The J&K District Polls Call for an Examination of Local Governance Not Politics

Governance as a process promotes both social and political participation. Similarly, elections ensure social and political participation. However, in areas affected by conflict and violence, every process becomes a tool of political positioning. The process of elections to District Development Councils (DDCs) in Jammu and Kashmir has brought the focus back on the political process in J&K rather than on local governance.

Elections at the local level are no substitute for legislative assembly elections and do not provide adequate representation to every issue and challenge that people face. J&K at this moment faces bigger challenges that cannot be addressed at the local level. Further, elections to DDCs or vacant panchayat seats cannot be used as a litmus test for all the changes that have emerged in the erstwhile state of J&K. This is where the politics-administration dichotomy debates even more relevant.

Halqa Panchayats, Block Development Councils, and District Development Councils are the institutions of local governance. And local governance through Panchayati Raj is at the heart of rural development. Elections to these institutions have to focus on local governance rather than promoting and ‘force verifying’ a particular ideology.

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Elections to DDCs would complete the three-tier Panchayati Raj in J&K. DDCs would play a significant role in preparing and approving district plans and capital expenditure. They would have elected representatives from rural areas of each district. Within DDCs, there will be District Plan Committees (DPCs) which will consider and guide district development plans. DPCs would indicate priorities for various schemes and consider issues related to the speedy development and economic uplift of the district.

Election officials make preparations for polling at the BDC elections being held across 22 districts of Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: PTI/File

District Development Councils have to be understood within the context of Gram Panchayat Development Plans (GPDP) and Back to Village Programme (B2V) programme. Looking purely from the governance perspective, GPDP has to be the cornerstone of the local development and governance.

GPDP empowers Halqa Panchayats to ensure decentralisation of planning and power at the grassroots level. DDCs would help in the consolidation of planning but councils cannot be substituted for gram panchayats, and yet another tool of centralisation of planning process even if it is at the district level.

The success of DDCs would rest largely on the process of decentralised planning through Gram Panchayat Development Plan and Back to Village (B2V) programme. These twin concepts are aimed at ensuring effective, efficient, transparent and accountable governance at the local level. The focus of this article would be on GPDP and Back to Village concepts (B2V).

From local government to local governance: Shift from means to ends

In other states of India, the debate around local governance has shifted from local government to local governance. The organisation issue has been resolved in other states with the implementation of the 73rd Amendment to the constitution which mandated three-tier structure of Panchayati Raj. In Jammu and Kashmir, elections to the local bodies have been irregular. In 2011, Panchayati elections were held after a gap of 10 years. In 2001, the elections were held after a gap of 23 years. Even when elections were held, those were for Halqa Panchayats only. Now with elections to DDCs, all three structures of the Panchayati Raj would be in place, namely: Halqa Panchayats, Block Development Councils and District Development Councils.

These structures would not be enough. There has to be devolution of functions, finances, functionaries and decentralised planning as mandated by the Act. However, this has not happened and unlikely to happen if there is more political utilisation of local governance institutions.

File photo of women attending a gram sabha meeting in Dungarpur district, Rajasthan. Photo: UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Elections are means to an end and not an end in itself. Devolution of functions, finances and decentralised planning as mandated by the Act are yet to be implemented in the actual sense. This is partly due to focus on PRIs as the institutions of local government rather than local governance. The focus has been more on political participation, and PRIs are looked at more as centres of local politics than institutions of governance. It also suffers from bureaucratic hurdles of power-sharing. People’s attitude towards these institutions has been to a large extent indifferent as their participation was limited to voting.

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There has to be a shift from local government to local governance with emphasis on three Fs, functions, finance and functionaries. The shift should aim to make PRIs action-oriented and goal-oriented units of governance. From mere political representation, the emphasis in governance would mean focus on citizen participation, responsiveness, transparency, equity and inclusiveness, effectiveness and efficiency and accountability.  In the context of PRIs, local governance as a concept would manifest itself through empowerment of gram sabha and gram panchayat, capacity building of panchayats, financial strengthening through devolution, programme delivery, inclusive social and economic development, social justice, and social audit.

Governance includes various processes – elections, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, etc. It is not one of these features that complete the organic concept of governance, but a combination of these. Strengthening one aspect involves strengthening other aspects as well. Institutions, processes and people’s participation are in a way ends of the governance. But on the other hand, these features are means through which the state achieves the larger objectives. That’s true in the context of local governance as well.

