Centre's measures for Jammu and Kashmir local body polls will increase accountability, improve governance
A series of measures announced by Home Minister Rajnath Singh on empowering local government in Jammu and Kashmir are likely to significantly change the ground rules in Kashmir if implemented.
New Delhi certainly means business this time around. A series of measures announced by Home Minister Rajnath Singh on empowering local government in Jammu and Kashmir are likely to significantly change the ground rules in Kashmir if implemented.
Media and critics are likely to see these as election sops, which they are at one level. However, they will also address the most fundamental problem that ails Kashmir, which is the absolute lack of any semblance of governance on the ground. Having said that, the move upends the traditional way of coming to power in Kashmir.
Instead of uneasy coalitions with established parties of diverse hues, this is an attempt to create a well-funded local government that, among other things, will lead to a thumping validation of the BJP.
To evaluate the measures one by one. The key issue highlighted by the home minister is that the government will implement the 73rd constitutional amendment in the state. The 73rd amendment was passed in December 1992, and gives panchayats all over the country a share of state funds and certain taxes, and an overall devolution in about 28 areas. It also provides for allocation of centrally funded grants and Union Finance Commission Grants.
The trouble is that Jammu and Kashmir has its own Panchayati Raj Act of 1989 which allows devolution in far fewer areas, particularly in terms of funding. So when the home minister says that local bodies will get Rs 4,335 crores of the 14th Finance Commission Grants if the elections go off successfully, he’s only stating the facts. He’s also cutting the ground from under the feet of local politicos. As any shrewd politician (or shrewder bureaucrat) knows, money talks the loudest.
In case the locals don’t get the big picture, the home minister also made it clear by reiterating that panchayats will be part of the extensive alphabet soup that are central government-funded schemes, including MNREGA, National Health Mission and several dozen others with acronyms that are probably a mystery to most. All of this is covered under the 73rd Amendment, but New Delhi is just making sure to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's. That’s a lot of funds. There are also additional posts to be had, which means more power to the local leaders, and more inducements to vote for the public.
That’s still only a part of it. Under the new scheme, there are to be significant enhancements to panchayat’s financial powers by a factor of ten, and the powers to raise their own funds through tax collection of various local activities. Kahsmir's own laws also allow local taxation, but at first glance, the new measures seems to cover a far larger net.
Such taxation can be an inducement as well as a responsibility. Taxation is part of the contract between the governed and the government. That means the one has a right on the other. Simply put, local demands or dissatisfaction in an effective panchayat system is then directed at its own local heads, and not at Srinagar or Delhi. It’s not a perfect solution, but it does give people a sense of control over their own affairs.
The problem is that while there are inducements aplenty, those who covered the last round of panchayat elections will remember that while it was held successfully, with more than 78 percent turnout. That at least showed there was popular enthusiasm for the process. There are some 4,130 sarpanches and more than 29,000 panches. Though the government has geared itself to provide protection during the elections, it is virtually impossible to provide this all the year around.
In 2012, six such local leaders were killed in Baramulla and three in Pulwama. This led to a mass resignation of leaders in certain districts, with a stated 63 percent of total posts declared vacant. The separatists have again issued a call for boycott of the polls. While there is considerable disillusionment about the motives of the so-called “Joint Resistance Leadership”, vested interests will back them, particularly the disaffected political parties who see power slipping out of their hands.
The key problem that confronts New Delhi is, however, more than just security, serious though it is. First, the elections can go fully ahead only if people see value in voting. To most people, the inducements provided in the form of various schemes and grants are just confusing language. To get people to vote, the Centre has to transmit what it proposes to devolve in plain and simple language. The MHA has vastly improved its webpage and communication skills, but there is a lot of space for improvement. Cut the talk on yojanas and get to the chase.
Second, Kashmiris have little faith in their own governments, local or otherwise. Increased powers to panchayats has to be coupled with increased transparency. If a horse owner is to be taxed, he needs to know what advantage he gets out of it. Third is the problem of getting educated – not to mention well-intentioned – people to stand for local government elections. While this is true almost everywhere in India, in Kashmir, it becomes particularly important to ensure that the educated middle class is encouraged to have a stake in local government at the very least in an advisory capacity. Otherwise, it is corruption that will trickle down, not governance.
And finally, it can be expected that the media and the Opposition will cry foul on the new measures as attempts to influence the elections. But this is what political parties are supposed to do in a democracy. They propose and carry out various measures to improve the life of people they are supposed to serve. Efficiency is generally rewarded, while an unhappy public will boot them out.
That’s called democratic accountability. In Kashmir, democracy has been more about grants and subsidies. It's time to shift the focus towards Kashmir generating and disbursing its own revenues. Governance has to be both created and paid for. Hopefully, the panchayats will be provided that first boost.
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