At the turn of the 21st Century, the people of Jammu & Kashmir – like people of dignity and dreams all over the world – are clamoring for a greater voice in the administrative system through which they are governed.
Buoyed by the landmark Panchayat Elections of 2009 and the overwhelming response, those neglected sections of our society that were traditionally denied power by a fairly centralised, traditional, authoritarian State are now harking for greater systemic empowerment and they won’t settle for a politically expedient denial or short sale.
In the last few weeks, we have witnessed an unfortunate, grossly misinformed delegitimisation campaign about this historic, landmark exercise. The overt and covert cognitive distortion has been followed by half-baked, ignorant value judgments being passed on the political and economic aspects of this exercise.
The argument that revolves in circles around the allegedly adverse “financial implications” of this decentralisation exercise is at best a self-validating assortment of half-truths and lacks cogency. While a hyperbolic, hyperventilating and lopsided emphasis on the “costs” of this exercise without taking into account the estimated cost-saving benefits of this exercise might make for good news, it certainly doesn’t hold water from a planning perspective.
The estimated capital expenditure that would be incurred on account of this decentralisation exercise is as good a one-time investment as we could make in the future of our State. At the risk of oversimplification, the estimated costs (both capital and revenue component included) of this initiative pale in comparison to the price we would have to pay if we continue to dispense governance through a centralised administrative network that is long overdue for systematic decentralisation.
What will the creation of new Patwar Halqas, Niabats, Halqas, Tehsils and Sub-Districts in an imperfect administrative system like ours achieve? In any administrative system (and ours is no exception) citizens participate in and are subject to public decisions at various tiers of governance – obviously in varying measures. A centralised administrative architecture with sparse penetration and presence inhibits the participation of locals in the administrative process and creates a disconnect at the grassroots level while making the government less accessible and hence less accountable. Transparency is hard to achieve.
The farther an administrative unit from the inhabitations, towns and villages it governs, the less transparent it will be – irrespective of centralised flagship initiatives like the Right to Information Act – one that the Omar Abdullah led government went above and beyond the call of duty on. The best accountability mechanism and perhaps the most important and effective too is the “local accountability” mechanism. We need this to compliment landmark strides we have made towards greater transparency and accountability in J&K.
The creation of more administrative units would eventually increase our ability to further systemically decentralise both revenue and expenditure in conjunction with local responsibilities and ground realities. There are hundreds of case studies that vouch for the positive impact of fiscal decentralisation on fiscal discipline and in turn fiscal health. Devolving expenditure functions and revenue sources to the local level can have a significant impact on the State government’s fiscal outcomes. Decentralising capital expenditure per se is associated with better fiscal balances compared to cases of inadequate decentralisation.
Fiscal responsibility is a core concept of decentralisation and will be one of the most virtuous benefits of the creation of new administrative units. We have taken a huge leap towards this end by holding Panchayati Raj elections in J&K in 2009 after a span of 32 years. The process of empowering Panchayats is now a question of fine-tuning our system – and administrative decentralisation is an essential pre-requisite. Local governance aided by legislations like the RTI Act, the empowerment of the State Accountability Commission and the State Vigilance Commission and now a proposed decentralised administrative architecture would root out corruption and increase the government’s capacity to better utilise funds towards infrastructure development and economic growth.
The savings promise to be enormous! The capital expenditure on the creation of new units is definitely justified by the fiscal and planning benefits I enumerated above. The recurring operating expenditure is far compensated for by the yearly cost-savings expected. I have been and still am a keen student of Economics – and this appears to be a very rational, economically sound structural reform. This is not the State Government splurging money with rank irresponsibility – as is being projected. If anything, this is the Omar Abdullah led Government taking steps towards fiscal management and discipline. The term “big government” is not to be taken literally – but to be understood conceptually.
Now, the second argument – one that the opposition has taken to as well – quite expectedly. The alleged “politicisation” of this exercise! Here, I would take the liberty of going back into history just by a few years – to the 2002 to 2008 PDP-Congress dispensation in J&K. The then Chief Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad created eight new Districts, thirteen new Tehsils and three new Subdivisions in the J&K in 2006 – incidentally through a Cabinet Sub-committee that too was headed by Tara Chand, the present Deputy Chief Minister of the State – who heads the present Cabinet Sub-Committee on creation of new administrative units.
