The recently held Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir were a silver lining amidst other depressing developments in the state. The turbulence — including a spate of killings and the deaths of innocent civilians — had left little hope of any semblance of a democratic process like elections.
In this gloom, the successful elections remain a positive experiment, affirming faith in the democratic processes of a sensitive state.
Despite the repeated shutdowns and stiff resistance by the detractors of peace, the state surged ahead and held the elections in 1,100 wards in ULBs and in 35,000 wards in Panchayats — no mean feat.
There were violent attempts to subvert the polls — including desperate measures like alleged attempts of burning down of panchayat ghars, and extreme subterfuge. Besides the stone-pelting and aggression by various terror outfits, Hizbul Mujahideen and its leader Syed Salahudeen reportedly made provocative and incendiary speeches along communal lines.
However, none of that seems to have had any consequence on the voters, and the Panchayat elections were held peacefully in nine phases across 1303 polling stations.
Experts and Kashmir-watchers reckon that the people of J&K ignored propaganda perpetrated by Pakistan and the ISI, and participated in the elections, hoping for development. With the elections being successful, the terrorists stand frustrated. Also, the people are confident that funds will now reach the grassroots level and to the lowest functionaries — minimising the ugly corrupt practices that have hitherto been rampant.
Considering that Panchayat Raj is the major backbone of development in the state that has seen more turmoil than tranquility, people perhaps sincerely wanted to give development a chance now.
Voting Underway For the Fourth Phase Of Jammu And Kashmir Panchayat Polls on November 27. (Photo: ANI)
Significantly, the recent local polls — held after 13 years since 2005 — saw an overall voter turnout of 74 per cent. The maximum turnout was seen in the Valley — especially in Kupwara and Baramulla. In Jammu and Ladakh, the polling percentages were 83 per cent and 67 per cent respectively for Panchayat, and 68 per cent and 61 per cent respectively for ULBs.
The heavy participation is also indicative of a public desire to rise above the issues raised by separatists — including Articles 370 and 35A.
Another setback is that the J&K Panchayati Raj Act of 1989 — that was passed to promote and develop the Panchayati Raj institutions in the state — has not been very effective. Despite the Act, only three of the 25 allotted functions devolved for Panchayats were supported by the budget heads. There has been stiff resistance to delegating power to the Panchayat bodies on the part of the state.
However, with the amendment of the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, the functions will now be transferred to the local bodies — empowering the public.
Over Rs. 2000 crore of development funds per annum has been allocated to the Panchayats and Rs. 1200 crore per annum to the ULBs. Funding and monitoring of the 19 departments have also been delegated to the Panchayats. The role of a Ward Sabha and a Gram Sabha has been clearly outlined, and the audit of government schemes and programmes will be conducted by the Panchayats.
Further, a massive training programme — on a war footing for the 40,000 grassroots representatives — is expected to be launched. An honorarium of Rs 25,000 per month to the Sarpanch and Rs 1000 to the Panch has been announced for the same. These incentives should go a long way to strengthen these local bodies for better governance — the initiative is expected to pay dividends in the not so distant future.