More women power to J&K panchayats

Ashutosh Sharma | Updated on September 05, 2013 Published on September 05, 2013

Boonikhet is a nondescript panchayat, cradled in the lofty Pir Panjal mountains in Surankote block of Poonch district, but its ward panch, Zaitoon Begum, in her mid-fifties, is anything but ordinary - this leader is raring to make a difference to her area. (Credit: Ashutosh Sharma\WFS)

Vimla Devi - one of the rare woman sarpanches in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) - works hard to change the face of Gagwaal, a panchayat close to the international border. (Credit: Ashutosh Sharma\WFS)

Economic development blooms in a snowbound village, tended by a local woman leader.

Boonikhet is a nondescript panchayat, cradled in the lofty Pir Panjal mountains in Surankote block of Poonch district in Jammu & Kashmir, but its ward panch, Zaitoon Begum, is anything but ordinary. This leader, in her mid-50s, is raring to make a difference. “Militancy prevented developmental activity for years together. Panchayats were non-existent and government functionaries, fearing for their lives, refused to come here and attend to our problems,” she recalls.

Panchayat elections were held in the State in 2011 after a gap of more than three decades, promising to strengthen grassroots democracy and create a strong cadre of local women leaders. According to official estimates, the State lost about Rs 1,200 crore of Central assistance during the 12th Finance Commission period due to the absence of panchayats and this loss was most felt in under-developed rural pockets like Boonikhet.

Surankote — which forms an arc together with the twin border blocks of Mendhar and Haveli — has remained a hotbed of militancy for several years. Even in Defence circles it is labelled a “liberated zone”. Situated on the historic Mughal road, this snowbound region is now silently witnessing economic development, thanks to a junior panchayat woman official, a panch. Unlike many other women panchayat leaders who remain indoors while the husband runs the show, Zaitoon actively participates in meetings and wants to reach out to the poorest of the poor.

“Women’s dignity and safety remain my top concern,” she says firmly, adding, “After I was unanimously announced the panch of my ward — as the post was reserved for a woman — I attended a workshop conducted by the district panchayat office on Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan (Total Sanitation Campaign), which appealed to me immensely.”

She set about on a village cleanliness mission. “Providing one toilet to each household in my ward became my top priority,” she says. According to her, open defecation has been eradicated and a majority of the 64 households in her ward have installed toilets.

She also ensured that two widows in her ward benefited under the Indira Awaas Yojana programme, which provides housing to rural poor. Additionally, she has submitted to the department concerned a list of people living below the poverty line in Surankote.

Undeterred by militant threats or the attacks on her counterparts across the Pir Panjal, she says, “Women were at the forefront in this area when Village Defence Committees (VDCs) were constituted to fight militancy. Now that militancy has declined, women should fight the other enemy — poverty and underdevelopment. The years of turmoil pushed us into backwardness.”

The higher post of sarpanch is not reserved for women and marginalised communities in J&K. Of the 4,113 posts in 22 districts, only 28 have gone to women.

Vimla Devi is an elected woman sarpanch in Samba district. “Why didn’t you join the night patrol party last night? Where have you been? Your phone was switched off. Don’t do it next time,” she ticks off a village youth during her rounds of her constituency, Gagwaal, which is near the international border. The area was in the news in 2012 after Border Security Force discovered an underground tunnel connecting it with Pakistani territory.

“Alarmed by a spurt in thefts, we have formed night patrol teams. Village youth accompany the VDC members, who have been issued weapons by the Government to fight militants and tackle unidentified burglars,” explains Vimla. She has worked hard to change the face of the panchayat: “Despite lack of funds, I got at least five ponds restored and de-silted. A road has been constructed over the last two years, as well as some pathways.”

The problem she faces is that the decision-making power for panchayat development remains with government officials. “The Government has assigned us the responsibility to oversee the work of 14 departments; we want these departments transferred to panchayats with the power to supervise their functioning, funds and officials,” she says, adding that the panchayati raj system is in urgent need of reform.

This year she received Rs 1 lakh under the border area development fund and Rs 10 lakh from the local MLA’s constituency development fund. But this is clearly inadequate for the infrastructure needed in Gagwaal.

“Elected panchayat members are not getting any honorariums despite the Government’s announcement that they will be paid,” she says, likening her job currently to social work. While her family fully supports her, she complains about the non-cooperation from men in general, especially those she defeated in the election.

In one of the paradoxes of panchayati raj in J&K, the ruling National Conference is opposed to extending the Constitution’s 73rd Amendment to the State, arguing it would dilute the State’s special status. But without it, political observers say, panchayats would remain ornamental bodies.

Some even suggest that the State should frame an even better law if it wants to make a remarkable difference to the lives of ordinary people.

In its current form the State law is disappointing. In 2009, the Union Cabinet approved 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions. In J&K, however, it is only 30 per cent, and that too for the post of panch, without any real power. Of the 28,248 elected panchs, 9,424 are women, which is symbolic representation at best.

Rekha Choudhary, political science professor in Jammu University, says, “Women are under-represented not only in panchayats but also the State Assembly — there are only three elected women MLAs in an 87-member House.”

Incidentally, all three — Shamima Firdous from Habbakadal, Mehbooba Mufti from Wachi and Sakina Itto from Noorabad — are from the Valley. The Jammu region has no elected women representative. Rabia Baji, a Kashmir-based activist and chairperson of the State chapter of the All India Centre for Urban and Rural Development, blames male domination for the inadequate representation of women in J&K’s political institutions: “As a first step, we must demand 50 per cent reservation for women at all levels of local governance.”

Women like Zaitoon Begum and Vimla Devi, who are doing stellar work at the local level, only serve to reinforce this message.

(The writer, based in J&K, is a media fellow with National Foundation for India.)

© Women’s Feature Service

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Published on September 05, 2013
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