More than a year is over since the dissolution of last Panchayats, and now the government of Jammu and Kashmir has decided to hold Panchayat polls after the 15th of February. Although the system of Panchayats in J&K has had its history in the form of ‘Jammu and Kashmir Village Panchayat Regulation Act’, promulgated by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1935, the system could legally become a ‘three -tier local self-government’ only in 1989 when the ‘J&K Panchayati Raj Act, 1989’ was passed. The Act created provisions for the establishment of Halqa Panchayats, Block Development Councils (BDCs) and District Planning and Development Boards (DPDBs) at the level of villages, blocks and districts, respectively.
After a long period of 22 years, successful elections to the Halqa Panchayats were held in 2011. But BDCs and DPDBs are yet to be constituted in accordance with the 1989 Act.
The system of Panchayats had been in vogue during ancient times in India. During the British period, it was made a representative institution, responsible for the development of the village. Mahatma Gandhi also had a role to play in the introduction of this system in Independent India. He had a vision of seeing the ancient system of Panchayats revived as a self-sustaining village governing units which he termed as Gram Swaraj.
However, the chairman of the Constitution drafting committee, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, was not in favour of village Panchayats. What followed after intense tussle between the two was a provision for village Panchayats in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the form of Article 40. As a result, initially, only some of the states started implementing the provision. Gradually, because Panchayati Raj Institutions being under the Directive Principles of state policy, its credibility started eroding. Thus the concept of self-government or Gram Swaraj, as Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned, could not take off as conceptualised.
In 1978, the West Bengal government took the initiative to act on the recommendations of the Ashok Mehta Committee and revamped the system in the state. Soon after, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh followed suit. Jammu and Kashmir passed the ‘Panchayati Raj Act 1989’, the latest in this effort to revitalise the Panchayati Raj system.
In 1992, Parliament passed the 73rd Constitutional amendment bill and it came into force on April 24, 1993. This amendment added Part IX, titled ‘The Panchayats’ containing Articles 243(A) to 243(O) along with insertion of a new schedule i.e. ‘11th Schedule’ to the Indian constitution. Hence, the system of Panchayati Raj came out from the hedge of Directive Principles of State Policy to become an enforceable Act of Parliament. Although enough room has been given under the 73rd Constitutional amendment to the states to implement the Act according to the peculiar geographical and socio-economic conditions, there are some mandatory and important provisions that have to be implemented across the board, but in J&K, because of its special status, it is not applicable, under Article 370.
A few differences between the two Acts are:
Article 243D in the 73rd Amendment provides for the reservation of seats for the positions of Chairpersons ‘at every Panchayat level’ to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Not less than one-third of the total number of the offices of Chairpersons in the Panchayats ‘at each level’ reserved for women. On the other hand, in Sub-clause (3) of Section 4 of J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989, reservations are made only to the seats of Panchs and not to the seats of Sarpanchs (Chairpersons), that too only at the level of Halqa (village) Panchayats.
The 73rd Amendment Article 243(i) provides for the Constitution of Finance Commission ‘by the Governor of a State’ at the interval of every five years to review the financial position of the Panchayats and to make recommendations to the Governor.
On the other hand, in Jammu and Kashmir, the authority to constitute finance Commission vests with ‘the Government itself’ under the ‘Jammu and Kashmir State Finance Commission for Panchayats and Municipalities Act 2011’. This way the state government is exercising control over the financial autonomy of Panchayats as granted under Article 243(i).
Under Article 243G in the 73rd Amendment, Panchayats have been entrusted to implement schemes for economic development and social justice in relation to the matters listed in the Eleventh Schedule, which consists of 29 subjects. However, under the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989, powers of Panchayats have not been explicitly stated regarding some of these prominent subjects.
The 2011 elections to the Halqa Panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir assume significance in that the state government passed a law in 2003 reserving one-third of seats (33.3%) under the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 for women in these grass-roots level political institutions. However, the law proved not much of significance owing to the reservations only to the seats of Panchs and not for the posts of Sarpanchs. Although women succeeded in securing one-third of Panch seats but a female Sarpanch is still a rare phenomenon. Only 25 out of 1966 seats in Jammu and 03 out of 2164 seats in Kashmir could be held by women Sarpanchs in 2011 elections. With respect to the division of Kashmir, under which the constituency of Leh falls, there are two women Sarpanchs from Baramulla and one women from Shopian, but the rest of the districts have not elected even a single women as a Sarpanch, Leh and Kargil being two of them.
It is in this context to look at how the upcoming Panchayat polls unfold is becoming imperative as it has the potential to empower the most marginalised sections of our society where they could be seen actively taking part in strengthening the grass-roots foundation of our vibrant democracy.
The writer is a media intern at Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation