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How authentic and effective are J&K’s new-born District Development Councils

By Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
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publive-image District Development Council (DDC) elections in Jammu and Kashmir | Pic courtesy: @airnewsalerts | Twitter

The 73rd and the 74th amendment to the Constitution of India came almost parallel to the separatist insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. While the militancy broke out in 1990, the amendments providing for a 3-tier local self-governance system in the rural development and the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) were passed by the Parliament in 1992.

Safina Baig, Chairperson of the District Development Council (DDC), Baramulla speaks to The Probe

In several states and Union Territories (UTs), both the amendments were implemented in a phased manner from time to time. In J&K, neither of the amendments was followed by necessary legislation even after the President’s rule ended in 1996. The traditional politicians sounded insecure and consequently disinclined to implement the 73rd amendment particularly. Across the board, they thought that the local self-governance system could make them largely irrelevant and it could undercut their decades-old monopoly on development in their constituencies.

The first municipal elections, post-1990, were held with a massive voter turnout in 2005 and the first Panchayat elections with even higher participation in 2011. Both were conducted as per the archaic municipal and Panchayat laws. These were essentially non-political democratic exercises to ensure maximum peoples’ participation and representation at the grassroots level.

In some parts of the country, both the traditional politicians as well as the officialdom felt threatened. In J&K, the third hostility sprouted from the separatists who viewed all democratic processes, political or non-political, as “Delhi’s conspiracy to neutralise Azadi”. A number of the contesting candidates and elected representatives, even the voters, were shot dead. Shafiq Mir, President of J&K Panchayat Conference, puts the number of the slain Panches and Sarpanches at 26.

With the critical pressure groups out to fail the grassroots development system, the result was that the next Panchayat or municipal elections never saw the light of the day during the political regimes till June 2018.

Since the tenure of the ULBs and Panchayats had expired in 2010 and 2016 respectively, there were repeated requests from the centre to enforce the 73rd and 74th amendment. The state was pulled up for losing thousands of crores of rupees on account of the absence of the functional ULBs and PRIs. While the National Conference-Congress coalition avoided holding the municipal elections, the Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party regime sat over both till Mehbooba Mufti’s government was brought down in 2018.

publive-image Union Minister Dr Jitendra Singh discussing central government initiatives with DDC Chairperson, Baramulla | Pic courtesy: @PIBSrinagar

The Panchayat elections were announced in two months of the Governor’s rule on 16 September 2018. Even as these were held on a non-party basis, both of the valley’s traditional ruling parties - NC and PDP - boycotted the elections held in 7 phases from 23 October to 11 December. They also boycotted the ULB elections held in four phases in October 2018.

Finally, the laws were made at par with the rest of the country and all amendments were enforced after J&K’s reorganisation into the two UTs and withdrawal of the special status in August 2019. The first Block Development Council (BDC) elections were held in October 2019, when many of the political leaders were in detention. Obviously, the participation was dismal.

After the politicians were released from detention in different phases and the first District Development Council (DDC) elections were announced, the valley-based parties decided to participate. They also fielded candidates to fill up vacancies in the ULBs and PRIs alongside the DDC polls in November-December 2020. The BJP emerged as the single largest party with 75 seats out of 280, but the coalition of the valley-based parties, People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), bagged 110 seats.

With the 3-tier PRI system - Gram Panchayats, BDCs and DDCs - in place for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir, funds have been flowing to them now directly from the centre and the UT. Previously, the powers were with the erstwhile State Planning Department, which operated through the District Development Commissioner. These were subsequently delegated to a Cabinet Minister nominated by the government as Chairman of the District Development Board. The ruling party used to enjoy a monopoly, and only the mates recommended by the ruling party used to get the rural development works.

“Commission of 35 to 40% to the engineers and officials in the offices of Block Development Officer (BDO) and Assistant Commissioner Development (ACD) was an open secret. There was no system of tenders and competition. Now the plans for respective allocations are approved by Panchayats, BDCs and DDCs. All workers are put to tenders. Only the NREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005) works, which have 60% labour component, are allotted by resolution in favour of someone selected by a Gram Panchayat,” said an official.

