AFTER the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent amendments to the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989, the rural areas of the Union Territory are seeing unprecedented devolution of power and authority. The creation of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in India aims to develop self-government at the local village level. PRIs ensure people’s participation in the process of planning, decision-making, implementation, and delivery. The idea is to essentially transform villages socially and economically through these institutions. 3Fs- Funds, functions and functionaries are devolved to the local rural bodies in order to empower these institutions.
While the nascent PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir are abundant with funds and functions, the system is plagued by a smaller number of functionaries. Like elsewhere in India, Jammu and Kashmir faces the same challenge of PRIs being understaffed. In a research article based on a nation-wide survey, Aditya Dasgupta and Devesh Kapur argue that local bureaucrats are often heavily under-resourced relative to their responsibilities. They term this phenomenon as“bureaucratic overload”. As a result of bureaucratic overload, government programs often fail on the ground because of poor implementation by local bureaucrats.
There is a dearth of staff at all the three tiers of PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir. The PRIs are responsible for implementing and delivering a plethora of schemes and there is very high expectation from them. Interestingly, the amended provisions of the 1989 Act say that the Halqa Panchayat may employ necessary staff for carrying out duties but“Halqa Panchayat shall pay remuneration to such staff out of its own resources.” Even though some contractual staff has been hired, it is very little. The nature of the responsibilities that these jobs entail does not correspond to the contractual nature of these jobs. Neither does the meager remuneration that the contractual staff are paid. Most of the work for the staff at the village level involves field visits, technical work and gathering data. It involves traveling and other allowances that the staff involved are not paid adequately. Consider VLWs who are field functionaries. They have to travel consistently but they are not adequately reimbursed for their travel.
Another challenge that the PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir face is the lack of adequate training to the staff. As a result, the staff lacks necessary skills that are required to carry out their duties and responsibilities. It has been more than a year since Accounts Assistant (Panchayat) were recruited but some of them are yet to receive any training for conducting their duties. The lack of training among the staff prevents specialization of the staff and hence has consequences for the organization on a generic level. This hinders the seamless function of the department.
Also, the lack of capacity building among the elected representatives as well as the people living in the villages has consequences for the decentralization. Since, common people are involved in the decision-making process and PRIs work by taking inputs from the people, the common people need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities. Very little has been done to make the citizenry aware of their responsibilities in the functioning of the PRIs.
Further, one of the most time-consuming works for PRIs today is data collection and updation. As a part of Digital India, there are several applications and websites that need to be updated regularly. It is very important but time-consuming work. However, there are few staff available to do the required work. Therefore, staff responsible for one job are being utilised to perform other tasks, thus affecting their primary work. For instance, the responsibility to update data to the recently released JALDOOT App has been assigned to Gram Rojgar Sahayaks (GRS). GRS, in addition to their primary responsibilities, will have to measure the water level of selected wells in the villages twice a year and update the data.
Apart from the problem of being understaffed, PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir also face the issue of not being able to generate their own revenue. Even though PRIs have the power and authority to generate their own income through tax and non-tax revenue, it is not being fully realized in Jammu and Kashmir. As a result, they have to be fully dependent on the funds from the center and the union territory government.
PRIs were established with a view to make villages self-governing and self-reliant. It is a democratic decentralization that aimed to realize the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. PRIs were supposed to be a bottom-up approach to development in villages- people would make decisions about the governance of their own villages. However, the bottom-up approach is yet to be realized. Even after more than three decades of existence of PRIs, they still follow a top-down approach mostly. The reason behind this is that the institutions do not have enough resources. They are understaffed relative to their responsibilities. Further, PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir are not generating all the revenue that they should be.
Since the PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir are nascent, it is important to learn from the experiences of other states and union territories of India. PRIs in Jammu and Kashmir should be put on a path so that their full potential is realized. It will make sure that Gandhi’s dream of Gram Swaraj aim is fully realized.