The breakdown of the coalition government of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and institution of Governors Rule in the state was perceived to be a major setback. Added to it was the fact that the tenure of incumbent Governor, Shri NN Vohra, was at its end. Governors of Jammu and Kashmir have always been from a bureaucratic or military background. The Union Government surprised everybody by selecting, Shri Satya Pal Malik, a career politician, as Governor for the first time in the history of the state. By so doing the Government made its intention of furthering the political process very clear.
Soon enough it became apparent that Governor Satya Pal Malik he was determined to conduct the Local Bodies elections despite the opposition from the separatists, which was expected, and sadly, also from the PDP and the National Conference (NC
In mid-September, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) declared a nine phase conduct of the polls from November, 17 to December, 11, for around 4500 ‘Panchayat Halqas’ with about 58 Lakh electors eligible for voting. The elections, as per tradition, are to be held on non-party basis. Thus, the ball for energising the political process has been firmly set rolling.
The terrorist and divisive forces are, as expected, putting in all efforts to derail the election process. Prospective candidates are being threatened through posters, door to door canvassing and through the many Mosques under their control to desist from contesting or face violent reprisal. The terrorist cadre, though critically depleted, has been told to spike up its activities. All of this is, however, not accruing the desired results! The terrorists are not being able to operate due to sustained and incisive counter-terrorist operations being carried out by the security forces led by the Indian Army. Their already depleted strength is getting reduced by the day and they are not in a position to see their threats through. They have attempted to target the police personnel and their families in the state but have failed to intimidate them. Central Government is poised to provide all possible support to the State Government for smooth conduct of the elections including deployment of Central forces in sufficient numbers.
The historic significance of the local Bodies elections cannot be over emphasised. It is notable that the tenure of the previous Panchayats culminated in 2016 and re-elections have since been postponed on some pretext or the other. One cannot help but get a feeling that some political forces in the state are resisting transfer of power to the grass roots.
These elections will pave the way for making available nearly Rs. 4,335 Cr of 14th Finance Commission Central grants to the duly constituted local bodies; presently, in the absence of an empowered entity the people are being deprived of the development that can be ensured through influx of this huge amount.
The Union Government is also determined to ensure that the Local Bodies are vested with requisite powers in concert with the best practices in the country. The functions and functionaries of all the 29 subjects transferred to Panchayats under the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India will be transferred to the Panchayats of J&K including institutions like Primary Health Centers, Primary Schools, Aganwadi Centers to name a few. Financial Powers of Panchayats are proposed to be enhanced 10 times from Rs 10 thousand to Rs 1 Lakh for Panchayats and from Rs 25 thousand to Rs 2.5 Lakhs for Block Councils. This will enable the Panchayats to address most of the local issues in their jurisdiction.
The Panchayats will be empowered to and also motivated towards “Own fund Generation.” This will be done by placing under their jurisdiction things like Building Permission Fee, Entertainment taxation, advertisement space etc. Central and State Government funds will further supplement “Own funds” of the Panchayats under various schemes such as MGNERGA, PMAY, ICDS, Mid-Day meal etc. The Union Government further proposes to ensure involvement of Panchayats will be involved in the implementation of National Schemes such as National Health Mission, Samagraha Siksha, Mission etc.
On implementation of the vision and policy of the Union Government the Panchayats will have at their disposal funds in the tune of Rs. 50-80 Lakhs per year. They will get be allowed to create a secretarial infrastructure comprising of Accountant, Data Entry operator, Block Panchayat Inspector etc.
The Leh and Kargil Autonomous Hill Development Councils (LAHDC and KAHDC) have already been given powers to levy and collect local taxes as well as control over functioning of various departments working for the subjects that are transferred to them. Public buildings and roads constructed by LAHDC & KAHDC now belong to the councils. They have become the strongest Local Bodies in the country.
Despite the ban, the threats, and the intimidation, there are 1283 candidates in the fray contesting from 422 wards in the first phase itself. Of these 15 in northern Kashmir, 24 in central Kashmir, 30 in southern Kashmir and nine in Jammu division, totalling to 78 wards have witnessed only one nomination which will lead to uncontested election. This indicates that there are many courageous leaders in the Kashmir Valley who wish to break the vice-like grip of terrorist and divisive forces for the sake of the betterment of their people. Many from the younger generation are coming forward as candidates to contest the elections, this is an encouraging trend that is likely to throw up a new leadership cadre that the state needs very urgently.
The Local Bodies election will be a game changer in the political landscape of the trouble torn state of Jammu and Kashmir. They will usher a new era of peace and development through the highest democratic practices. It is for this reason that such forces who wish to keep the people in darkness are fighting tooth and nail to ensure that the election do not take off. It is encouraging to note that the people are steadfast in defeating the evil forces.
The security forces are poised to give all security to the candidates and the people during the polling. The terrorist are losing ground and will soon be totally eliminated. The dawn of a new era in Jammu and Kashmir is approaching.
(Jaibans Singh is a reputed columnist, author and political commentator)