In 2018, when Jammu and Kashmir launched ‘Back to Village’, an initiative to take the administration to people’s doorsteps to address their problems, villagers in Seri Panditan, on outskirts of Jammu city, danced to the beat of drums, organised a feast, and made arrangements for night stay of the visiting officials.
Four years later, as UT administration holds the fourth phase of the week-long programme across J&K from October 27, members of the same village panchayat are a disappointed lot. Not one of their problems has been redressed, they alleged. They also claimed that theirs is not the only village suffering this. With 25,000 officers — 4,500 of them are directly visiting the villages — the fourth edition is expected to involve 15 lakh to 20 lakh villagers, and deliver services, including land revenue passbooks, Ayushman Bharat cards, and skills training.
“This is an action-packed, deliverable-oriented programme with focus on youths, skill and self-employment, good governance and panchayati raj, and nasha-mukt-rozgar-yukt J&K,” UT administration spokesperson Rohit Kansal.
On Wednesday, however, officials found themselves in a spot, as elected members of Seri Panditan panchayat told them that nothing has changed since the first Back to Village programme in 2018. They said they have been reporting the same set of problems each year, as a different UT official arrives at their panchayat and everything starts afresh.
The dam broke when Additional Secretary, Science and Technology, Shafiq Ahmed, a gazetted officer deployed by J&K administration to Seri Panditan panchayat, asked the sarpanch and other panchayat members whether a toilet at the Panchayat Ghar has water supply. As Jal Shakti Department officials present there said they have sent the estimates, and that water connection will be provided soon, sarpanch Naseeb Singh intervened. “In four years, Jal Shakti officials have not given even a single connection — not even to the Primary Health Centre. They say they do not have enough water piped,” Singh said. The Jal Shakti official replied that “only 15-16 pipes are needed”, and reiterated that water connection will be given “in the next few days”.
B D Sharma, an elected panch representing ward no.1 in Seri Panditan, complained: “Monkeys have been a major menace in Seri Panditan, Dhar Dharocha and Chak villages…. Besides, ever since a high school was opened, there is no safai karamchari, peon and chowkidar. Even the post of school headmaster is lying vacant for the last nearly 30 months.”Another panchayat member, Vijay Kumar, who represents ward no. 3 of Seri Panditan, said villagers have “now started mocking us, since we have not been able to get them even a single tap since our election in 2018”.
Although 2018 panchayat polls were not contested on party symbols, almost all members in Seri Panditan panchayat owe allegiance to BJP. Pointing out this proximity to BJP, one panchayat member asked, “If our issues are not addressed even now, when it is our government at both the Centre and in UT, when will they get resolved?” On panchayat members’ complaint that different officials visit them each year, which means there is no continuity in problems discussed, and assurances offered, Kansal said, “Efforts are made to send the same officers again, people do retire or get transferred. That is a practical problem. But, of course, every single work (demand) cannot be taken up.”
Officials said all complaints by people cannot be resolved immediately; also because many issues related to infrastructure — water, electricity, roads — may be part of a scheme or a programme that is currently being implemented in a phase-wise manner.
But to bring accountability, the UT administration has provided each officer visiting the villages a 20-point programme that she/ he has to tick on the check box. “From this year, the administration requires each officer to be a panchayat prabhari, or a mentor, who will be the point of contact for the villagers through the year. He will be responsible for addressing their concerns,” said an official.