By Rigzin Wangmo Mar 05, 2018
Tsewang Rigzin, Bureau Chief Leh, State Times: Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in the State of Jammu and Kashmir always remains a distant dream for the public at the grassroots as the prevailing violent situation in Kashmir becomes the immediate excuse for every political party in the State to defer Panchayat elections. This had been seen in the past also and we are observing the same again.
The all-party meeting chaired by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti on February 4, 2018, to discuss and decide on holding the long-pending Panchayat poll in the state failed to evolve any consensus with regard to the holding of polls. But it was clear that Panchayat polls will not be held anytime soon on the pretext of the situation not being conducive.
Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Abdul Haq Khan was quoted as saying, “The majority view in the meeting is against holding the elections at this point in time”.  The meeting reportedly found coalition partners speaking different languages to the holding of the elections with BJP favouring elections to the Panchayats immediately and PDP in the mood to defer on account of situations in the valley. 
Earlier, in the month of December last year, State Government had announced to hold elections soon to reconstitute PRIs which had completed their term in July 2016. The crores of central funds to be spent only through the elected PRIs have stopped coming into the State due to the absence of Panchayati institutions and because of the delay in elections. 
If the situation in the valley is not found conducive to polls then why should Ladakh and Jammu suffer for fault in the valley? Can’t the government hold elections at least in Ladakh region where despite hiccups and glitches in the smooth functioning of Panchayati Raj Institutions? In most parts of Jammu & Kashmir, several initiatives by Panchayat leaders and steps taken to allow them by LAHDC were exemplary when the institutions existed from 2011 to 2016.
The Jammu & Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act 1989 provides a three-tier structure with Halqa Panchayat (HP) at the grassroots, Block Development Council (BDC) at every block and the District Planning and Development Board (DPDB) at the district level.  However, the three-tier system has not yet seen the light of the day in the State on account of many grounds including lack of political will and feeling of insecurity among politicians as the new institutions are often seen as threats to the established politicians in the state.
When Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) were in place from 2011 to 2016, Block Development Council elections were never allowed to be held, sometimes even postponed abruptly at the last-minute on the pretext of bringing reservations for women and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in BDC.
Stories in Ladakh, however, are little different because  LAHDC Act 1997 provides Hill Councils to act as the District Planning and Development Board (DPDB) or Zilla Parishad  – third of the three tiers of J&K Panchayati Raj system. After the enactment of J&K Panchayati Raj Act in 1989, Panchayat elections were first held in the State in 2001.  Soon after the formation of PRIs, Leh was perhaps the first district to take steps towards empowerment of grassroots leaders. Students Educational Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) with support from Action Aid India and Dan Church Aid organised a month-long study tour for panchayat members of Leh to States like Kerala, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh in February 2002 to study best practices of grassroots governance in other parts of the country where Panchayat institutions had evolved with the backing of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment. Ladakh Development Organization (LDO) also provided leadership training and workshops to the Ladakhi Panchayat leaders to enable them to act as efficient grassroots leaders.
After Panchayat elections in 2011 in the state which saw an astonishing 79 per cent voter turnout, Leh district took several initiatives to allow Panchayat leaders.  As a part of the TATA – LAHDC Development Support Program called the ‘Gyurja’ (a partnership between LAHDC Leh and TISS Mumbai implemented in Ladakh with IDBI support), an exposure tour to the Sarpanches of Leh district was organised in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh with training workshops at Hyderabad and Mumbai with the aim to ‘help strengthen the decentralization process leading to an increased ownership of the development process by village communities in the region’.
After PRI elections in 2011, Sarpanches of Leh formed the Panchayat Coordination Committee (PCC) to strengthen PRIs in Ladakh and work in close coordination with the Hill Council. In addition to the schemes and functions transferred to the PRIs as per the J&K Panchayati Act 1989, each Halqa Panchayat in Leh is allocated an amount of ₹ 3.00 lakh each financial year by LAHDC to be spent for development schemes at grassroots at the discretion of PRIs.
If BDCs are formed, the chairman BDC become ex-officio members in the General Council sessions.  Councillor of the respective block will be an ex-officio of the BDC as the Panchayati Raj Act says that ‘in the case of districts of Leh and Kargil, the Councillors of any Council Constituted under the section 3 of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council Act, 1997 representing the area falling in any block shall be ex-officio members of Block Development Council for such block’.   As Leh believes in participatory governance process and devolution of powers, amendments with the LAHDC Act 1997 to harmonize it with the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 has been a unanimous demand as roles and functions of two democratic dispensations need more clarity.  Experts believe that the LAHDC Act needs to be suitably amended to clarify its roles and functions vis-a-vis the PRIs.
