Jammu and Kashmir is not much in the news this year. At least, not for the usual reasons it has been in the last two decades. There have been no major public protests, and the threat of terror seems to be waning. The state police chief estimates that only around 150 militants are active in the state, with their maximum concentration in Sopore and Tral areas of Kashmir Valley. Senior army officials have stated that more than 40 militant camps are currently operating in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and 500-600 militants are ready to infiltrate into Jammu & Kashmir. Terror threat is unlikely to end completely given that Pakistan is not going to stop sending militants across the Line of Control any soon. While responses must be calibrated as per threat, the security forces cannot afford to let their guard down completely.
While terror and public disturbances are issues that attract our attention, there is much else in Kashmir that needs a wider debate. One such issue is of local body elections, both rural and urban. The Panchayat elections held last year saw a record turnout of nearly 80 per cent, despite a boycott call given by the separatists. While the government still continues to tom-tom the high voting as a success, it has not implemented the plans to empower the panchayats. The polls for the Block Development Councils and District Development Councils — the second and third tier of the Panchayati Raj system — were to be completed within three months of the setting up of the panchayats. The process hasn’t even started although over a year has passed since.
The power of nearly 35,000 directly elected local representatives — 1,966 Sarpanchs and 13,760 Panchs in Jammu region and 2,164 Sarpanchs and 15,959 Panchs in Kashmir region — is being wasted by the state. It is not solely about disgruntlement of these leaders or their disillusionment with the state. Conflict in the state created its own political economy and the environment of conflict is now sustained by that political economy. Hopes were raised last year that an empowered, elected local leadership will destroy the ‘conflict’ political economy of the state. That opportunity has clearly been lost by the government.
Similar is the case of urban local bodies. The five-year term of two municipal corporations, six municipal councils and 71 municipal committees ended in March 2010 but their elections have not been held so far. While the official reason for their postponement this year was to allow for a smooth tourism season, many analysts believe that it is because the ruling party is not confident of winning these elections. The decline in violence had led to a shift in focus in urban areas towards development and public amenities. The unmet developmental aspirations of urban youth fuel grievances, which are often directed against Srinagar and Delhi. Municipal bodies are best placed to provide development as per local needs, and would also shield the state government from being the direct target of public anger.
If panchayats and municipalities are about power of the political kind, the situation is no better in the power of the other kind, the electric supply. At 70 per cent, the state has the highest transmission and distribution losses in the country. The national average is 27 per cent while the international standards are at 7 per cent. Attempts to reduce these losses have not yielded much success. Based on a consultant’s recommendation, the transmission and distribution sector has been unbundled into four companies. These four companies would be a Trading Company, a State Transmission Utility and two Distribution Companies — one each of Kashmir and Jammu regions. With over half the power consumers in the state unmetered, and a prevalent culture of power theft bred during the lawless years of insurgency, it will be a challenge for the two distribution companies to increase the revenue.
The bleeding power sector has cascading effects on the economy. The state government has an annual income of Rs 6,500 crore but incurs a loss of Rs 2,000 crore in providing power. The state has plans to generate more revenue in the future by generating and selling hydropower. But those plans will mean little unless the state can stem the losses being sustained in distributing power.
History isn’t destiny. Unless we want Jammu & Kashmir to remain trapped in the past, we will have to focus on other substantive stories from the state. Stories that explore the state beyond terrorism and tourism.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review