Intro: The Panchayats in the state of Jammu and Kashmir have virtually no powers or funds to set-up priorities and execute work. With a PDP-BJP coalition government in place, that is likely to happen sooner, rather than later.
On April 24, whole of India celebrated the National Panchayati Raj Day to mark the true empowerment of panchayats. Years ago, it was on this day that the panchayats became the third tier of governance in the country. The Union Rural Development Minister, Rao Birender Singh, specially invited the Rural Development Minister of J&K, Abdul Haq Khan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to Delhi to participate at the national level function. Haq said that it is great that panchayats in the state are playing their parts in the rural set-up admirably well.
It was at this function that some panchayats, which had performed their duties really well, were awarded. And it included some panchayats from Kashmir, some from the Jammu region. On an encouraging note, Haq said that in the days to come, he expected the panchayats in J&K to become more robust.
It bears mention here that before the advent of 73rd Amendment, the panchayats were instruments of wielding power but they got powers through a constitutional amendment only. It was on this day that their powers came to be guaranteed through Constitution. They got powers through a legal right and their powers could no longer be usurped. They became masters of their own destiny as henceforth they wielded powers given to them through Constitution, the supreme law of the land.
This was really a great step towards decentralisation of power as after MPs and MLAs/MLCs, it was the panchayat members who could decide the fate of their societies. The societies they lived in could define their own priorities for taking up a project of common good from exchequer’s money.
Earlier they needed to plead or explain before a District Magistrate (DC) of the district what their village needed most urgently. If the DC was convinced, he/she could sanction some money, usually much lesser amount and a fraction of what the village needed, or wanted.
After the empowerment of panchayats, all this changed as the officials no longer presided over the fates of the villages. Duly elected panchayat members became masters of their own destinies, or of their panchayats.
For the first time in the history of the nation, we reverted to our civilisational moorings. The panchayats were once the most powerful instruments in the rural set-up historically.
Unfortunately, the panchayats in the state of Jammu and Kashmir are a pale shadow of themselves elsewhere. They have virtually no powers or funds to set up their own priorities or execute any work. All this is because Jammu and Kashmir, ironically, has its own Panchayati Raj Act. It is governed by the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, and not the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, as elsewhere in the country.
The 1989 Panchayati Raj Act is far, far weaker as compared to the Central law. The Central law has many safeguards for the empowerment of the panchayats. These safeguards are punitive in nature and breaching them is not possible as that leads to heavy penalties. In fact, the state law was considered ahead of its times and thought of as harbinger of decentralisation of powers. But once the Central law, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, was passed; the state law actually became a hindrance in the path of decentralisation of powers.
The Central law made it mandatory for the panchayats to participate in decision-making at all levels of governance. It is not possible for the District Development Boards (DDBs) to take decisions about any panchayat without its consent and participation. The Central law on panchayats envisages a three-tier Panchayati Raj system. It talks of elected panchayats at the village level, block level and district level. At all three levels, there are direct elections to the panchayat bodies.
The Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act also envisages a three-tier Panchayati Raj system, at the village level (called halqa level), block level and district level. Imagine how meaningless these panchayat bodies are because right in between 1989, when the Act was passed and April 2015, there have never been elections in the state at the block level or district level!
The 1989 Act also provides that the elections to panchayats should be held before the expiry of their terms. But the Act is not being followed in J&K as elections to panchayats are never held on time. Elections to village level panchayats were held in the year 2001 and one had hoped, wrongly, those elections will be held for block and district levels also. The term of these panchayats lapsed in the year 2006, after five years, and no elections were then held.
Again, in the year 2011, when Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) was the Chief Minister with Congress support, elections to village level panchayats, called halqa panchayats in J&K, were held. No elections to the block and district levels, comprising the next levels of elections, have so far been held, leaving the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) high and dry.
The term of these village level PRIs will expire after five years in May-June next year, 2016. The NC-Congress Government had, many times, announced holding of the block level elections, but always ended up deferring them.
The functioning of panchayats in the state is very peculiar nowadays because the NC-Congress Government claimed falsely, that it was giving some powers to them. Accordingly, it decided to demarcate some works at the grassroots level as the domain of the panchayats. It has been a sleight of hand, however, as one finds on closer scrutiny. The government has very cleverly shed some of its responsibilities to panchayats, without giving any powers to them. The result is that the panchayats in the state today have responsibilities, but no means to discharge neither them, nor any funds or means.
Some years ago, the panchayats were given Rs 1 lakh each to carry out development activities in their respective areas. No further funds were provided ever again with the villagers clamouring before the panchayat representatives for development works.
With this, the government could shake off pestering villagers as they started chasing the PRI men and women. But they soon found out that they had been taken for a ride. This meant chasing back the MPs, MLAs and MLCs as they alone wielded real power and could provide funds.
More funds for panchayats will not be a problem provided the state passes a law incorporating the basic provisions of the 73rd Amendment. In fact, panchayats in the state will be entitled to as much as a minimum of Rs 10 lakh per annum once the enabling law conforming to the Central law is passed by the state government.
The people of Jammu and Kashmir now understand that by joining the national mainstream, there is a lot to be gained. They can not be held back by some politicians, separatists especially, who always misguide them about India.
The previous government was at one time close to incorporating most of the provisions of 73rd Amendment. This was to ensure the flow of funds from the Centre because some funds can be given only if the panchayats are fully functional in the state.
Let us hope that in near future, panchayats will attain that status in J&K as are enjoyed elsewhere in the country.
Sant Kumar Sharma (The writer is a Jammu based freelancer Journalist)