In view of the State Government’s intention not to hold Panchayat elections on the pretext of violence in Kashmir, Can Ladakh, both Leh and Kargil join hands together to demand Panchayat elections separately for Ladakh regions?
•    People should come together to demand Panchayat elections separately for Ladakh regions.
•    The three-tier system should be implemented in J&K without taking it as a threat by the politician.
•    The crores of central funds have been stopped due to absent of PRI rule in J&K, to start the inflow of the funds the Panchayati elections is must in the State.
•    The government should hold elections at least in that region of J&K where there are no turmoil and disturbances.
Avny Lavasa, Deputy Commissioner Leh: The Panchayat elections are held after every five years. It has been dissolved in July 2016 and till now the system has been defunct because of the law and order situation in Kashmir– the situation in the valley was very bad in 2016 and now hopefully the government will decide to hold the election soon.  In Leh district, there are 93 Panchayat Halqas. The Rural Development Department is responsible for conducting Panchayat elections.
Unfortunately, in J&K, the system is at its infant stage.   In states like Kerala and Andhra, the Panchayat functions like a proper mini secretariat, hence we have a long way to go. Nonetheless, this is the basic structure where you have Panch, Sarpanches, Panchayat secretaries and then whatever decisions taken are done through the Gram Sabha, which is a collection of all the villagers of that particular Panchayat.
As per the act, there are certain subjects which have been transferred to the Panchayat.  And on those subjects, the Panchayats can frame their rules, they can impose certain fees locally, and they can collect fees.  Ideally, the vision is that it is supposed to be a self-sustaining institution. 
However, we have just implemented the system very recently. There are states in the country, where the system has been going on since the 60s, so there it is well established. There are about fourteen subjects that have been transferred to Panchayats in J&K, the Panchayats are empowered to legislate on those. It is also important to have local governance because ultimately the people who are the most affected by the decisions, this empowers them to participate in the decision making and also at the same time empowering the right kind of people.
Therefore, we need to ensure that the people are educated and are aware of right and wrong and they should have a sense of development.
The Hill Council is a special provision that has been given to Ladakh and if we compare it with the Panchayat, the council has more powers and it is a different model. We cannot exactly compare the two but I also feel that there is a chance of duplication.
Somewhere there is parallelism and it needs to be re-looked. Either we can merge the systems or we can have totally separate roles given to both the systems that will help utilise the resources efficiently.
In Ladakh, there is already a shortage of manpower in government departments. If powers are given to the council and the same power should not be again a duplicate form given to the Panchayat. So we need to think about it in the long run where both do not impede on the power system.
The Panchayat system is not functional from the last two years but the Council is obviously a bigger body, there are more scope and mandate to the work of the Council. The Council should be a policy-making body whereas the Panchayats have a lot of execution also when you are implementing say a tax on garbage collection. The scope is less micro for the council; Panchayat can go deeper to the grass root and work.
The election system of Panchayat is very similar to other assembly elections or Lok Sabha election. The only difference in Panchayat Elections is that we do not use Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), we use ballot boxes and manual voting.
Women participation
The state government passed a law in 2003 reserving one-third seat (33.3% ) under the J&K Panchayati Raj Act 1989 for women.
As of now, we do not have as many women candidate who comes and fights an election and there can be many reasons for that. It is equally important for women to take part in elections but at the same time, I also do not believe in the myth that only a woman can look after women’s issues and development. 
Somehow we have this notion that only if there is a woman head or a woman elected representative only then the issues of women will be looked at. I do not personally agree with that. In Ladakh, I see there are lots of involvements of women in different sectors.
But again I will say that the political representation of woman does not necessarily mean that they are genuinely empowered. For e.g. The United States has never seen a woman president but you would still say the level of empowerment of woman there is better than India, so it is a very complex issue.
•    There is a chance of duplication, the solution for that is either we can merge the systems or we can have total separate roles given to both the Hill Council and Panchayat that will help utilise the resources efficiently.
•    The entire society needs to be made aware.
•    If we talk about woman participation, genuine woman leader will be needed. It is not something that is externally forced upon someone, it has to come from within society and therefore, we need to work on attitudinal behaviour change, not just the women but men also.