Strengthening of local institutions like gram sabha and gram panchayat; people’s participation in local development; and processes like capacity building, community mobilisation and decentralised planning are not an end in itself.

These aspects are the means to achieve effective and responsive service delivery at the local level and ensuring inclusive social and economic development and justice at the grassroots level. There has to be the shift from means to ends which would involve reforming of local governance and strengthening of all aspects of governance to ensure responsive and effective public service at the local level. It starts with PRIs playing a major role in planning at the local level.

Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP) and responsive local governance

Planning is an important process of governance. Decentralised planning has been a long-term objective in developing effective local governance in India. It gained renewed focus in 2015 through Gram Panchayat Development Plan (GPDP).

GPDP is the development plan of the gram panchayat. GPDP are plans formulated by gram panchayats for economic development and social justice utilising the resources available to them. It is expected to be not merely an end product of gram panchayat planning, but a comprehensive and participatory process of governance that involves full convergence with schemes of all related union ministries related to 29 subjects listed in the Eleventh Schedule of Constitution.

A gram panchayat meeting in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

A gram panchayat meeting in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

The convergence is a central aspect of GPDP for the effective implementation of flagship schemes on subjects on national importance for the transformation of rural India as well as localisation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

GPDP re-emphasises that development is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Local needs and demands may differ from panchayat to panchayat. It is a bottom-up approach of planning which seeks to go beyond infrastructure and covers areas like poverty reduction, social development of vulnerable groups, service delivery, and include both resource-based and no-cost interventions.

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GPDP through a convergence of schemes at the panchayat level seeks to address deprivations at the grassroots level and achieve inclusive development, poverty reduction, creating better opportunities, improve basic services, health nutrition, malnutrition, education, and women and child development, etc. GPDP as a process of planning takes into account the available resource at the panchayat level, infrastructure status and gaps, needs and demands of local people and prioritises important sectors and activities, etc.

GPDP as a process of governance is a reform tool that improves institutions, people’s participation and processes. It is a reform and development tool both at the level of preparing as well as implementing it. It is a time-bound, participatory, inclusive and transparent process.

There has to be a change in the working of the panchayats, capacity building among gram panchayat and gram sabha members, and convergence of efforts of various functionaries at the GP level, block officials, district officials and at the state level with gram sabha to avoid Riggsian Formalism in the Gram Panchayat Development Plan.

It starts with the awareness generation about the gram sabha and gram panchayat. It is critical for any planning process that people should be able to express their demands. Demands can come from active citizenry. Active citizenry is a byproduct of awareness generation and capacity building. This is where the concept of Back to Village (B2V) of Jammu and Kashmir gains significance.

Back to Village programme

As a concept of governance at doorstep, Back to Village programme ensures active citizenry through community participation in the development and strengthening of panchayats. It has to essentially act as a means to promote local planning rather than yet another tool of bureaucracy-led top-down planning with only difference that it is done at the local level by visiting the villages. It has to act as a behavioural programme as well through the reformed bureaucratic apparatus and there is an effective convergence of officials at the state and district level with frontline functionaries and local elected representatives.

J&K Lt Gov Manoj Sinha inaugurates the Back to Village programme. Photo: By arrangement

Back to Village programme has to essentially act as a prelude to GPDP and complement it rather than act as a parallel framework of local governance and development. The first phase of B2V saw significant participation among the people. The subsequent phases have also been popular with the masses but the participation has been slightly less due to lack of accountability and follow-up on earlier promises. This is where the problem actually exists. The perception goes among people that it is led by the officers when it has to be led and directed by local people which decentralises not only planning but also implementation and accountability as well.

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Even though Back to Village programme is aimed at involving people of the state and government officials in a joint effort to deliver the mission of equitable development, it has to be led by the people at the grassroots than by the visiting officers and those at district and state level. There is where the change is needed.  There is where convergence is needed between GPDP and the Back to Village programme.

GPDP aims at getting wide spread participation, and Back to Village would assist in strengthening systematic efforts to mobilise community and getting them involved in the process of their own development. Community awareness and mobilisation would essentially mean behavioural change. The behavioural change involved in the process is to own common problems and not leave them to the government (perceived as external agency).

One of the aspects that should be added to Back to Village programme and GPDP is to engage a team of community volunteers. These volunteers can be given training about planning, implementation and monitoring of development programmes. These community volunteers can be used to do community mobilisation as well as capacity building. Community mobilisation through volunteers has to focus on capacity building and information dissemination and leave the leadership role to the members of the community themselves. They have to act more as facilitators for sustainability of such process.

