GOVERNANCE: Almost a year has passed since Panchayat elections in the Kashmir Valley. The newly embraced democracy has started to find roots amid the tenuous peace

It has not been unusual, in recent years, to see people swarming the streets in Srinagar; the infamous protests characterised by stone pelting, slogan shouting and violence reflecting the long struggle of Kashmir and its people. But the crowds that thronged the streets of the Kashmir Valley last year were celebrating a remarkable milestone --- a celebration of the renaissance of democracy in the conflict affected State.

After a long void of 10 years, the Panchayat elections were successfully conducted across all three divisions -- Jammu, Kashmir and the two districts of Kargil and Leh in Ladakh. The positive participation of the people generated hope and inspiration that the scars of the last two decades could, truly, be left behind. This participation reflects the growing faith of the Kashmiri people in democracy.

The Panchayat election in Kashmir was characterised by its many merits. Communal harmony defied the old tradition of conflict, with Hindus being voted to power in the Valley's Muslim majority areas. The results were proof of the change in ideology of the people and their saying “no” to the polarised political system. They want their serene valley to be developed.

After the elections passed off peacefully and the Kashmiris voted in large numbers, the onus of good governance fell on the State government. It had consistently had been claiming that the only solution to the local rural problems was the advent of Panchayats, and if the Panchayat elections are successfully held, people and their representatives would be provided with the required rights and regulations.

Before the elections, rumor mills were working overtime to propagate the notion that the new Panchayats would have no rights and once again, people would be disappointed. Within six months of the elections, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, clearing the air, fulfilled his promise of giving rights to the Panchayats.

After 10 months of Panchayat elections in Kashmir, it has become evident that the newly embraced democracy has started to find roots amid the tenuous peace in the valley. The realisation has dawned that the solution to people's issues does not lie in guns and stones; it lies in the democratic process.

Truly, Panchayat elections have changed the face and the direction of rural areas of Kashmir. The people are now increasingly aware of their rights. Earlier, people would not take interest in government initiatives, but now things have drastically changed; government-public partnership can be seen in local development works. Growing interest of the locals in anganwadis, Public Distribution System (PDS), primary health centre and school related works points towards a prosperous future. Inhibition, now, does not play any role when it comes to people asking tough questions to their panch. One such incident in Salamatwadi Village, Kupwada, exposed a scam in the local anganwadi centre wherein the supervisor was also involved. Such scams were habitual even earlier but the local people never bothered to question the movement around the centre.

Similarly, in Dardpura Village, locally known as the Village of Widows, there were no basic facilities. This is the last Indian village adjacent to the Line of Control (LoC) but was deprived of transportation or public distribution facilities. After the panchayat elections, this village has also been included in the fold of government schemes - widows and elderly persons have started getting the allowance and pension due to them, which was not available earlier. The improved sense of awareness and interest of the villagers in government schemes is reflected in the queues that form in front of the government offices to benefit from such schemes. People are hugely benefiting from the public distribution system. With the efforts of the panchayat, for the first time a bus service has started from this remote village to Srinagar.

Formation of Panchayats has brought a drastic change in rural Kashmir, and more participation of its youth in the political system. The youth of Kashmir, with colorful dreams for peace and development of their homeland, voted in large numbers. Their passion and enthusiasm has strengthened the panchayats in the State. For example, Panch Basheer Ahmad (24) and Sarpanch Ahmed Meer (25) of Salamatwadi, Kupwada are very young. This is the reason the villagers are able to benefit from the government schemes. Now, small disputes of the villages are resolved in the village panchayat, and not in the police station. Because of the efforts made by these young representatives, these villages attract more MNREGA work.

The State government was under tremendous pressure from its MLAs to restrict the rights of panchayats, as they were not ready to share power with the masses. Decentralization of power, they felt, could hamper their rights as MLAs. By extending the rights of the panchayat the belief of the people of Kashmir in the government has increased.

(Charkha Features)

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