In 2006, the new districts were created partly in pursuance of the 1984 Justice Janki Nath Wazir Commission recommendations, which had recommended three new districts for Jammu Province and one new district for Kashmir Province. Since the Wazir Commission recommendations of 1984 were considered unjust to the Kashmir Province (and quite outdated too), Azad Sahab went for an even-handed decentralisation – creating an equal number of new districts in both provinces. Pertinently, the creation of these new administrative units was overtly and covertly opposed by the PDP – which was a part of the government at that time – as they accused Congress of trying to gain “political mileage” in 2007.
A quick historical perspective: At the time of accession to India in 1947, Jammu province had six districts while as Kashmir province had just three districts – Srinagar, Anantnag and Baramulla. In 1975, the founder of National Conference Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, soon after taking over as the Chief Minister, removed this imbalance and ordered the first effective decentralisation in the State by creating three additional districts of Kupwara, Pulwama and Budgam in Kashmir Province – hence bringing Kashmir province closer to par with Jammu province in terms of administrative decentralisation and grassroots empowerment. Earlier in 1950, Sheikh Sahib, through the historic land reforms – empowered millions of landless peasants of Kashmir by passing the Land to the Tiller legislation.
Meanwhile in 2007, in the aftermath of the creation of eight new Districts, the Azad-led government appointed the SS Bloeria Committee to examine growing, fresh demands for creation of new administrative units in the State. In 2009, the Omar Abdullah government found the Bloeria Committee report inconclusive and a five-member Mushtaq Ganai Committee was tasked with the job of coming up with recommendations on the creation of new administrative units. The Mushtaq Ganai Commission submitted its report to the government in 2011. The present exercise derives its design and form from both the SS Bloeria as well as the Mushtaq Ganai Committee reports and most importantly from feedback received through numerous open public hearings that the Cabinet Sub-Committee has held in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.
The process of creation of new administrative units in 2006 did not involve an exercise to gauge public opinion – as has been done now by the present CSC under the instructions of the Chief Minister – making the exercise more democratic and feedback oriented and reflective of ground realities.
There are two related issues now – one of stoked regionalism and one of an allegedly ulterior motive to gain “political mileage”. Some have even gone to the extent of calling this historic decentralisation initiative a “vote gaining exercise”. Some right-wing and Jammu based parties, including a certain faction of the Congress opposed the 2007 decentralisation claiming a further decentralisation of Kashmir Valley without delimitation would lead to a disempowerment of the Jammu Province. This too is a self-propounded myth. This was the precise theater of claims and counterclaims in 1975 when Sheikh Sahib created the three additional districts of Kupwara, Pulwama and Budgam. Seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As far as concerns about anarchy are concerned - there have been some minor expected disturbances at the Tehsil level in some isolated places – where people have being pacified and the government has engaged with them rationally – as feedback continues to be gathered. There can be no doubt about the need to accommodate the local disturbances to a reasonable extent so that we can minimise policy risks and maximise the development potential of decentralisation – and that too is being done. While the overriding objectives of this decentralisation exercise are empowerment, decentralisation and efficiency in governance, the guiding principles are statesmanship, non-discrimination, representativeness, independence, impartiality and neutrality. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has not allowed for this process to be hijacked by local political considerations and prejudices (including those of his own legislators) and the government has ensured that political neutrality is maintained at all levels of the exercise. This too is a verifiable fact.
This leg of decentralisation is a crucial structural reform that cannot be undermined by dictation or distortion by temporary political considerations, circumstances, partisanship and political myopia – especially considering the fact that J&K is yet to completely recover from the distruptive and destructive affects of a two-decade long political turmoil. This decentralisation exercise will increase our ability to focus on three crucial pre-requisites for good governance:
(1) Devolution of power to levels closest to the citizens;
(2) Assignment of proper functions, roles and responsibilities to local units of administration in dispensing services through welfare and development schemes, and;
(3) Binding administration to the citizens at the closest, most transparent level and hence ensuring a better system of transparency, local accountability and assimilation of local feedback. Our institutional and organisations capacity in areas of healthcare, education, poverty-alleviation, infrastructure and agriculture would be dramatically increased.
An administrative system that is based on a decentralised, branched-out network of administrative units and is based on a set of coherent and explicit mechanisms will perform better than one that is not. It’s self-evident that Omar Abdullah has taken a principled stand on this issue as a Statesman, not out of any political considerations – neither to leverage our position ahead of the upcoming polls. As he has clearly stated, we are not fair-weather friends of the UPA and the question of an alliance with the NDA does not arise. This is a local administrative issue that has been delayed since 2009 and our chief minister is committed to ensuring that this just, pro-people reform sees the light of the day.
Junaid Azim Mattu is a Member of the J&K National Conference. Views are personal.