More need to be done for empowering PRIs

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high profile visit to Jammu and Kashmir for ‘Panchayati Raj Day’ to interact with members of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) is expected to go a long way to empower the PRIs in real sense. Though the prime minister is expected to make some important announcements covering political and economic development issues, the focus of the event is expected to remain on the PRIs – their empowerment and to bring vibrancy of these local bodies so that they achieve their full potential on ground.

Under the 73rd Constitution Amendment Act, the government has already transferred the 29 subjects to the Panchayats that enables the Gram Sabha to have administrative control over rural development, poverty alleviation, roads, drinking water, rural housing, public distribution system etc.

All the previous governments in the erstwhile state of J&K had been denying the devolution of power and authority to the local village level bodies. This has deprived the potential of the village level unit to bring radical change in the state-society relationship.

Three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions were established in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. The annual budget of the UT for the fiscal year 2022-23, presented in Parliament on March 14 by the Finance Minister, included a sizable funding provision for both urban and rural local bodies.

While this decentralization move was done with greater enthusiasm, there are yet some problems that are weakening the system and much need to be done to improve functioning of the PRIs.

J&K Administration’s earlier initiative of taking the bureaucratic set up to the doorsteps of the people through the ‘back to village’ (B2V) programmes was a welcome step, however, the Panchayat members in J&K yearned for the complete empowerment of PRIs through the 73rd Amendment of Indian Constitution in entirety and in true spirit.

Their common complaint is that different line departments are not adhering to government guidelines that require them to consult the elected members of PRI while implementing welfare schemes.

Further elections to Vice Chairpersons at BDC levels have not been conducted even after two and a half years of BDC elections and also the elections to the various bodies/committees of the DDC’s.

The lack of capacity building among the elected members and the lack of awareness among the people of the villages are defeating the main aim of the local self-government in the decision making. Their opinion on the works that need to be carried out and the fund allocation to different projects is not taken.

As the local unit is involved in implementing a plethora of schemes and there are higher expectations from them, they usually lack resources. In the case of J&K, Panchyati Ghars have been built but most of the Panchyati Ghars lack adequate basic facilities, including availability of electricity and broadband that are necessary for functioning of the office. The available strength of Panchayat Secretaries, Panchayat Account Assistants and the Village Level Workers is also insufficient as the local body involves lots of decision-making and planning and implementation processes. Further, all these employees are inadequately trained and they lack necessary skills to do their tasks.

Another problem observed is the case of elected women representatives being proxy of their male relatives. One-third seats for all the three tiers of the PRIs are reserved for women but the lack of awareness among women representatives makes them dependent on their male relatives. The women are thus reduced to proxy for their male relatives and the very motive behind the reservation is subverted by the men.  Therefore, the government must make sure that proxy representation of women is discouraged from the beginning and empower women in a genuine sense.

Apart from this, the security situation at the ground level in J&K is different from other parts of the country. The recent spate of killings of local elected Panches and Sarpanches show that they are subjected to huge risk of life and limb especially in Kashmir. The government should take effective measures to create a secure environment free of subversive elements and institutionalize some sort of incentives proportional to the risk these members are taking in performing their function.

When things are being dealt with at the level of the Prime Minister, it is hoped that these shortcomings would be addressed on top priority. The Prime Minister should ask these questions to the J&K Administration when he would be addressing PRI’s and people of Jammu Kashmir.

Thus, the main objective of democratic institutions like Gram Panchayats that can make people’s lives better needed collective and coordinated efforts at the ground level.  The empowered Panchayats will make our democracy stronger and will increase confidence of the people at large.

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