Srinagar: Elections are long overdue for Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies (ULB) but the government is showing no interest in setting up a state election commission, whose mandate it is to conduct the polls. Though elections for panchayats have been announced for March, sources say it is unlikely they will be held at that time. Uncertainty continues over the fate of elections to ULBs as well.
Elections to both the local self-governing bodies are to be held after every five years, but after 2005 the ULB polls have not been conducted while the term of the panchayats expired last year.
The absence of panchayats and ULBs not only prevents the decentralisation of power, it also blocks the money that is budgeted for them. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Electoral Officer Shantanu told Kashmir Reader that the central government has suspended its financial grant for these local governing bodies because of the delay in elections. “The state election commission has not been constituted yet as per the Panchayati Raj Act,” he explained the reason for this.
It is learnt from official sources that the state will lose more Rs 4,000 crore granted by the 14th Finance Commission if the polls are not held. The funds consist of more than Rs 3,117 crore for panchayats and Rs 1,044 crore for urban civic bodies.
Jammu and Kashmir has two municipal corporations, six municipal councils, 72 municipal committees, and 3,200 panchayats, all of which have no elected representatives and have stopped receiving central funds.
The Panchayati Raj Act 2011 enjoins state governments to set up a state election commission that is to be headed by a retired IAS officer or an official not below the rank of commissioner secretary with experience in conduct of polls. The commission’s mandate is to conduct local polls, including trade body elections. In the absence of the regulatory body, the Jammu Kashmir government has vested these powers in itself by announcing the polls.
“It allows the ruling party to have its veto on conducting polls. Successive governments delayed ULB polls despite announcing it. It has turned into a political issue,” said an administrative officer.
According to chairman of the All JK Panchayat Conference, Shafiq Mir, the government does not want to conduct polls in time because it will split its power. “Right now, the government has no constitutional binding to conduct the polls. We have been fighting not just for the setting up of the state election commission but also for incorporation of the 73rd Amendment into the Panchayati Raj Act,” he said.
Last year, the government was supposed to conduct the polls but they could not be held due to the public uprising that swept the Valley for months. Now the government has announced that it will hold the panchayat polls in March, but sources insist they cannot be conducted by that time. The Omar Abdullah-led government had failed to conduct the ULB polls but had held panchayat polls in his term. After taking charge of the coalition government with the BJP, former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had himself given the nod for the ULB polls but had failed to hold them.
Despite repeated attempts, Minister for Housing and Urban Development Nirmal Singh and Panchayati Raj Minister Haq Khan could not be reached for their comments.