is silent on our powers and roles,” said Khan, the Budgam chairperson.
“A Block Development Council chairperson and a DDC member have the same jurisdiction. How can you have two representatives for the same jurisdiction? Who will have financial and administrative powers? The government needs to answer these questions,” he said.
In the Valley, where they face threats from militants, DDC members complain about lack of accommodation and security. “The astonishing fact is that the government is yet to allocate offices to us,” said Safeena Beig, an independent candidate who was elected as chairperson of Baramulla DDC.
“Several members have expressed their apprehensions to me. This is the first political outreach from the Government towards the people of J&K after the abrogation of special status. The people have high expectations. I appeal to the Government: let’s not squander this chance as well,” she said.
The BJP members, meanwhile, are planning to seek the intervention of MoS PMO Jitindera Singh. “Nearly 200-300 people come to our homes daily with their issues. We offer them tea, engage in some gossip, and they go back. In the absence of powers and facilities, we can only do that,’’ said Bhushan.
J&K’s Secretary, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Sheetal Nanda, did not respond to calls and text messages seeking comment.
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