Potential of PRIs in J&K 

A panchayat building in South Kashmir's Anantnag. Photo credit: Sameer Mushtaq/Scroll.in

A people’s movement or an aware citizenry is necessary for realizing the full potential of the local state

By Haris Rashid

AFTER the abrogation of Article 370, there has been a greater focus on Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. While the governments in the erstwhile state of J&K had been resisting the devolution of power to PRIs, the current UT administration has implemented and amended the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 to devolve substantial power and authority to the local village state. This has the potential to radically change the state-society relationship in J&K.

The Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in India aim to develop self-government at the local level. The idea is to socially and economically transform villages through these institutions. While this decentralization move was done with greater enthusiasm, there are certain problems that are plaguing the system and not much has been done to improve the system. In his recent book, “Last among Equals: Power, Caste, and Politics in Bihar's Villages”, M.R. Sharan studies the local state in Bihar and argues that despite two decades of their existence in Bihar, PRIs are not living up to the expectations and they are not delivering the services efficiently. Sharan’s account of the local state in Bihar applies to most states in India. The nascent Panchayati Raj System in Jammu and Kashmir will have to learn from the experiences of other states and keep a check that it is not plagued by the same problems that the system in other states face.

One of the biggest problems that hinders the PRIs from realizing their full potential is the lack of capacity building among the elected representatives and the lack of awareness among the people of the villages. Since the main aim is the local self-government, the common people of the village are involved in the decision making. Their opinion on the works that need to be carried out and the fund allocation to different projects is taken in Ward Sabhas and Gram Sabhas. Awareness of common people and capacity building of elected representatives at individual and organizational level is a must for PRIs. Unlike political leaders in office or the ministers, the elected representatives at the local government level do not have an advisory staff or the bureaucracy attached to them. They need to implement a plethora of schemes directly and there is much higher expectation attached to them.

People’s awareness and local representatives’ capacity building is important for the success of local government bodies. Since the UT of Jammu and Kashmir is just beginning its decentralization journey, it must make sure that people are regularly made aware of the rules and regulations of the functioning of the local state and the different schemes implemented and benefits for them under Panchayati Raj System. As Sharan shows in his book, elected representatives do not want the citizenry to be aware. Despite MGNREGA wages being published online on the government websites, the elected representatives do not pay the wages to the people involved and sometimes the state governments have to paint that list on the walls of the villages so that everyone is made aware of how much wage they are entitled to. In fact, Sharan’s whole book is about a people’s movement that wants to reap full benefits of local level democracy versus resisting local elected representatives. Therefore, a people’s movement or an aware citizenry is necessary for realizing the full potential of the local state.

Another problem plaguing the local government is the lack of resources. There are a lot of studies on how lack of resources affects the outcomes of rural development. As mentioned above, the local state is involved in implementing a plethora of schemes and there are higher expectations from them but they usually lack resources. In the case of J&K, Panchyati Ghars have been built and the recent budget has allocated funds for construction and renovation of hundreds of Panchayati Ghars. At present, most of the Panchyati Ghars lack adequate basic facilities, including broadband and electricity that are necessary for functioning of the office. The present staff of Panchayat Secretaries, Panchayat Account Assistants and the Village Level Workers is also insufficient as the local state involves lots of decision-making and planning and implementation processes. Further, all these employees are inadequately trained and they lack necessary skills to do their tasks. Even though approval has been given to the creation of new posts in PRIs in J&K, there is a lot to be done to back up the local state with necessary human resources.

Further, the local state in most of the states in India are either not empowered to extract revenue or have shied away from generating their own revenue and continue to be dependent on the state and central government funds. One of the basic functions of a state is to extract revenue and for the PRIs to qualify as a local state or a local self-government, they must generate their own revenues through taxes and non-tax resources. The UT government in J&K should make sure that Gram Panchayats are from the beginning put in the habit of generating revenue through taxes and non-taxes. The Own Source Revenue (OSR) of Gram Panchayats at present is very low and the government needs to make sure that guidelines and instructions are given to Gram Panchayats on tax collection and other revenue sources.

Another problem that has been highlighted by Sharan in his book and can be seen in case of PRIs in J&K also is the case of elected women representatives being proxy of their male relatives. One-third seats for all the three tiers of the PRIs are reserved for women but the lack of awareness among women representatives makes them dependent on their male relatives. The women are thus reduced to proxy for their male relatives and the very motive behind the reservation is subverted by the men. There have been a number of studies on how male and female representatives work differently in the local state as they have different policy preferences. Therefore, the government must make sure that proxy representation of women is discouraged from the beginning and that women as well as villages are empowered through the reservation system.

Apart from this, the circumstances in J&K are very different from other parts of India. The recent spate of killings of local elected representatives show that the risk associated with this is very high in Kashmir. The more the risk, the more the representatives will be looking for incentives.  This should be kept in mind by the government. The incentives proportionate to the risk should be institutionalized rather than replicating the patronage model that had been in place before the revocation of Article 370.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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