Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Panchayat Elections

Arjimand says that rejecting or delaying the elections is both unwise and unjust

(Mr. Arjimand Hussain Talib, 34, was born in Srinagar. He is a columnist/writer and a development professional who matriculated from Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School in 1991. He subsequently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Engineering from Bangalore University and has a diploma in journalism as well. He is an alumni of the International Academy for Leadership, Gummerbach, Germany and has worked with UNESCO, Oxfam and ActionAid International in some seven countries in Asia and Africa. Arjimand writes regular weekly columns for the Greater Kashmir and The Kashmir Times since 2000 on diverse issues of political economy, development, environment and social change and has over 450 published articles to his credit.)

Question of Panchayats

Compulsive cynicism is always bad. And compulsive aversion to everything is even worse. As the talk of Panchayat elections gains momentum in the state, there is a flurry of political activity. At this point of time this activity looks largely negative.

At one end of the ideological spectrum is the Geelani-led Hurriyat that sees any such electoral exercise a political blasphemy. At the other end are parties like National Conference (NC), PDP and Congress, whose some leaders seem to be in a double mind.

Across this political divide, it seems not many want these elections to happen now. Some just don’t want Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) to come up in J&K at all.

When it comes to Geelani, his analysis of the Panchayati Raj doesn’t seem to be well informed. Those in NC, PDP and Congress who are averse to PRIs have their own reasons to do so.

Whatever the reasons, any opposition to or delay in holding Panchayat elections are not going to do any good to the well being of the common masses in this state. This compulsive opposition will only fuel our political and governance chaos. It will fuel our great suffering.

Geelani would do well to understand the end result of this exercise. To say that Panchayati Raj and its elections are going to dilute the basic political question of J&K would be na├»ve. No electoral exercise of the past 63 years has diluted Kashmiri people’s resolve to ensure their political justice. No electoral exercise has questioned its disputed status in a legal sense.
To understand the insecurities of some of the members of NC, Congress and PDP is important too.

When PRIs start functioning, the enormous powers that our centralized political and administrative systems enjoy today will go to the people. Power will devolve from the Civil Secretariat, from Deputy Commissioners’ offices and MLAs to the people at the village level.

In this process, people at the village level will have a say in planning and spending money for their development purposes. They will be in a position to question and self evaluate.

Our state’s governance – particularly that of Kashmir region – is in a mess. One of the reasons for that, apart from the political ones – is that our administrative institutions suffer from an acute supply-demand mismatch. There is malfunctioning of higher-level governance structures because the lower level structures are under-used. The reason these are under-used is that lack of accountability and ownership renders service delivery ineffective.

Take, for example, Kashmir’s advanced medical care institutions like SKIMS. The reason it gets patients who could even be treated at Primary Health Centres or District Hospitals is that these institutions do not work properly due to accountability reasons. Same is the case with areas like education, welfare, etc.

At the core of the indecision among some of the leaders of NC, PDP and Congress lies perhaps the issue of the 73rd Amendment to the Indian constitution that gave good powers to Panchayats.

A ‘coordination meeting’ between the ruling coalition partners - NC and Congress – on Thursday took the prospects of Panchayat elections two steps backward. Apart from postponing the proposed elections by at least two months, the partners also took the decision of jointly studying the utility of the 73rd Amendment to our state. And there lies the problem.

It is now more than clear that the kind of Panchayati Raj J&K has today by virtue of the Panchayati Raj Act 1989 is more or less cosmetic. This act does not actually empower Panchayats to take decisions that really matter. In this case, the Block and DC offices continue to play the ‘king’s role.’

Looking at the merits of the 73rd Amendment, J&K must adopt most of its provisions to make devolution of powers really possible here. It should also bring primary healthcare in its ambit.

There is another positive spin off of Panchayats in our case. Currently people at the grassroots level have no legal safeguard to report, question and reverse human rights violations at the hands of various security agencies. There is a good possibility that functional Panchayats would engage with the higher structures of police, paramilitary and army powers for safeguarding people’s human rights. Such an empowerment of people at the grassroots level would be a great thing to happen.

Now that the coalition partners have set to ‘study’ the 73rd amendment, it is important that they do another side task. Despite the application of this Amendment many states continue to deny financial and administrative powers to Panchayats as enshrined under the same. We must not follow that model.

Another important learning relates to the role of the Block and District-level tiers under the Panchayti Raj system. According to the Approach Paper to the Tenth Five Year Plan, excessive controls through Block and District-level tiers on the village-level institutions have been found counter-productive. It has already proposed abolishing these two tiers.

There has been another critical learning. It has been generally observed that a lack of manpower and capacity to do works planned by Panchayats limits their capacity to deliver positive results. J&K’s PRIs must have a mechanism that allows for full time or part-time staff to support their functioning, including documentation. There also must be a good provision for capacity building.
On the issue of reservation, J&K needs to be little more cautious. It must take care not to create a reservation system that ends up creating greater polarization rather than binding communities together.

New Delhi also needs to understand that without meaningful decentralization, governance will continue to remain in a mess in Kashmir. And when governance remains in a mess the prospects of finding an amicable solution to Kashmir’s political question would remain dim.

While working with grassroots institutions in several countries in Asia and Africa, my personal experience is that a decentralized governance system is the best thing to happen to a country. China is one such good example. It is today much more decentralized than most of the developing and middle-income countries, particularly on the spending side. More than half of all expenditure in China takes place at the sub-provincial level.

That is one reason why we need to be optimists about this plan of decentralization.

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