New Delhi: With the term of Panchayats coming to an end, Jammu and Kashmir woke up on Wednesday, January 10, without the remnants of its elected representatives, deepening the political crisis in the border region which has been without popular government for more than five years.
The term of 4,892 Panchayats ended on January 9, handing the effective control of the Union territory’s rural areas to the bureaucracy. It also marked the end of 316 Block Development Councils, the second of the three-tiers of the Panchayat Raj which was touted to “strengthen grassroots democracy” in Jammu and Kashmir.
However, the District Development Councils, the third tier of Panchayat Raj institutions which were introduced in J&K in October 2020, after the reading down of Article 370, will continue to function.
Urging the government to extend the term of the Panchayats till fresh elections are held, All Jammu Kashmir Panchayat Conference (AJKPC) President, Anil Sharma, said that the government should respect the democratic aspirations of the people and announce the dates for holding Panchayat elections in J&K.
“J&K is without an elected government for more than five years. There are no urban local bodies either and with the expiry of the Panchayats’ term, the last remaining institutions of democracy in Jammu and Kashmir have become vacant. The government should not deprive people of the right to choose their representative and announce the date for elections at the earliest,” Sharma told The Wire.
Earlier, the term of urban local bodies in the towns and cities, including two municipal corporations in Jammu and Kashmir’s twin capital cities – Srinagar and Jammu, ended on November 14, 2023. These were constituted through an electoral exercise held on party basis for the first time in 13 years.
Senior Peoples Democratic Party leader and former J&K minister Naeem Akhtar said that the BJP-led central government was trying to “avoid any trial of its popularity” in Jammu and Kashmir ahead of the Lok Sabha election, “The argument of ‘deepening democracy’ (through Panchayat election) that was projected as a replacement for the destruction of Jammu and Kashmir is now exposed.”
Akhtar said that the saffron party was worried about the outcome of any electoral exercise even in Jammu division, its stronghold, “If Panchayat election is held, it would expose the BJP’s failure and deny the party a very potent election ammunition,” he added.
Imran Nabi Dar, a spokesperson of Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference, said that the elections to “fortify grassroots institutions” should have taken place immediately after the tenure of previous Panchayats concluded, “However, a regrettable situation persists in Jammu and Kashmir where all tiers of democracy remain in a continuous state of suspended animation,” he said.
Amar Singh, a Sarpanch from Gulabgarh area of Kishtwar district, alleged that the Panchayats were “powerless entities” without any defined role in local governance and limited financial autonomy which impaired their day-to-day functioning.
“Rather than units of grassroots democracy and self-governance, the Panchayats had become the implementing arms of centrally and state-sponsored welfare programs,” Singh, a Congress leader, told The Wire, adding that a majority of funds meant for Panchayats remained un-utilised allegedly due to bureaucratic red-tape.
According to AJKPC President, the government had set Rs 23 lakh for each Panchayat, Rs 25 for BDC and Rs 75 lakh for DDC in Jammu and Kashmir. “Sadly, only 18-22% funds have been utilised while the remaining funds continue to remain pending with the concerned department which has caused a big setback to the J&K’s Panchayats.”
Balbir Kaur, a Sarpanch of Arnia, which falls on the International Border in Jammu, said that the end of her term hasn’t made any difference, “When the honourable Prime Minister has recognised my work, why do I need any powers or a chair? I have been serving my people and I will continue that that,” she said.
Following the dissolution of Panchayats, the State Election Commission (SEC) has announced a special summary revision of electoral rolls which will be published by February 26 while the delimitation of municipal wards and Panch constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir is also underway, according to sources.
Once these two exercises are completed, the administration will issue notification for the reservation of some seats in the local bodies for Other Backwards Castes.
The OBC reservation was necessitated after the amendment of Jammu and Kashmir’s Panchayati Raj Act by J&K’s Administrative Council, which is headed by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, and the passage of the J&K Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 in the parliament last year.
However, the election to Panchayats and other local bodies are unlikely to be held in Jammu and Kashmir anytime soon given that the poll machinery will remain busy with the preparations for holding the Lok Sabha elections in the union territory.
SEC Sharma did’t respond to the queries from The Wire about the time required for completing the process of delimitation and selection of the reserved constituencies for Other Backward Castes, which will set the stage for Panchayat elections.
According to reports, the Panchayat elections, which were held in 2018, are unlikely to be held before the Lok Sabha elections which are scheduled later this year.
Jammu and Kashmir is without elected government since 2018 when the BJP pulled out of the coalition government with Mehbooba Mufti-headed Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The last assembly elections in J&K were held in 2014 when the PDP emerged as a single largest party and late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the PDP founder, cobbled up an alliance with the BJP despite public and party resentment.