Two months after elections to urban local bodies concluded in Jammu and Kashmir, the elected councillors are unable to return to their homes and constituencies because of the “security situation” in the Valley. The J&K government has put up at least 120 councillors from Srinagar and other municipal bodies across Kashmir in private hotels in Srinagar. Since October, the state exchequer has been billed Rs 1.3 crore just for their accommodation.
But the financial cost may be the least of the administration’s worries. “For us, securing a hotel is easier than providing security (separately) to all the elected representatives at their homes,” a senior government official told The Indian Express.
On the banks of Dal lake, the government has hired a hotel, two wings of which are home to about 30 councillors of the newly-elected Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC).
Jamia Masjid councillor Saima has been living here since she filed her nomination. Her husband and two children stay with her. Barely furnished, the room has no heating, and the bathroom has no hot water. Saima secured 37 of the total 72 votes cast to be elected councillor.
“This is far from what we were told we would be given. We were promised accommodation, security, and a decent pay,” she says. Her husband, Mohammad Salim, who has been politically active since 2007, said, “When the mainstream parties boycotted the polls, people in our area forced us to contest. Having made that choice, we can’t even go home now.”
At present, 120 of these elected representatives from various urban bodies across Kashmir, including 48 SMC councillors are living in these hotels. The list also includes councillors and panches and sarpanches, primarily from the four south Kashmir districts of Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama.
Besides the hotels, at least 30 rooms of Srinagar’s high security MLA hostel were also vacated to accommodate the councillors.
The four-phase ULB elections were held in Jammu and Kashmir after 13 years to elect representatives to 79 municipal bodies in the state, including the municipal corporations of Srinagar and Jammu.
Apart from the separatists’ call to boycott the polls, two mainstream regional parties — the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party — did not participate, seeking first the Centre’s clarification on its stand on Article 35A in the Supreme Court. The polls recorded a turnout of 4.27 per cent, the lowest in any election held in the state since 1951. Independent candidates in Kashmir won in 178 wards across 42 municipal bodies, including Leh and Kargil; while the Congress won 157 wards, BJP candidates were elected in 100 wards.
Saima says she meets people from her area in the SMC office. “There are more people who come to us now than those who voted. I need to be in a position to help them. I am living in one room with my family, we are yet to receive our first salary as well,” she said.
Daulatabad councillor Zubair Ahmad Dar, also in the same hotel, manages to visit his house only once a week. “We have no fear of people, but the situation in the city is such that it is difficult to go home. I sometimes go late night and leave early,” he said. He lives alone at the hotel and like Saima, also meets people from his constituency at the SMC offices.
These councillors insist that more than official perks, it is about the “dignity” of their office. BJP councillor from Bagh-e-Mehtab, Basher Ahmad Mir, said “Given this threat perception, I have sent my family to Jammu.” Mir had secured eight of the nine votes polled in his constituency. “When they announced these elections, people put their lives on the line. We were promised security and facilities. None of the promises have been fulfilled. We are living in one-room apartments and even within the SMC office, there is much that needs to be done.”
Srinagar Mayor Junaid Mattu told The Indian Express that councillors contested elections in a highly-stigmatised environment, but keeping them in hotels is a need borne out of security concerns. “And not just because of separatists but also because of the two mainstream parties (PDP and NC). They were kept in hotels after they filed nominations, for their own security and they cannot be abandoned now,” he said.
The councillors are also asking for honorariums to be brought at par with those of legislatures in the state. “We have asked for a salary revision. The current remuneration of Rs 6,000 is not acceptable or feasible,” Mattu said.