By Mukhtar Hussain
The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), was conceived as an idea to decentralise and devolve power and autonomy in regional affairs, to the otherwise less developed, alienated and isolated community of the Ladakh region. The LAHDC has been an outcome of the long struggle for autonomy by the Ladakh people. Originally, it was provided as a compromise to the long held demand for the Union Territory (UT) , championed by the Buddhists of the Leh district of the region . However, the people of the Kargil district of the region did not support the idea of UT as it inevitably involves, the probable division or disintegration of the state and also, in deference to its affinity with Kashmir valley in terms of geography, economy and religion.
It is to be noted here that in the absence economic links of yore with Baltistan, Kargil due to its geographical contiguity with Kashmir has deep economic links with Srinagar. For a variety of reasons, the Union government did not concede to the UT demand. However, it did concede to granting Ladakh autonomy within the constitutional framework of J&K, which was subsequently granted with the enactment of LAHDC Act 1995.
The Act provided for two councils each for Leh and Kargil. The first election to the Leh council was held in 1995 with the Congress party bagging almost all council seats. Kargil deferred the council until July 2003 when the first election to the council was held. The premise of the deferment lay in not antagonizing Kashmiris and the Kashmiri leadership. However, another reason could be that Kargil, then being the bastion of National Conference (whose leadership was opposed to idea of LAHDC), the Kargil leadership did not want to antagonize their bosses in Srinagar.
Ladakh, despite having almost seventy percent of the area of J&K has negligible presence in the corridors of power and decision making centers in Srinagar and Jammu.
However, the key question today is: has the council achieved the goal set by the Council Act of 1995? Does the present working of the Council reflect the spirit of the Act, that was to empower the local populace and bringing out development in the isolated and backward region? Has it become a centre for playing “gulli politics”?
The LAHDC faces challenges of an immense nature. These range from the political to the institutional and the structural. It may be stated here that although politics in both Kargil and Leh significantly differ in some respects, nevertheless, both these councils face similar issues and challenges- especially of an institutional and structural nature. I would endeavor to highlight the key issues and challenges concerning the working of the council with special reference to Kargil district.
The common people in Ladakh, especially in Kargil, are disillusioned with the workings of the council. To them, it appears as a centre for ambitious local politicians to grab power in a relatively easier manner and also for playing “gulli politics”-as exemplified by the tug of war going on in the Kargil Council for the past two to three years. The council has been witnessing hung houses and dissolutions in the past few years with politicians swinging sides as per their interests. The Council has been thrice in three years since its third general election in 2013 with three chairmen belonging to three different political parties holding the reins. The result has been a lag and delay in initiating developmental activities.
Consequently, the council has failed to achieve its goals of equitable and inclusive development and social justice. It is commonplace in Kargil to talk about the favoritism and nepotism along party lines by all the parties which manage to come in power. Development funds have become a key means of patronage as Navnita Chadda Behera has noted. Councilors, rather spending their community development funds (CDF) on the principles of inclusive development and social justice are seen distributing it to win their favourites, who would help them to continue in power for the years to come. Furthermore , vendetta politics has become the order of the day. Corruption and conflict have come to the door step.
The other issues and challenges pertain to institutional and structural aspects.
Although, the council has been provided with enormous powers, which among other things involve, the power of budget formulation, development planning and power to collect taxes and fees of various kinds . However, these powers appear to be confined on paper.
In actual practice, there are flaws in the Council Act itself. The Act stipulates the approval of the state government over budget, planning and other major decisions. Given this, as Martin Van Beek has remarked, “the state government has considerable latitude to obstruct the functioning of the Council”.
The Chief Executive Councillor (CEC) can only sanction projects costing up to five crore rupees. Therefore, for the council to function smoothly, the ruling party in the state must necessarily be the ruling party in the council, for conflicting parties in power at the district and the state pose a grave challenge of coordination. Leaders belonging to opposing parties find it difficult to cooperate on important development issues. Navnita Chaddha Behera has also noted the clash between the CEC who runs the day to day affairs of the council with officers on the higher rung of the administrative ladder. These clashes contribute only to red tapism and inefficiency in the administration. Both the Ladakh councils have been dealing with these challenges. All this adds to the further disillusionment of the local populace with the performance of the council breeding a sense of alienation.
The other structural issues pertain to the very idea of the democratic decentralization. Democracy presupposes an awakened citizenry and an active civil society. If these two are present in a democratic setup, then democracy flourishes. This, in turn, leads to empowerment, participation and inclusive development. However, Ladakh is lacking in both. Given the absence of strong civil society, ambitious politicians can do anything, without being held accountable to the people.
Nevertheless, the Council has some positive features. First and foremost is the empowerwment of the local populace through political consciousness and awakening, in the rather dormant and restive region. People are now far more politically empowered and awakened than before. They are becoming conscious about their democratic rights as well as their distinct identity and culture. The newly acquired political consciousness has given birth to a nascent civil society, as exemplified by many NGOs that focus on governance related issues. Also, it has brought the semblance of development planning from below thereby reflecting grassroots issues, as opposed to the conventional centralized, top down planning.
With an empowered and accountable council and an awakened citizenry complemented by an active civil society which maintains checks and balances, the council could potentially become an arena where participatory democracy and social justice are practiced.
(The author, a native of Ladakh, has studied Political Science at the University of Kashmir. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)