All is not well  in Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils

The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), was conceived as an idea to decentralise and devolve, power and autonomy in regional affairs, to the otherwise least developed, alienated and isolated community of the Ladakh region. The LAHDC has been an outcome of the long struggle for autonomy by the Ladakh people. Originally, it was provided as a compromise to the long held demand for the Union Territory(UT) , championed by the Buddhists of the Leh district of the region . However, the people of the Kargil district of the region did not support the idea of UT as it inevitably involves, the probable division or disintegration of the state and also, in deference to its affinity with Kashmir valley in terms of  geography, economy and religion. It is to be noted, that in the absence of past economic links with Baltistan, Kargil due to its geographical contiguity with  Kashmir has deep economic links with Srinagar. For variety of reasons the union government did not conceded to the UT demand. However, it did concede to granting Ladakh autonomy within the constitutional framework of J&K , which was subsequently granted with the enactment of LAHDC Act 1995. The act provided for two councils each for Leh and Kargil. The first election to the Leh council was held in 1995 with the congress party bagging  almost all council seats.  Kargil deferred the council until July 2003 when its first election to the council was held. It reasoned that it was deferring in order to not antagonise the Kashmiris and Kashmiri leadership (it is to be noted that, Kargil has never supported the secessionist movement in Kashmir). However, it could also be that, Kargil then being the bastion of National Conference (whose leadership was opposed to idea of LAHDC), the Kargil leadership did not want to antagonise their bosses in Srinagar. Howsoever, the council eventually did come there. It is to be noted, that Ladakh despite having almost seventy percent of the area of J&K has negligible presence in the corridors of power and decision making centres in Srinagar and Jammu. Having said this, subregional autonomy makes sense in the case of Ladakh.

However the key question today is: Has the council achieved the goal set by the  council act of 1995? Does the present working of the council reflects the spirit of the act, that was to empower the local populace and bringing out development in the isolated and backward region. Has not it become a centre for playing “gulli politics”? In nutshell, what are the issues and challenges with the LAHDC.

Issues and Challenges:

The  challenges and issues range from political to institutional and structural. It is to be cleared, that although politics in both Kargil and Leh significantly differ in some respects, nevertheless, both these councils are facing the similar issues and challenges, especially the institutional and structural challenges, that follows. I would endeavour to highlight the key issues and challenges concerninng the working of the council with special reference to Kargil district.

The common people in Ladakh especially in Kargil is disillusioned with the workings of the council. To them, it appears as a centre for ambitious local politicians to grab the centres of power in a relatively easier manner and also for playing “gulli politics”, as exemplified by the tug of war going on in the Kargil council for the past two or three years. The council has been witnessing hung house and dissolutions in the past few years with politicians swinging sides as their interest demands.The council has seen its dissolution three times in three years since its third general election in 2013 with three chairman belonging  to three different political parties holding the reins. These results in the delay in initiating developmental activities. 

The council has failed to achieve its goals of equitable and inclusive development and social justice in many respects in the past decade. It is  commonplace in Kargil to talk about the favouritism and nepotism along party lines by all the parties who manages to come in power. Development funds have become a key means of patronage as Navnita Chadda Behera has noted. Councilors, rather spending their community development funds (CDF) on the principles of inclusive development and social justice are seen distributing it to win their favourites, who would help them to continue in power for the years to come. Furthermore , vendetta politics has become the order of the day. Corruption and conflict has come to the door step.

 The other issues and challenges involves, concerns to institutional and structural aspect. 

 Although, the council has been provided with enormous powers, that includes among other, the power of budget formulation, development planning and power to collect taxes and fees of various kinds . However, these powers appears to be confined on paper. In actual practice, there are flaws in the council act itself. The act stipulates  the approval of the state government over budget, planning and other major decisions. Given this, as Martin Van Beek has remarked, “the state government has considerable possibilities to obstruct the functioning of the  council.” The Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) can only sanction projects costing upto five crore rupees. Therefore, for the council to function smoothly, the ruling party in the state must necessarily be the ruling party in the council, for conflicting parties in power at the district and the state poses a grave challenge of coordination . Leaders belonging to opposing parties find it difficult to cooperate on important development issues. Navnita Chaddha Behera has also noted the clash between the CEC who runs the day to day affairs of the council with officers on the higher rung of the administrative ladder. These clashes contribute only to redtapism and inefficiency in the administration. Both the Ladakh councils have been dealing with these challenges, which only contributes to the further disillusionment of the local populace  with the performance of the council besides breeding a sense of alienation from the state govt. 

The other structural issues concerns the very idea of the democratic decentralisation.Democracy presupposes  an awakened citizenry and an active civil society. If these two are present in any democratic setup , democracy flourishes and emporwment, participation and inclusive development results. However, Ladakh is lacking in both. Given the absence of strong civil society, ambitious politicians could do anything, without being held accountable to the common people.

Hope for a better future

Nevertheless, the council has some positive aspects as well. First and foremost, is the  empowerment of the local populace through political consciousness and awakening, in the rather dormant and restive region. People are now far more politically empowered and awakened than decades ago. They are becoming conscious about their democratic rights as well as their distinct identity and culture.The newly acquired political consciousness has given birth to a nascent civil society, as exemplified by many NGOs that focus on governance related issues. Also,it has brought the semblance of development planning from below thereby reflecting the issues of the grassroots ,as opposed to the conventional centralised planning.

With an empowered and accountable council and an awakened citizenry and active civil society to maintain checks and balances, the council could truly become a temple of participatory democracy and social justice.



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