With the Modi government’s action against Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir’s true integration into India has been achieved. This has addressed a glaring problem that was allowed to exist for too long. However, in all the chatter around it, people often ignore is the transformative impact on democracy. Touching the lives of people positively, it has created a rupture from the cynicism of the past that was a result of Article 370. For the first time, grassroots democracy was significantly strengthened by the Narendra Modi government thanks to the conduct of local body elections.
Elections to Panchayats, Blocks and Municipalities, Now A Reality
Prior to the amendment of Article 370, the Modi government had ensured that Panchayat Elections occurred successfully in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in the November of 2018. That it took thirteen years to get this done is testament to how democracy was subverted, thanks to the monopoly of a few elite. Ironically, municipal elections have taken place only 5 times in Jammu and Kashmir till now, one of them occurring under this government. Thanks to the fear free atmosphere ensured by the security forces, the Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir, held in nine-phases between November 17 and December 17 on a non-party Basis witnessed an impressive 74% turnout in the 35,096 panch constituencies.
Post the amendment too, Jammu and Kashmir witnessed its first ever Block development polls in October of 2019, and witnessed an impressive voter turnout of 98.3%, in the process electing chairpersons of BDCs for 310 blocks in the state and 1,092 candidates in the fray. Srinagar in the Kashmir division recorded a 100 per cent turnout, and the poll percentage for the 10 districts in the Kashmir region was 93.65 per cent and 99.4 per cent for the 10 districts in the Jammu region. These figures stand testament to the deepening of roots that democracy witnessed by the people in a meaningful sense, with the monopoly of the political elite of the Kashmir valley not mangling democratic principles for achieving their own ends in a long time. With the peaceful conduct of local elections ensure people basic needs in life are being met continuously, and thanks to the bifurcation and amendment coupled with pending delimitation these can become a regular feature, empowering the people of Jammu and Kashmir in a meaningful way.
Empowering Grassroots Leaders, Enabling Good Governance
Democracy is as much about timely election as it about sharing responsibility and empowering representatives. Both the union territory government and central government have been working overtime to support and empower block development councils, panchayats and sarpanches so that they can exercise their power and work for the welfare of people of Jammu and Kashmir. More than ₹1,500 crores have been devolved to Panchayati Raj Institutions in the past one year alone, while implementation powers for important schemes like MGNREGA, PMAY, Mid-Day Meal Scheme, have finally been given to the UT’s panchayats.
Panchayats have also been empowered to undertake social Audit of Government schemes and issuance of NOC’s to mining licenses. There has also been an enhancement of the financial powers of local governments by ten times from ₹10,000 to ₹1 lakh for Panchayats and from ₹25,000 to ₹2.5 lakhs for Block Councils. Similarly, powers of Municipal Bodies to enter contracts have been enhanced upto ₹20 crore, which has fast tracked development process.
Panchayats have also been granted powers to generate their own funds, allowing them to charge building permission fee, taxes on entertainment, advertisement, hoardings, various kinds of businesses and profession. This is important, as it enables them to raise revenue independently to conduct relevant development works. Also, to give a boost to their morale, the government has instituted a monthly honorarium of ₹2,500 for sarpanchs and ₹1,000 for panchs. To further boost their morale, Prime Minister Modi personally met a section of newly elected Panchayat members in December of 2019 and heard all their views, directing officials to see how their concerns can be addressed suitably.
This deepening of democracy is not limited to conventional measures as above; it also incorporates creative governance initiatives. The unique participatory initiative Back to Village (B2V) entails every gazetted officer spending one night and two days in an allotted Panchayat. This initiative has led to 20,000 development works being identified directly by the people with all panchayats covered. Such close involvement in a place where governments behaved in the much hated ‘we know best’ attitude is leading to the system becoming responsive to people, a refreshing change from the days when governance was all about being networked to get one’s share of the spoils as a handout for being a loyalist to one or the other elite group.
The positive changes effected by the Narendra Modi government to Jammu and Kashmir are starting to become a new reality for the Union Territory. With Jammu and Kashmir experiencing the true meaning of democracy and participatory hands-on governance, a new ray of hope is visible to the ordinary citizens who have for long been deprived of their just right to good governance.