GPDP as a holistic plan has to deal with several subjects and would need much more participation and involvement of the people. Planning is a technical process and it is true that people at the local level know their problems and needs, but may not effectively be able to plan about their solutions. This is one aspect which often leads bureaucrats to presume that leaving planning to people wouldn’t serve the purpose. However, capacity building is possible.

Also read: Why Has the ‘Back to Village’ Programme Failed to Take-Off in Kashmir?

One critical aspect of GPDP is the formation of Gram Panchayat Planning Facilitation Team (GPPFT). It has to be a starting point of GPDP implementation, and in J&K, B2V exercise should be used to facilitate capacity building of GPPFT since officers are available at the local-level during such programmes.

GPPFT would have to create working groups or use standing/functional committees to deal with different subjects, such as health, sanitation, education, nutrition and social welfare, etc. It would need involvement of such people who have interest in such matters or knowledge or experience of such matters. Facilitators and volunteers would first build capacity of working groups of the GPPFT before the larger community mobilization is initiated.

J&K Lt Gov Manoj Sinha distributes sports kits as part of the Back to Village programme. Photo: By arrangement

Devolution of funds was a major challenge to the functioning of the local governments. This issue to some extent has been resolved through the devolution of funds to the local governments under the 14th Finance Commission. In fact, it was the 14th Finance Commission that played a major role in increasing prominence of PRIs.

The 14th Finance Commission awarded a fixed amount of Rs. 2,00,292.2 crore to panchayats across India for 2015–20, which is more than three times the grant of the 13th Finance Commission. This devolution of funds augmented the financial health of PRIs. It has also made the exercise of GPDP meaningful. Even though funds are still limited GDPD can play a role in effective and efficient utilisation of available funds. One of the major lessons of B2V was the mismatch between what people need and what people are provided. GPDP would ensure that funds are utilised for works depending upon the priorities set by people themselves at the village level.

Back to Village programme has also assisted in strengthening twin concepts of ‘self-coordination and self-adjustment’ which are fundamental to GPDP.  Self-coordination and self-adjustment relate to coordination by direct control and coordination in the early stages. It means that there is direct access to Halqa Panchayat leadership to common people. Halqa Panchayat is in convergence with the line functionaries in the gram panchayat and that this involvement is at the initial stages and continues from planning to implementation stage. Problem solving has to be a shared goal among people, village leadership, block and district leadership and above. Once a particular problem gets solved, it would shape the behaviour of people and increase their interest and participation in the activities of gram panchayat.

Also read: ‘More Visiting Officers Than Villagers’: Inside J&K Govt’s ‘Back to Village’ Outreach Programme

GPDP would provide a role for civil society organisations and state institutes of rural development. The role of civil society organisations and state institutes of rural development is essential to train elected representatives, community volunteers and frontline functionaries in the planning process. These bodies would also help in data collection and analysis that is at the heart of Gram Panchayat Development Plan. The role of community volunteers can be used to collect information about financial resources available, own funds, number of ponds, wells, check dams, the status of grazing lands, condition of buildings, schools, health sub centres, toilets, infant mortality, school drop-outs, institutional births and drinking water in Anganwadi, etc. This would make planning at the local level effective.

GPDP plans have to be realistic and must factor in situational analysis and demands of various groups to prioritise activities for development in a year. Community mobilisation and community ownership would ensure equal focus on social development. For long, gram panchayats have focused mostly on infrastructural development. This has largely been due to lack of awareness and lack of demands by various groups in the gram sabha. Community mobilisation and active participation of people in gram sabha ensure that there is expression of needs and ensuring of focus on social development and service delivery. It also leads to focus on many costless or low-cost activities which are largely dependent on community awareness and mobilisations, such as quality education, provision of mid-day meals in schools, proper sanitation, enrolment of school drop-outs, immunisation, institutional delivery and social forestry, etc.

Way forward

The way forward for local development is the effective utilisation of the twin concepts of governance-GPDP and Back to Village. It needs the fundamental change in the understanding of governance both by the officials as well as the people. If these concepts are implemented in the letter and spirit, then there is a strong possibility of a shift from local government to local governance; and from top-down to bottom-up planning; and more importantly from bureaucracy led to community-led development. Without utilising these concepts, it is unlikely that sustainable development would reach to the grassroots.

Dr. Zubair Nazeer is an assistant professor of public administration at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Dr. Shafia Wani is an assistant professor (Rural Development) at J&K Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development, Srinagar (J&K).

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