Allaying all fears and apprehensions the elections proved a great success. The gusto with which people of all ages came out of their houses ignoring the challenges of bad weather, harsh winter, and terrorist threat proved their faith in the Panchayat Raj system. The participation in Kashmir has surprised many, including the Gupkar Alliance
Happy Faces: Youth standing in a queue to cast their votes
during DDC elections in Jammu & Kashmir
The year 2019 ended in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) with mixed feelings. Towards the end of the year, a major transformation had taken place with the erstwhile state being divided into two Union Territories (UTs) namely Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Ladakhese rejoiced because their long-pending demand had been met. In J&K certain section was unhappy with the status being downgraded to a UT while the majority yearned for the much needed change to transform the economy of the region and were hopeful that the coming year would usher the much needed changes to herald the beginning of a Naya Jammu & Kashmir. The new UT administration had set the ball rolling by announcing a mega Global Investors’ Meet in March to attract much-needed investment to boost the economy. As a prelude to the same, the government-held roadshows and Pre-summit Investors’ Meet. For this the government also planned two IT Parks (one each at Jammu & Srinagar) and a land bank of 6000 acres including all districts, to make state of the art industrial parks. The new government of the UT had decided to re-engineer all the processes and policies to break age-old barriers and create a progressive ecosystem for investors. The revenue starved UT, which depends heavily on the grant-in-aid from the Central Government every year to meet its financial obligations, was badly in need of outside investment. To this end, the government also created a new nodal agency called Jammu & Kashmir Trade Promotion Organisation (JKTPO). The investment was also needed to generate employment that was needed badly because the youth was getting restless. The government’s sincerity had raised many hopes of better times ahead.
But the deadly pandemic that engulfed the entire country in the first quarter of the year forced the government to put a lid on these plans and instead concentrate on combatting the deadly COVID-19 since the health infrastructure in the UT was not geared up for the same. It goes to the credit of the administration that it reacted well in time and managed to create the requisite infrastructure though with certain hiccups as was expected. The administration did well to create the infrastructure, but the management of the pandemic left much to be desired. For reasons best known to the administration its failure to co-opt the local self-government representatives in the management of the pandemic created a communication gap between the public and administration, which was avoidable.
Meanwhile, the administration began to take many steps to strengthen the nascent Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) through their financial empowerment and delegation of powers in keeping with the 73rd and 74th Amendments which had not been implemented earlier due to Article 370. Much needed protocol status was accorded to the Chairman of Block Development Councils (BDCs) to enable them to function with authority. Even the concept of BDC was new since the same was never allowed to be created by the previous elected governments since they were opposed to the devolution of powers to grassroots workers as envisaged in the Panchayat Raj.
Institutionalised corruption was another ill which J&K had suffered under the 370 regime. With the application of anti-corruption laws and formation of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, skeletons after skeletons emerged and action has begun to be taken against the defaulters. This caused worry among political leaders who under the influence of power and shelter of 370 had thrown the statutes to the wind and allowed unbridled corruption as their actions began to be questioned and challenged
The security forces played a major role in breaking the backbone of terrorism in the Valley. JK Police was rejuvenated since it was now functioning directly under the Home Ministry of India. Intelligence flew in regularly and freely. The silver lining lies in the fact that the Kashmiri people (Awam) are cooperating with the security forces and providing the needed information about the terrorists. National Investigating Agency (NIA) also tightened the noose on terror financing, hawala traders as well as the members of the overground network (OGWs).
The situation was gradually returning to normal when the government decided to free the detained political leaders and set in motion the process of resumption of political activities. Rather than reaching out to people and resuming the political process, the leaders of the six so-called mainstream political parties decided to form an alliance Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) or Gupkar Alliance. The alliance vowed to work for the restoration of Articles 370, 35A and return to statehood as existed before August 5, 2019. The leaders also began to reactivate their political parties which had remained dormant for past six to seven months. The public, however, appeared in no mood to forgive these leaders whom they held responsible for their present state and all the hardships and miseries faced by them in the past.
To remain relevant and emotionally exploit the awam, main leaders of the alliance resorted to statements seeking Chinese help as well as boycotting the national flag. These statements not only created a nation-wide uproar but were also disapproved by the majority Kashmiris. They were in no mood to be exploited by them once again as has been their won’t in the past. The youth, in particular, was fed up with their hollow slogans and false utopian promises.
Unholy Union: Leaders of Gupkar alliance during a joint press conference in Srinagar
To remain relevant and emotionally exploit the awam, main leaders of the Gupkar alliance resorted to statements seeking Chinese help as well as boycotting the national flag. These statements not only created a nation-wide uproar but were also disapproved by the majority Kashmiris. They were in no mood to be exploited by them once again as has been their wont in the past
The UT administration was determined to address all important issues so that the people feel the change. The administration was faced with a herculean challenge because it was not easy to undo the misgovernance of past seventy years in a hurry or suddenly. To address the issue of unemployment, an accelerated recruitment process to fill vacant government jobs has been put into motion. In a milestone decision 100% jobs, including gazetted posts, have been reserved for the locals. Since the State Subject or Permanent Resident Certificate became redundant due to abolition of Article 35 A, J&K Civil Services (Decentralisation and Recruitment) Act was amended to introduce and define “Domicile”. It paved the way for those residing in the UT for 15 years or have studied for seven years in the UT and appeared in class 10th/12th examination in an educational institution located in the UT becoming eligible for the government jobs.
