Swiss Cantonal Model Being Explored For Panchayats In J&K
25 December 2004
The Indian Express
New Delhi: With Panchayati Raj elections due in Kashmir next month, the Centre is seriously exploring an innovative model of empowering local self- government in the state on the lines of cantons in the federal structure of Switzerland. The philosophy behind this is to give residents a sort of 'financial and administrative azadi' by empowering Panchayats with a degree of fiscal autonomy and the right to manage internal affairs at the local level. The idea been discussed by Union Panchayati Raj Secretary Wajahat Habibullah with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar gave a go-ahead signal. This model, Habibullah's brainchild, draws inspiration from the Swiss model where the country's 26 cantons have fiscal autonomy and the right to manage cantonal affairs within a federal structure of government. The cantons raise money through local taxes that are later used to build roads and improve infrastructure of the area designated under them. Habibullah, a veteran Kashmir hand, has been put in charge of implementation of Panchayati Raj in Kashmir by Aiyar. 'Empowering the Panchayats in the Valley will give Kashmiris the azadi to manage their own affairs at village levels,' Habibullah told The Sunday Express. Habibullah met Prime Minister Singh last evening to discuss this idea and the latter promised all support to the Panchayati Raj Ministry to strengthen local self-government in Kashmir. Even the Mufti Sayeed government is in favour of strengthening the Panchayats and State Minister for Panchayat Gharu Ram has gone on record saying it will reduce militancy in the Valley. Significantly, Habibullah also has plans to talk to the separatist leaders in the Valley before implementing the model project as these leaders, politically, may have a difference of opinion at the state level but at the village level, there is a virtual consensus on the need for development. Even before this latest move, the idea of granting a degree of fiscal autonomy was advocated by Balraj Puri, a member of the Internal Autonomy Commission that was headed by Karan Singh under the National Conference government. The Centre also has an option of giving extra powers to the J&K Panchayats under Article 370 of the Constitution as Article 73 (that confers upon the Government of India executive powers over all subjects in which Parliament has legislative competence) is not binding on the State. The broad concept that is currently being worked by the Panchayati Raj Ministry is that rather than having a relatively junior Deputy Commissioner heading each district, the Centre will ask the state to upgrade the post to District Development Commissioner level. This means that districts in J&K will have State-Secretary level officers heading each district that will raise resources for the development of respective districts with the participation of local democratic institutions. It is learnt that second step in this novel proposal is to impress upon Pakistan to accord similar degree of 'azadi' to the districts across the Line of Control (LoC) so that the Kashmiris can take decisions in their own self interests and pull down the 'wall' separating them.