The Centre on Saturday cleared the decks for the formation of a new set of administrative bodies, called District Development Councils, in Jammu and Kashmir. Under the new arrangement, each district in the Union Territory will be divided into 14 territorial constituencies and the members of the council will be directly elected by voters. The representatives will, in turn, elect a chairperson and a vice-chairperson from amongst themselves.

The councils will replace District Development Boards which, when Jammu and Kashmir was a state, were chaired by a Cabinet minister or a minister of state and included MLAs, MLCs and MPs, The Indian Express reported.

The changes were brought forth through an amendment by the home ministry in the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989.

Jammu and Kashmir has been under central rule since June 2018. The special status of the erstwhile state under Article 370 was revoked in August 2019 by the Parliament and it was bifurcated into the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 enables the home ministry to amend the laws in the union territory by issuing an order.

‘It is to cut to size the people of Jammu and Kashmir’

Peoples Democratic Party leader Naeem Akhtar said that the move would depoliticise the union territory. “The aim is total depoliticisation so that there is no central collective voice,” he told Speaking to The Indian Express. “It is to cut to size the people of Jammu and Kashmir so that they don’t have a political voice,” he said.

Another PDP leader Waheed-ur-Rehman Parra told The Hindu that the step was against the idea of political empowerment. “This is a step towards uprooting politics in the name of development,” said Parra. “If the Centre is sincere, why has it taken away the right to legislate?”

Shafiq Mir, chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference, told The Hindu that the move would turn an Assembly member to “just a spectator”.

Omar Abdullah of the National Conference said his party was still understanding the implications of the amendment.

‘Move aimed at empowering three-tier governance,’ say officials

Officials, however, differ from the view held by state leaders. A senior government official speaking to The Indian Express said that the move was aimed at empowering the third tier of the government and “deepening the political process at the local level.”

The process of formation of the councils will begin with the delimitation of the 14 constituencies, following which the notifications for the elections, expected to be issued within 10 days.

Jammu and Kashmir is also set to hold bye-polls for nearly 13,000 vacant panch and sarpanch seats in November. The last panchayat elections were held in the former erstwhile state in 2018 and as many as 12,776 vacant sarpanch and panch seats, particularly in South Kashmir, are still vacant as elections could not be held due to security concerns.