Abdul Rahim has not spent a single night at home for over a year ever since he defied threats from militants and contested in the Panchayat polls held in November-December 2018. Despite the government’s assurances, the polling was nominal, and Rahim and others were declared winners in what is believed to have been a sham.
But neither he nor other elected office bearers in panchayats have been able to visit their constituencies for any length of time. Most of them are holed up in Srinagar hotels and villagers travel to Srinagar to seek redressal.
“I rarely visit my constituency during the day and have not spent a single night there for over a year. People of my constituency visit me in the hotel. We are not able to review any development work being executed.” Says Rahim, who is staying in a hotel in Srinagar’s Rajabgh area.
Hundreds of Panches and Sarpanches like Rahim have been put up in Srinagar hotels by the government.
“Most of the people stayed away from Panchayat polls and more than 60 per cent of the seats remained vacant because there were no candidates. The Government now wants to hold another panchayat election to fill up the vacant posts,” a sarpanch visiting Rahim pointed out.
“We are not against elections, but the government must ensure a secure environment for Panchayat members,” they said, wishing not to be quoted by their real names.
“We put our lives in risk by contesting in the panchayat polls but nobody is bothered about our security. How can we review developmental works miles away from our constituencies?” a Sarpanch from Shopian district, who too is staying at one of the Srinagar hotels, asked.
In the Panchayat election in 2018, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference (NC) did not participate over the issue of special status. The election was largely boycotted in Kashmir and over 12,000 Panchayat seats continue to be vacant.
In Kashmir out of 20093 Panch and Sarpanch seats, only 6162 Panches and 1366 Sarpanches were elected in the polls while 12565 posts are yet to be filled.
In Jammu, 15800 Panches and 2289 Sarpanches were elected but even there as many as 166 seats have remained vacant. In Ladakh, 45 seats are vacant where 1414 Panches and 192 Sarpanches were elected.
Ever since the Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the Centre has been talking about strengthening grassroots leadership in the new Union Territories.
However, Chairman All Jammu Kashmir Panchayat Association, (AJKPA), Shafiq Mir claimed that government has failed to empower Panchayat system in J&K.
“No Panchayat member has been provided any security by the government. Hundreds are lodged in Srinagar hotels. It is the responsibility of the government to create a secure environment for Panches and Sarpanches,” Mir told National Herald.
Developmental works to be carried out by Panchayat members have also been affected as government has failed to release payment of Rs 400 crore for work under MGNREGA scheme over the last several years. “This includes payment of wages of labourers and material used in developmental works,” an official of Rural Development Department said.
He however said some payment in the current fiscal has been released. “Payment of previous years is pending because of certain issues,” he said.
J&K Secretary, Rural Development Department, Sheetal Nanda said some payment under MGNREGA scheme is pending. “Payment will also be released. Government is making all efforts to empower Panchayat system in J&K,” Nanda said.
J&K Chief Electoral officer Shailendra Kumar has also announced holding of elections on vacant Panchayat seats in March. He also said elections will be contested on party basis.
“How can we participate in elections when leaders of political parties are in jails? We are not even being allowed to visit places where polls are being held. No security is being provided then how can we participate in polls,” J&K Congress chief G A Mir said.
Senior National Conference leader Mustafa Kamal said his party won’t participate in polls. “Leadership of NC is in jail. How can we take decision about participating in polls,” Kamal, who happens to be brother of Farooq Abdullah, said.
A Peoples Democratic Party leader also confirmed they wouldn’t participate in polls. “These elections are only for participation of BJP,” the PDP leader said.