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A Flagship Programme in J&K Has Let Down Villagers in Kishtwar’s Shirote

The Back-to-Village programme was celebrated as a game changer in the post-Article 370 era, but has failed to resolve even basic issues in some places.
Representative image: Gulabgarh Town in Kishtwar. Photo: Tseringdorjay4/CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir government initiated the Back-to-Village (B2V) programme to enhance rural governance and services delivery processes by dispatching senior officials on official tours of villages. The programme was proposed to give a voice to the villagers who could lodge their grievances and seek redressal at their doorsteps.

In essence, the B2V programme was aimed at easing the sufferings and anxiety of villagers. Soon, officials started visiting villages and staying there for at least two to three days to record local problems. Visiting a government office for local issues or services became a second option because the officials were now directed to provide resolution of problems at the village level.

The villagers felt empowered, for their doorsteps were described as centres of services delivery. The welcome of visiting officials with local ‘band and baja’ followed by interactions filled the villagers with an atmosphere of hope and positivity.  Thus, it was assumed that the issues of road connectivity, electricity, drinking water, internet facility and others will get resolved soon.

But the B2V programme, which began in J&K in the post Article 370 era, has been a story of disappointment for Shirote village of Kishtwar district which has a population of about 1,000 people in approximately 200 households who continue to remain excluded from the ambit of development.

Basic civic amenities such as roads, internet connectivity, a health centre, bank, post office and others remain a distant dream. Like Panchayati Raj institutions, the B2V programme sounds like a modern and people-centric initiative on paper, but when it comes to the implementation, it has been marred by allegations of corruption, inefficiency, unaccountability and lack of transparency.

Since 2019, the B2V programme has completed five phases in the village. According to the stated aim of the programme, Shirote should have reached a high stage of development. But surprisingly, the programme has not even resolved the basic issue of road connectivity which was raised by the villagers over the last five years.

The lack of basic infrastructure in Shirote has not only kept the village backward and alienated, but also led the panchayat representatives into a freewheeling mode to work as per their vested interests.

The lack of road, communication or internet facility makes it hard for villagers to bring the functioning of the panchayat and district administration under the official scanner. Some of the local panchayat members have never shown concern on the issue of roads and communication as their absence provides a cover for their corrupt practices.

What I have observed about the B2V programme is that the visiting officers and panchayat members colluded with each other for their own survival. In the process, both also empowered each other rather than the common people.

The programme had drawn the attention of almost everyone in J&K. It may well influence the political discourse during the panchayat polls with its claim of successfully resolving local issues in rural areas. But the promise to deliver services at people’s doorstep or resolving grievances on the spot has remained confined to paper, in the case of Shirote.

A road doesn’t only ease routine life but is linked to major socio-economic issues such as health and education. Amidst its physical cut-off, Shirote faces a lot of problems. For five to six kilometres, there is no road or health facility, while the working of the local panchayat has only spurred the political activities of the ruling party.

The villagers’ silence against this pathetic situation is not a sign of peace or acceptability but of ignorance and helplessness. Since the programme started, no new development has occurred that could have eased the way of life in the village. Officers’ visits have been managed by panchayat members. There has hardly been any interaction with women, tribals, the poor or other stakeholders.

In the post-special status era, if the rule of law and governance was supposed to improve, why has the administration failed to bail out the beleaguered villagers of Shirote?  When will the current administration end the crisis that the villagers confront even today, after the fifth phase of B2V?

The administration not only needs to analyse the idea but also the practical facets of the programme. In John Rawls’ logic of fairness, a major learning is that none of the villages in ‘New India’ or ‘Viksit Bharat’ should feel excluded in the distribution of common amenities. Secondly, the implementation of his second ‘principle of difference’ should not harm the last village. This is the only way forward to lift a village like Shirote from its backwardness.

Dr Hakim Singh is a former Senior Research Fellow of Public Policy and Public Administration at the Central University of Jammu.   

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