Celebrating Democracy in ‘Naya Jammu and Kashmir’

 By Anashwara Ashok
0
281

“When the panchayat raj is established, public opinion will do what violence can never do.”-  Mahatma Gandhi

Post abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in August 2019, many analysts suggested that for improved governance in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), it is essential to strengthen the grassroots democracy by implementing the 73rd Amendment Act, 1992 of the Constitution of India in its totality in the newly formed Union Territory (UT). To this end, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) amended the J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 for the first time in October 2020 and paved the way for the creation of District Development Councils (DDC). It is a directly-elected local government body in each district with jurisdiction over the entire district excluding areas designated as a municipality or municipal corporation.[1] The newly created DDC along with Halqa Panchayats and Block Development Councils (BDCs) will ensure a three-tier Panchayati Raj system for the first time in the region.

The eight-phase maiden DDC elections culminated peacefully with the declaration of results on 22 December 2020. Voter enthusiasm was very high leading to a record voter turnout of over 51 per cent on an average in the entire UT. It has recorded a massive increase across all districts in comparison to the 2018 Panchayat elections and 2019 Parliamentary elections.[2] This election was first of its kind where the youth and women turned out in high numbers both as candidates and voters. The first large-scale election in J&K conducted post abrogation of Article 370, this was both peaceful and participatory. This was the first election in J&K in which the Valmiki and Gorkha communities, West Pakistan refugees were allowed to exercise their franchise. There were also no calls for boycotting this election by anyone, unlike the boycott of the Block Development Council elections in 2019. Undoubtedly, Pakistan did send its terrorist to carry out major attacks during the DDC election as evident by the Nagrota encounter of 19 November and Poonch encounter of 13 December where many terrorists who had infiltrated from Pakistan were killed/captured. Also, Pakistan and its proxies repeatedly disseminated fake news that people of J&K are living under curfews and lockdown. Moreover, few countries and civil society groups falsely accused India of committing human rights violations in J&K as well as curbing the fundamental rights of the citizens. Some called these elections as ‘staged’ while some suggested that people of J&K have decided to collectively observe ‘civil disobedience/non-cooperation’ as a symbol of protest against the abrogation of the special status. However, the large participation in the electoral process undeterred by the harsh winter, terrorist threat and the COVID-19 pandemic, rejects all this propaganda and misinformation being propagated. The peaceful completion of this free and fair election demonstrates the resilience of the people and their faith in Indian democracy. The challenging and mammoth task was executed by the J&K Election Commission with the help of the vigilance of the security forces. The peaceful conduct of the election process must encourage the UT administration to restore the high-speed internet connectivity in all districts and not keep it limited to Ganderbal and Udhampur.

Even though there was high-level participation in these elections, there still prevails a sense of alienation and resentment amongst certain sections of the population along with a unanimous demand for tangible development at the grassroots level. DDC along with the other two tiers of the local governance system must make concerted efforts to address the grievances of the people. Greater focus must be laid on the empowerment of the youth, women, farmers, backward communities, people living in the forward areas, etc. Some of the issues that need urgent attention and must be addressed with a bottom-up approach are corruption, radicalisation, drug addiction, poor-quality infrastructure, lack of connectivity, electricity shortage especially during winter months, poor drinking water facilities, lack of primary healthcare facilities, lack of higher educational opportunities, unemployment, inadequate recreational facilities, rehabilitation and reintegration of surrendered terrorists among other things. Families living near the Line of Control (LC) and International Border (IB) must be given special attention by their local representatives. Families especially living along the LC are always in distress and live in constant fear due to Pakistan’s unprovoked ceasefire violation targeting the civilian population. During an interaction with families living in the Tithwal village of the Tangdhar sector of the LC, the author learned that there exists a communication gap between the people of the village and the civil administration. Moreover, the poor condition of the roads in this area makes it difficult for the people to travel to other parts of the UT for good-quality healthcare, education, or employment. These problems can be addressed by a proactive functioning of the local governance structure.

These DDC elections certainly generate a ray of hope for peace, stability, development, and prosperity in J&K. For the first time decision-making has been in a true sense decentralised in the region. At the same time, it must be ensured that robust mechanisms are put in place to ensure accountability and transparency in the functioning of this three-tier system. Some of the ways to achieve this is by encouraging e-governance, performance audits and stricter implementation of anti-corruption laws. Political instability and violence has prevailed in J&K for over seventy years due to Pakistan and has caused immense sufferings for the people but today is an opportune moment for India to fulfil the aspirations of the people of J&K by empowering the grassroots democracy in the region.

End-Notes

[1] Vijaita Singh and Peerzada Ashiq, “Changes to J&K Panchayat Act drops payments to panches, sarpanches”, The Hindu, 17 October 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/changes-to-jk-panchayat-act-drops-payments-to-panches/article32882586.ece

[2] Brig Anil Gupta, “Naya Jammu and Kashmir embraces Panchayat Raj”, Daily Excelsior, 23 December 2020. https://www.dailyexcelsior.com/naya-jammu-and-kashmir-embraces-panchayat-raj/