Sopore: Jammu and Kashmir seems to be on the threshold of change. A change that reflects both the aspirations of the people from the ground as well as the focus of the government - better governance. The winds of change can be captured in the term `Panchayati Raj`.
Riding on the crest of an unprecedented turnout during the recently concluded elections across the state, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah lauded the process and the institution itself during a recent visit to the border district of Kupwara.
Addressing the newly elected Panchs and Sarpanchas of Langet block in Handwara and Lolab Valley, he said: "During the Assembly elections some people believed that ordinary Kashmiris will not come out to vote, but you voted in record numbers. It is also being said that elected representatives of the people at the Panchayat level will not be given powers. We will prove them wrong. We will give them full support and enable them to work at the local level for public welfare and happiness."
For the people of Kupwara, a backward region although a strategically important one, this was like music to their ears. For decades, they have faced not only militancy but also a plethora of problems in their day-to-day living. It did seem that the authorities were waking up and responding to the core development needs of the region.
Mr. Abdullah seems to be reading the signs of the times correctly. People do want change, in the way they are governed; in the way their problems within their village and communities are addressed. The Panchayat Raj elections were a demonstration of this intent, running like an unseen thread through villages across J & K.
It is indeed then heartening that there has been an encouraging response to this intent from the ground from the policy circles. That too by none other than the Chief Minister. He has come out with statements enjoining officers, engineers and all staff in departments to work towards the development and public welfare.
The message of effective and responsive governance is a positive one for a region beset by problems arising from conflict certainly but also facing the lack of facilities and benefits from government schemes. What is important is that the message goes out to all those involved, whether they are beneficiaries on the ground or as implementation agencies who take the plans and programmes to them. Good governance seems to be the credo in the state today.
This Panchayat election has been somewhat of a landmark, coming after a period of 10 years, a difficult period for the Valley, which has seen several phases of being disturbed. Amidst this, the outcome of the elections and its vigorous promotion by the powers that be is redeeming.
What is also heartening is that this time, the youth have made their presence felt with many young men and some young women getting elected at the local level. The election results interestingly have also cut across class lines in some cases. To cite an example, a domestic Noor Abad, defeated his own master in the election!
Coming back to Kupwara, what really troubles the people here is the shortage of clean drinking water. This is true of several rural areas across Kashmir and in Kupwara; the village Tujar Sharif has borne the brunt. Situated in Sopore block in Baramulla district, it is a picturesque village, with a rich legacy.
The `dargah` of Sufi saint Hazrat Makhdoom Saheb here attracts numerous people who come to visit the hallowed spot. Little do they realize that the people in the village are struggling to meet their needs for drinking water, which becomes acute especially during in the summer months?
A typical scene at the village is to come upon women queuing up at water tap for, large and small utensils in hand. It is irony that in this most beautiful, pristine valley appreciated for its sheer grandeur of nature, local women are so hard put for water.
Why is this so? Are the people of Tujar Sharif so inconsequential? Do they not figure in the government`s agenda to provide what is clearly a necessity for human lives? Why do women have to wait endlessly for the buckets in the queue before them to fill, sometimes at a painfully slow pace, wasting hours of their precious day to tank up on something as essential as water?
Facing water shortage on a daily basis is hard enough. The problem often goes beyond the immediate. According to Sarah Begum of Mohallah Shala Pura, "There is a water shortage in our area due to which our children, especially girls are forced to quit school.
Deftly balancing a bucket of water on her head, a young girl Nagina Akhtar, from the same Mohallah, says, "I loved going to school but had to come here every day in the early morning to fetch water. During the entire day, water is released only for an hour here, and there is no one else in my home who can fetch water. I had to drop out of school which I am so unhappy about."
Nagina has suffered but she does not want the same fate for other youngsters in her village.
Given the hard life, prospective grooms are finding it hard to get brides from outside Tujjar Sharif. Says Hajera Begum, "Who would want to marry off their daughters in our village after knowing about the water crises here?" They tell us bluntly that they don`t want to dump their daughters in this hell-hole where even essential facilities are not available."
The results of Panchayat elections in Jammu and Kashmir are encouraging. Water shortage in Tujjar Sharif as in scores of villages across rural Kashmir is endemic. There could be other problems, either widespread across the region or specific to a particular location.
The onus is on newly elected panches and sarpanches to find solutions that bring relief as well as address the fundamental issues of these myriad problems.
The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that an exciting phase lies ahead for the state. The involvement of the local people, their elected representatives to bring about a positive change in living conditions, in governance is high. With a promise of positive response from the State government their work should not be too hard. By Shamshada Jaan.