“Previously, most of the works used to remain incomplete. Now we have guaranteed funds, stipulated deadlines and social monitoring on the quality of the material used by the contractors. We had 1,729 works in our DDC plan in 2021-22. Out of that, 1,724 works were completed, and all payments released,” Tazeem Akhtar, Chairperson DDC Poonch, told The Probe.

“It was a largely corrupt and fraudulent system in the past. The nominees of the Ministers and a few politicians would grab the works. They would spend little on the work, and much would go to the pockets of politicians and officials. Now there’s near-total transparency and accountability. There’s still some wrong-doing at the individual level but no question of favouritism, nepotism or corruption at the institutional level. There are some spoilsports and black sheeps in the bureaucracy, but we have unlimited support from Lieutenant Governor to the Prime Minister. PRI members have direct access to the highest corridors of power,” Safeena Baig, Chairperson DDC Baramulla, asserted.

Separate offices have been established for all the BDCs, and most of the districts have submitted to the government detailed project reports for new BDC complexes, BDOs and BDCs. DDCs hold meetings in rented buildings. In most of the districts, there are no plans for office establishment for the DDCs. Safeena said that a new ‘mini-secretariat’ would soon come up to accommodate the offices of the District Officers as well as the offices and the council meeting hall for the DDC.

According to Tazeem, an allocation of Rs 10 crore came directly to the DDC, which was equally distributed among the 14 members for the purpose of submitting proposals for the works. Separately, an allocation of Rs 62 crore was received for the Gram Panchayats and BDCs in the Poonch district of Jammu. Around 90% of the target was completed by the end of March 2022. “There are some teething problems, but by and large, we are exercising the powers given to us by law,” she asserted.

Assistant Commissioner Panchayat (ACP) in Bandipora, Syed Altaf Moosavi, believes that the new system is a revolutionary beginning which, according to him, would refine with the passage of time.

“I can say that allocating work to a favourite is now completely impossible. All works and supply orders go through competition and transparent mode. If 200 works were executed in our district in 2020-21, in 2021-22 we had a target of 1,300 works which were all executed and completed. If educated representatives are elected in future, and some staff of the Planning Department is involved at the Gram Panchayat level, it will become the best result-oriented system. A day will come when there will be hardly any work to be taken up,” Altaf said.

“There’s still some confusion regarding the people who have to be allotted the small works up to Rs 3 lakh. Currently, these works are allotted in some districts to the PWD hard holders residing in the jurisdiction of a Panchayat. In some districts, District Development Commissioners have issued contractor cards to members of the local youth clubs. This has to be streamlined,” Altaf added.

According to Altaf, an allocation of Rs 70 lakh was coming to each DDC member from the District Capex budget. Each Sarpanch was getting Rs 25 lakh for the workers to be executed within his Halqa. Besides, Each BDC was getting Rs 25 lakh. “This is substantially more than what we used to get in the previous system. Our State was losing this money every year for the absence of PRIs and ULBs under 73rd and 74th amendment,” he added.

Fourteen elected members, including Chairman and Vice-Chairman, Additional District Development Commissioner (ADDC) and ACP, constitute a District Development Council. BDC members are also associated as members of DDCs, but they don’t have the right to vote. The meetings are presided over by Chairman DDC. ADDC functions as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and ACP as Secretary of DDC. The plans of respective allocations of DDC members are vetted by the District Development Commissioner and submitted to the UT’s Planning Department, which approves the same and sends it back to DDC.

While the chairpersons get a monthly honorarium of Rs 35,000, the DDC members are paid Rs 15,000 per month. The government has drastically amended the UT’s Order of Precedence and accorded the status of a Secretary to Government to the DDC Chairpersons who actually demanded the status of a Cabinet Minister. At the first level, Sarpanches are paid Rs 3,000 and Panches Rs 1,000 a month.

The District Development Commissioner seeks estimates for the approved works from different departments, and finally, the works are advertised, allotted and executed by the indenting departments. In the last year, a large number of Panchayat Ghars, offices of BDOs and public health centres and dispensaries, besides the primary and middle school buildings, were the biggest beneficiaries.

