Blow to ‘pillars of grassroots democracy’
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"The pillars of grassroots democracy" — that's the grand description politicians gave for the panchs and sarpanchs who got elected in Jammu and Kashmir in 2011 after a gap of 33 years. In just a year's time, the aforesaid pillars are falling, dealt a blow by the very same leaders.
Having braved militant threats to participate in the polls, but left high and dry by the state government that failed to extend them any powers, more than 500 of the 40,000 who had been elected have resigned. The killing of a sarpanch earlier this week, taking such deaths to six, has triggered a fresh spate of resignations. Even appeals by panchayat members to senior officials and ministers for security have gone unheeded.
It's a travesty that may cost the National Conference-Congress government dear. Last held in 1978 and thwarted by militants in 2003, the 2011 elections had been hailed for the enthusiastic response from not just candidates, including engineers, businessmen and scholars, but also the voters, who too had defied militants to exercise their franchise. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had congratulated people for showing faith in democracy, while Congress president Sonia Gandhi had termed the "overwhelming" participation a fitting reply to militants. In the heady rush, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had promised that the panchayat representatives would be empowered to resolve day-to-day problems faced by villagers, such as bijli, sadak and paani. The panchs and sarpanchs had passed on the "dream", promising villages "development" and progress.
Instead, no powers were extended to them in the 14 departments where they were meant to handle funds. Even a circular issued on August 16 last year by the Rural Development Department asking officials to "ensure smooth exercise of existing powers and functions by sarpanchs and panchs of various halqa panchayats" was withdrawn days later. Panchayat members say they have been given powers only to monitor NREGA and there too their powers are limited.
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