National Panchayati Raj Day: Strengthen Panchayati Institutions in J&K

PM with Panchayat Members JK

THE Panchayati Raj system  as we see it today in Jammu & Kashmir has a history and struggle behind it. It is said that the Panchayati system was first introduced by Maharaja Hari Singh around 1935  for settling local disputes of the people in rural areas. Village Panchayat Regulation Act No. 1 was publicized by the Maharaja. The preamble of the said act read as

 "It is expedient to establish in Jammu and Kashmir State the village panchayats to assist in the administrative, civil and criminal justice and also to manage the sanitation and other common concerns of the village".

The 1935 Panchayati Act was not to promote the Panchayati Raj system of governance  in J&K but to use these panchayats in assisting judicial and civil administration.

In 1947 when the Dogra  ruler Maharaja Hari Singh’s regime ended and all powers were transferred to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the Panchayati Raj Act was again amended in 1951 and 1958. However, the institution was kept confined within village level affairs only.  The Panchayat means some members and a sarpanch and even the members of the Panchayat were nominated by the government only. This practice continued till late eighties. It was only in 1989 when the Government of Jammu & Kashmir came up with new legislation . The Jammu & Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989 was enacted.  This Act is still applicable and provides for the three-tier Panchayati Raj system in the state, viz Halqa Panchayat, Block development council (Block Simiti ) and  District Planning  & Development Board also known as  Zila parishad in other states.  The most important provision in this act was Panchayati Adalat (a judicial role of Panchayats) with powers of settling all non-criminal local disputes.

Panchayati Elections  

Under the JK Panchayati Raj Act 1989 the first Panchayat election was held in Jammu & Kashmir in 2000, however, most of the seats remained vacant at that time because of militant threats. The term of this panchayat came to end  in 2005 and no elections were held in the state in the following six years. It was only in 2011 when free and fair panchayat elections were held in J&K with unpresented participation of people. The then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah took an initiative and conducted Panchayat elections in the entire state. These elections by and large were successful and almost all seats were filled.

Although there was a practice of Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir but it was not mandatory. These elections were held in the past as and when the state government wanted. There was no constitutional binding for the Govt to conduct fresh elections after the expiry of 6 years term of the Panchayats under JK Panchayati Raj Act 1989.  Even the elections that were held in 2011 were held for 1st tier called Halqa Panchayat comprising a Sarpanch and some Panches . For block or district council no elections were held, which indicated non seriousness of politicians of J&K vis a vis Panchayati Raj. The institution was not let to go up to second or third tier despite the provision being in place in Jammu & Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989.  The main reason behind this was that the local Govt never wanted to decentralize power.

J&K Panchayat Conference

The actual struggle for three tier PRI system in Jammu & Kashmir began in the year 2012 with the group of Sarpanches led by  Shafiq Mir a Sarpanch from  Poshana village in district Poonch came forward to organise the members of the panchayats in J&K. He was the first person to organize various Panchayat associations under one umbrella called All J&K Panchayat Conference. Since then there was no looking back for the leaders of this organization. This J&K Panchayat Conference led by Shafiq Mir stood like a rock in all the odd times when several panchayat members were killed by militants in J&K. On seeing the gravity of the situation, on September 27, 2012  Congress leader Rahul Gandhi invited this group of Sarpanches led by Shafiq Mir to Delhi and held two days long deliberations with them in presence of the then Minister of State for Home Jitendra Singh  to find out the ways how to build confidence among the Panchayat leaders of Jammu & Kashmir  who were on resigning spree at that point of time. Finally  it was decided that Rahul Gandhi himself will visit Kashmir and meet the Panchayat members. On 4th October 2012 Rahul Gandhi reached Srinagar and met with the Panchayat leaders at SKICC Srinagar to build their confidence and assured them all help in empowerment of Panchayats . Though Rahul Gandhi wanted to extend 73rd amendment of constitution to Jammu & Kashmir but his government partner in the J & K National Conference was reluctant to implement this constitutional amendment on the pretext of article 370 .

In the year 2014 BJP- PDP came into power in Jammu & Kashmir. In the first stroke this government dissolved all Panchayats prematurely two years before its term completion.  However, by that time All J&K Panchayat Conference had became a strong voice and it started its struggle again and finally around 40 member delegation of  this organization met with Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi on November 5th 2016 and demanded the fresh Panchayat elections and implementation of 73rd amendment of Indian constitution regarding Panchayati Raj in Jammu & Kashmir . This was the time when the whole valley was shut after the killing of a prominent militant commander Burhan Wani in July that year. It was a very bold decision of the organization at that time because it was the step seen as against the winds.  This proved a significant meeting with PM Modi and he gave his full support to the organization and assured them to hold fresh elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir although the PDP lead Govt in Jammu & Kashmir was not ready to conduct the elections fearing bloodshed. Finally, in 2018 after the collapse of PDP -BJP Government Panchayat elections were announced by PM Modi but  all the political parties of Jammu & Kashmir Particularly NC and PDP openly boycotted those elections and militants had  already given boycott calls . The Panchayat Conference was the only organization led by Shafiq Mir who came forward and announced to contest these elections. The elections were held and by and large 74% polling was registered in Jammu & Kashmir. The polling percentage was higher in Jammu region and it was less in Kashmir valley.

2nd & 3rd Tier elections

Under the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 after Halqa Panchayat there is a provision of Block Development Council (BDC) which is the 2nd tier of governance structure in the panchayati raj. The BDC is headed by a Chairperson elected by Panches and Sarpanches of the respective block. In October 2019 J&K Government conducted the much hyped elections to elect 307 Block Development Council (BDC) Chairpersons across J&K. The elections were held on party lines. The National Conference and PDP boycotted the elections. BJP only won in 81 BDC Chairperson seats, few were won by Congress and Panthers Party in Jammu. Almost 217 Chairpersons were the independent candidates as per the details made available by Chief Electoral Officer's office soon after announcing results. These 307 BDC chairpersons were elected by 26,629 Sarpanchs and Panchs who had themselves been elected through a direct election held in 2018. In the majority of the panchayat halqas in Kashmir valley hardly any vote was casted and there are dozens of Sarpanches and Panches who were elected by their personal vote only or maximum their two or three family members casted votes in their favour. Government machinery highlighted both halqa panchayat and BDC elections in the media and for weeks together BJP leaders took the credit of holding these elections.

All of a sudden Govt of India amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 recently and made these elected BDC Chairpersons redundant. Govt created 14 Territorial Constituencies in J&K for each district. The District Development Council (DDC) members were elected through a direct election and these DDC members elected Chairperson and Vice Chairpersons of the District Development Council (DDC). Unfortunately the DDC members , Chairpersons or Vice Chairpersons are not empowered enough to make decisions for better development. The Govt officers hardly cooperate with them which is creating a lot of chaos and confusion. In addition to it the Gram Sabha’s are not held at village level with better public participation. Rural Development Department isn’t taking steps to ensure better participation of people in these village council meetings which should be attended by all the adult population of every panchayat halqa.

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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