“Many works that had been taken up but left incomplete 10-20 years back for different issues, including paucity of funds, have been completed by DDCs last year. We have laid tarmacadam on the roads that had not been black-topped for 13 years. It was our first year. We lost the first three months in constituting the DDCs. Thereafter, four months were consumed by Covid-19. Still, we achieved nearly 85% of our targets. I can claim J&K is the best among all States and UTs in establishing the DDCs and PRIs. I’m sure all teething problems will be over within the current year, and we will have a better performance this year,” Safeena said. “But this would have never become possible without constant, unflinching support from LG Manoj Sinha Sahab and Prime Minister Modi Sahab. All credit must go to them”.

How are the DDCs and other PRIs functioning so smoothly when many people are not associated with the government due to the absence of the political representatives and Assembly? “For the 3-tier PRI system, the absence of the traditional politicians has proved to be a blessing in disguise. They wouldn’t have let these institutions exist and function. They would never like to forfeit their monopoly over the local development and governance. Now, whenever they are elected, they will have to take care of the large projects. They won’t be potent enough to sabotage the DDCs and other PRIs,” Safeena asserted.

“With the free and fair DDC and other PRI elections, the Government of India has established its credibility among the people of Kashmir. When these elections were announced during the Governor’s rule, many people here were sceptical. They had serious apprehensions about rigging, and they were surprised to see that the people they voted for went to the councils. At the same time, the people of Kashmir established their societal credibility with their participation in large numbers in these elections. Many people in Delhi had apprehensions of a boycott which proved wrong. Now the sky's the limit of the grassroots development and democracy,” Safeena added.

Safeena, herself a lawyer and wife of the leading advocate and former Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig, maintained that she was taking review meetings and site tours with officers of all the departments at the district level. Her biggest ambition at the moment is to develop the existing highway from Narbal to Uri into a 4-lane motorway.

Quite a number of the DDC and BDC members do not endorse what Tazeem and Safeena claim.

Chairman of BDC Budgam, Ghulam Hassan Khan, claimed that the monopoly of the traditional politicians and officers would not break until the Chairpersons and members were provided with a conducive and secure atmosphere to work, move out and inspect the works. According to him, District Development Commissioners and other officers were still holding the key. “They can remove the works approved by DDCs for any excuse. If they report negative feasibility, no work can be taken up,” he said.

“As of now, in most of the districts, there are mutual compromises between the DDC Chairpersons and District Development Commissioners. They don’t confront each other for a reason. DC knows that these people represent the political establishment of Delhi more than the Kashmiri people, and as such, they have every potential for mischief. DDC Chairpersons know that a decision on the fate of a no-confidence motion lies with the DC. So it’s a give and take. Real empowerment would come only through the strengthening of the institutions. That may happen tomorrow, but that is not happening today,” Khan asserted.

“We developed land of 276 kanals (34.5 acres) of Khasra number 1970 for the community playfield, Raja Damodar Sports Stadium, close to the boundary of the Srinagar Airport. As we were planning the sports schedules, DC Sahab tripped in and alienated 50 kanals of the same land in the middle of it for the establishment of a settlement for the displaced Pandits. We requested him to mark it on one end of the stadium. Nobody listened to us. We have lost the stadium. Our proposal has been approved by the BDC and DDC. It has been reduced to trash,” Khan said. He said that the matter was brought to the notice of the Divisional Commissioner, but he didn’t intervene.

As regards the mobility of the BDC and DDC members, Khan said that 16 BDC and 14 DDC members, besides a number of Panches, Sarpanches and BJP activists, had been lodged at a secure place. But their mobility had been drastically reduced for one reason or another. “A total of 7 vehicles have been kept for 70 protected persons. Each of us gets a chance to move out after four days. We are supposed to start our visit at 11.00 a.m and return before 4.00 p.m. How is it possible for us to meet with our people, identify the works and make inspections? As of now, these institutions are virtually defunct,” Khan added.

A Professor at Srinagar’s Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development (IMPA), who is associated with the capacity building of the members and other functionaries of the PRIs, said that the Government of India was trying its level best to create and strengthen these institutions of local self-governance with an objective of reducing the monopoly of the traditional mainstream politicians and rulers. “But the matter of the fact, as of now, is that it is an establishment of bipartisan convenience. As of now, the bureaucrats are calling the shots, and the members and chairpersons do not consider themselves empowered or legitimate enough to claim authority,” he said.