The government has also amended the land laws to make them progressive while vastly changing the definition of agriculture to include horticulture and allied agricultural activities. While it is aimed at providing a transparent and people-friendly land management system, the people are unhappy. The interpretation of the laws by the revenue authorities has created a lot of hue and cry since the two major prosperous communities Mahajans and Khatris have been denied purchasing agricultural land while they have been staying in the UT for generations now.
Institutionalised corruption was another ill which J&K had suffered under the 370 regime. With the application of anti-corruption laws and formation of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, skeletons after skeletons emerged and action has begun to be taken against the defaulters. This caused worry among the political leaders who under the influence of power and shelter of 370 had thrown the statutes to the wind and allowed unbridled corruption as their actions began to be questioned and challenged. The leaders not used to questioning felt threatened and advocated vociferously for return of status quo. The Gupkar Alliance became more vocal and played the victim card as their names began to emerge in the Roshni scam, considered to be the biggest ever land scam in the erstwhile state.
In October, the J&K High Court in a landmark judgement declared the Roshni Act enacted in 2001 by Dr Farooq Abdullah and amended twice later in 2004 and 2007 by Mufti Mohd Sayed and Ghulam Nabi Azad as illegal and ordered the Act to be scrapped. The High Court observed that the Act had been misused by the politicians, government officials and certain influential persons to legalise the unauthorised occupation of government lands by paying highly subsidised amounts. The disclosure of the names of the beneficiaries as directed by the High Court created a big political storm.
The highlight and major achievement of the year has been the conduct of local bodies’ elections in November-December, a major gamble which proved to be a game-changer. In keeping with its intent of promoting Panchayat Raj, the administration announced elections to the vacant panches, sarpanches, BDC chairmen, urban local bodies and DDCs. A huge challenge since the polls was to be held on adult franchise basis, meaning the participation by the people.
Set to become a new layer of governance in the UT, the DDCs were to form the third tier of the PRI and oversee the functioning of the other two tiers, namely Halqa Panchayats and BDC. The DDCs are also to prepare and approve district plans and capital expenditures. The Councillors representing a territorial constituency will be given Territorial Constituency Fund for the development of their respective constituencies. 280 territorial constituencies, 14 per district, have been delineated covering the entire district less those areas governed by urban local bodies like Municipal Committees, Councils and Corporations. This would replace the earlier District Development Boards which were nominated as against the DDC, an elected body.
The elections were held on party basis. As expected after initial gimmicks and statements, the Gupkar Alliance also decided to participate in the polls making the same very interesting since these parties had earlier boycotted the BDC elections in protest to abrogation of 370. The PAGD this time decided to contest the election despite its rejection of the abrogation and subsequent introduction of the new laws. A tacit approval of the changing environment, it appears, despite statements to the contrary.
Allaying all fears and apprehensions the elections proved a great success. The gusto with which people of all ages came out of their houses ignoring the challenges of bad weather, harsh winter, and terrorist threat proved their faith in the Panchayat Raj system. The participation in Kashmir has surprised many, including the Gupkar Alliance. It has recorded a massive increase across all ten districts in comparison to the 2018 Panchayat elections and 2019 Parliamentary elections. It’s an achievement beyond expectations.
The election also had many firsts to its credit; the first electoral exercise of the new UT, first elections under newly formed State Election Commission, West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis, Gorkhas exercised their franchise for the first time in local elections, reserved seats for STs.
The credit also goes to the State Election Commission and the security forces for ensuring successful completion of elections at such a large scale without any incident despite the best efforts of our inimical neighbour to disrupt the polls. The ballot ultimately emerged victorious over the bullet and democracy has begun to take firm roots in the UT. The people of J&K also need to be complimented for their wholehearted participation in this festival of democracy. Political parties will interpret the election results based on the narrative they want to set post elections and claim victory, but one thing is certain that democracy has already emerged victorious.
2020 is ending on a high note with people yearning for development. It is disheartening to note that even today their needs, 70 years after Independence, are confined to the basics, electricity, water and connectivity. The administration is also leaving no stone unturned to come up to the expectations of the people who feel cheated by their political leaders so far. Apart from making J&K as an educational hub, the administration is working towards the improvement of infrastructure and promotion of industry and tourism. 1858 roads and 84 bridges have already been constructed under PM Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). Another 3261 roads and 243 bridges stand approved. Approx 55000 crore is being invested to augment power generation from 3000 to 6298 MW. A strong foundation is being set for the growth of the UT so that it not only becomes a self-sustaining economy but also act as an example for others to emulate.
The winds of change are imminent, and the beginning has been made in the year that has gone by. Naya Jammu & Kashmir with developed infrastructure and vibrant economy will soon emerge to the joy of one and all.
(The writer is a Jammu-based veteran political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst)