CIVIC POLLS: WORTH THE COST?

  • ABID BASHIR
  • Publish Date: Oct 22 2018 3:22AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 23 2018 11:39AM
CIVIC POLLS: WORTH THE COST?Photo: KashmirInk

After much flip-flop, union minister for home affairs Rajnath Singh made an announced on September 27 that Jammu and Kashmir will go ahead with the civic polls. The state machinery took no time to gear up and a call to hold Urban Local Bodies (ULB) polls in a phased manner from October 8 was taken after a series of high level meetings between civil administration and the police. For the first time since 1996 Assembly polls, Jammu and Kashmir witnessed highest ever deployment of paramilitary forces and police for the polls - 300 additional companies of paramilitary forces (30,000 personnel) and 15,000 policemen were assigned the task of guarding polling booths and securing the areas going to polls through night patrolling and area domination exercises during the day. The army, too, was kept stand-by.

The poll preparation started amid a charged up atmosphere in the wake of serious threats issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Reyaz Naikoo that those who join the poll fray would face acid attacks and the boycott call by the Joint Resistance Leadership comprising Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik. The trio coined the slogan— “no election, only right to self-determination.” The two major political parties -National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) decided to stay away from the poll process citing assault on the Article 35 of Indian Constitution that guarantees special citizenship rights to the people of the strife-torn state. There are a series of petitions before the supreme court seeking roll back of the hereditary state subject law—the Article 35 A and the hearing is scheduled to take place in January next year.

Not satisfied over the party’s decision to stay away from the poll process, NC’s chief spokesman Junaid Matoo decided to quit the party and to contest the polls. Junaid is tipped to be the next mayor of Srinagar as already hinted by Governor S P Malik that “Srinagar is getting a foreign educated mayor.” Although the Raj Bhavan later sought to clarify on the comments, the credibility of the elections was hit. However, what remains to be seen is whether Junaid will side directly with the BJP or the party’s ally in Kashmir - Sajad Lone’s Peoples Conference - for securing the Srinagar mayor seat. The Congress initially seemed in two minds as to whether it should join the poll process or stay away, but finally the party decided to contest “to keep RSS and BJP at bay.”

The J&K police took the elections as a challenge and framed a multi-pronged strategy to ensure fool-proof security cover for the polls. For the first time, 30,000 additional forces were deployed across Jammu and Kashmir, majority of them in Kashmir alone for the poll duty. According to top police officers, holding polls in Kashmir was a challenge owing to the militant threat, boycott by separatists and the decision of two major political parties to stay away.

The additional 30,000 forces personnel were called despite the presence of 70 battalions of paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) present in J&K of which a close to 50 are camping in Kashmir alone. Each CRPF battalion has a strength of 1100 men that signifies 50,000 CRPF men are already deployed in Kashmir region. Inspector General of CRPF Ravideep Singh Sahi said that the existing CRPF battalions deployed in Kashmir were assigned the duty to keep an eye on the law and order situation and to launch counter insurgency operations. “The additional forces were deployed for area domination, night patrolling and guarding of polling booths,” he said. A source in the police said that a close to 100,000 forces personnel were specifically deployed for poll duty alone that include 30,000 additional forces, 50,000 paramilitary CRPF men and 15,000 policemen. “Such a heavy military build-up was witnessed in 1996 polls when there was a bunker in almost every locality and yet 50,000 additional troops were deployed across Kashmir for Assembly polls,” a senior police officer said, wishing not to be named. “In, 1996, militancy was at its peak and situation was altogether different from what it is at present.” And in 2011 Pachayat polls, no additional forces were sought. “It’s true we didn’t seek additional forces in 2011 when panchayat polls were held after a gap of nearly three decades. And everything went smoothly,” said former director general of police (DGP) of J&K, Kuldeep Khoda, who was overseeing election affairs in 2011.

Talking exclusively to the Kashmir Ink, the IG CRPF said that the elections were a challenge as Kashmir was an unpredictable place where anything can happen any moment. “So all the security agencies worked shoulder to shoulder to ensure a fool-proof cover is in place for the smooth conduct of polls. We wanted to ensure that a voter votes without any fear,” he said.

Additional director general of police (ADGP) law and order/security Munir Khan said that every election poses certain challenges. “This time we were more cautious about polls given some threats. The main purpose to seek help of additional forces was to ensure areas are dominated and polling booths are secured so that miscreants are kept away,” Khan said. For the first time, more than 60 check-points were established across Srinagar, of which more than 30 were set up at various places in city centre only to keep eye on every suspect. A police source said that at least 200 bikes were seized. “Frisking, rather intensified frisking, was part of the poll strategy just to ensure miscreants don’t create any law and order problem. This was also ensured to keep an eye on the movement of militants as it was seen that at times, two wheelers were being used by militants to carry out strikes on forces,” said the ADGP Khan.

With record number of forces in place, a joint strategy was worked by police, CRPF, army and the civil administration to ensure smooth polls. A senior police officer, who was privy to the poll strategy, said that though Kashmir had witnessed phased polls earlier also, but holding polls in phases even within districts took place for the first time. “In Srinagar, there were polls in four phases and same strategy was applied for other districts. Conducting polls in phases and that too in smaller areas in district was to ensure to avoid trouble,” said ADGP Khan. He said that phased-poll strategy worked well for the police. “In between we conducted major counter militancy operations wherein (PhD scholar) Manan Wani and his aide Ashiq Hussain were killed in Handwara. There was no spill over.” He said area domination and night patrolling also helped as troop presence in poll bound areas ensured “miscreants are kept away.” “Each polling station was guarded by at least 15 to 20 forces’ personnel. This is apart from the area domination and night patrolling,” the ADGP said. As part of the poll strategy, the police had deployed senior officers on the ground to monitor the situation and to respond quickly in case any challenge or eventuality. “It is for the first time that deputy inspector general (DIG) rank officers were on ground to keep a close synergy with the subordinates and to keep a tight vigil on the situation. And this worked,” the ADGP said.

LOW TURNOUT

Even though there was a massive build up of security personnel across Kashmir from October 8 to October 16, Kashmir witnessed lowest voter turnout of 5.5 per cent in the four phases. The JRL termed the low percentage in Kashmir as a clear message to New Delhi, terming the people’s decision of staying away from the poll process a complete alienation and a referendum. The police, however, said that its job was to ensure peace during polls. “To vote or not to vote is a democratic right of a person. Those who voted reached back to their homes safely, and those who didn’t also stayed calm. That’s democracy,” said ADGP Khan. In the four-phased ULB polls, there were hardly any voters’ queues in Kashmir except from few pockets that include Uri in north Kashmir’s Baramulla, Ganderbal in Central Kashmir, Bemina area in Srinagar.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police said that all the four phases of ULB polls passed off peacefully. “There was not even a single incident of violence reported from anywhere in Kashmir. The credit goes to the people of Kashmir for keeping their neighbourhood peaceful,” Inspector Generael of Police Kashmir range, Swayam Prakash Pani told the Kashmir Ink.

Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik said that he regrets the decision of NC and PDP about staying away from the poll process. “These two parties are major regional parties, had they joined the poll fray, they would have bagged the maximum seats. I wonder, NC patron Dr Farooq Abdullah while speaking at two functions where I was the chief guest, claimed that ULB polls were neither for Kashmir issue nor for any political party but only for development at the grassroots level,” the Governor said while addressing army youth festival at SKICC lawns recently. He said that he was surprised to the see the complete U-turn by senior Abdullah by announcing boycott of ULB polls citing assault on Article 35 A as the main reason. “I don’t think ULB or for that matter, upcoming Panchayat polls, will have any bearing on the Kashmir politics. These elections are purely for development,” he said. Malik also asked why the NC and PDP contested Kargil Hill Development Council polls.

ELECTIONS A SURPRISE FOR PARAMILITARY FORCES  

Among the additional 30,000 forces personnel deployed for the election duty in Kashmir, many had arrived in the Valley for the first time. And, these first-timers were immensely surprised to see deserted polling booths where they were deployed. Standing outside a polling station in Srinagar, a CRPF man who identified himself as Venkatesh of Uttar Pradesh said: “I have attended poll duties in Chattisgarh, New Delhi, Uttaranchal and other states, but Kashmir is the only place where I have seen deserted polling booths. This is a strange site and signifies something is terribly wrong here.”

JAMMUITES VOTE IN LARGE NUMBERS FOR DEVELOPMENT

BY BIVEK MATHUR

 

Against minimal participation of people of Kashmir Valley in the civic polls, the Jammu region of the State witnessed over 75% polling.

Since the ULB polls were held after a gap of 13 years in the State, the heavy poll percentage has rekindled a hope of development amongst the people of the region.

Civil society member KB Jandial, who retired as member Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission, believes that the major expectations of people from the winning candidates is better civic amenities including proper hygiene, better sewerage treatment and proper drainage facilities in the urban local bodies.

With this, Jandial sees commercialisation of residential properties as a major threat to the splendour of the towns and cities of Jammu and preventing this happen as a major challenge for the winning candidates.

“Though it is, by and large, politically motivated, but to stop the commercialisation of residential areas would be a major challenge for the winning candidates,” says the prominent civil society member. Jandial further says, “No colony in Jammu has been constructed in a planned manner. The winning candidates have also to ensure that every new structure that is raised in Jammu is not violating the building laws.”

Prof Lalit Magotra, President Dogri Sanstha and one of the highly awakened socio-political personalities of the region, claims the expectations of the people from the winning candidates in the municipal elections are limited but the issues that generate the expectations are “not easy-to-deal-with.”    

“Unlike other major cities and towns of the country, Jammu’s municipalities present a bad picture of management. You will see most of the streets, lanes, by-lanes and roads encroached by the people while the buildings in deplorable conditions and it’s not easy to remove the encroachers from the government properties since they all (encroachers) are being sheltered by political people,” says Magotra.

“So I believe that people hope that their would-be mayor, irrespective of his political affiliation, will act against the land and properties’ encroachers and take care of the crumbling buildings,” he says further. Prof Magotra claims the issues of Bijli, Paani and Sadak (electricity, water and roads) are also important issues to be looked into.

Arteev Sharma, journalist with The Tribune newspaper says, “Around 54 percent of the contesting candidates in the 2018 municipal polls were independents and they were the choice of public, not the people who got mandate from political parties. Rising above the party politics, people supported them because they (public) wanted some educated people who can change the scenario of development in the State in general and Jammu region in particular.”

“And most of the independents were educated youth. I believe that these independent candidates know the issues of the general public and the ways to redress them,” he said.

Arteev Sharma believes that at least every sector in Jammu region, be it roads and buildings, streets, lanes, drains, water and power supply system, sanitation, drainage and sewerage treatment facility, needs attention of the winning candidates.

“And my hunch is that they will prove their mettle since they all are educated and honest,” he said.

Pertinently, municipal polls were last held in Jammu and Kashmir in the year 2005 through secret ballot and the term of five years expired in February 2010. By and large, the polling in three phases in Jammu division of State completed in a peaceful manner, as heavy deployment of security forces personnel was made across the division.

Election authorities had set up 1001 polling stations in 508 municipal wards of 37 Jammu municipalities including the Jammu Municipal Corporation area, for 6,43,813 eligible voters of the region. Average 75% of the total electorate participated in the polls in three phases with 65% polling in the first phase, 78.6% in the second and highest 82% polling in the third phase.

Separately, in the first phase, for 15 urban local bodies of Jammu including Jammu municipal corporation, municipal committee Bishnah, municipal committee Arnia, municipal committee RS Pura, municipal committee Ghomanhasan, municipal committee Akhnoor, municipal committee Jourian, municipal committee Khour, municipal committee Rajouri, municipal committee Thanamandi, municipal committee Nowshera, municipal committee Sunderbani, municipal committee Kalakote, municipal council Poonch and municipal committee Surankote, total 670 polling stations were set up in 238 municipal wards with 22% polling stations in Jammu district and 58% in Rajouri and Poonch designated as hypersensitive and sensitive.   

There were 1,010 candidates contesting in the Jammu division whereas nine nominees were declared elected uncontested.

For the first phase, the electorate strength for Jammu division was 483833. This included 400301 voters for 75 wards of Jammu municipal corporation.

According to official figures, 65 percent turnout was recorded in Jammu division where election was held in three districts of Jammu, Rajouri and Poonch.

The Jammu district recorded polling percentage of 63.8 for 75 wards of the Jammu Municipal Corporation and seven other municipal bodies of Bishnah, Arnia, RS Pura, Ghomanhasan, Akhnoor, Jourian and Khour.

Around 62 percent people cast their votes for the city’s municipal corporation while 83.21 percent voters exercise their franchise across all seven municipal committees, election officials were quoted of saying by Greater Kashmir.

“Out of total 4, 00,283 voters for all 75 wards of JMC, 2, 47,866 cast their votes,” said Ramesh Kumar, the district election officer, Jammu.

Similarly, out of total 41,352 voters for seven municipal committees, 34,023 cast their votes to elect ward representatives in seven municipal committees.

According to official figures, 81 percent electorate exercised their franchise in Rajouri and 73.1 in Poonch districts.

In the second phase of polling held in 18 municipalities including 3 of Doda viz. Doda, Thathri and Bhaderwah, 6 of Kathua viz Kathua, Hiranagar, Basohli, Nagri-Parole, Billawar and Lakhanpur, one of Kishtwar, Kishtwar; 3 of Ramban viz. Banihal, Batote and Ramban, 2 of Reasi viz. Katra and Reasi, and three of Udhampur viz. Udhampur, Ramnagar and Chenani, total 274 polling stations were designated in 214 municipal wards.

Total 881 candidates were in fray for the second phase of polling in Jammu division and 1, 28, 104 person were eligible for voting in 18 municipalities. 

According to Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Shaleen Kabra, 78.6% polling was recorded in the 214 wards of Jammu province spread over 18 urban local bodies.

He said the highest polling percentage in Jammu was recorded in Reasi which saw a turnout of 84.4%. According to Kabra, 72.8 percent turnout was recorded in Kishtwar, 72.8 percent in Doda, 79.5 percent in Ramban, 79.2 percent in Udhampur and 79.4 in Kathua.

“Election will be held afresh in one ward of Ramban where a BJP candidate died after casting his vote,” he said.

In district Samba that was scheduled in third phase of municipal polls on October 13, total 57 polling stations were set up by the district election authorities in 56 municipal wards spread across four municipal bodies of Samba, Bari Brahamana, Vijaypur and Ramgarh.

There were 242 candidates in fray to contest the polls. 

“Of the 31,878 voters, 82 per cent exercised their franchise in the third phase,” Sushma Chauhan, the district election officer told media men.

She said Bari-Brahmana recorded a high 87 per cent turnout, followed by Vijaypur (85 per cent), Ramgarh (83 per cent) and Samba (78.8 per cent).

The polling in Samba completed the elections in all the 10 districts of the Jammu region.  

Lakhanpur municipal committee in Kathua district registered highest 92.6 percent voting in all the 3 phase of polling in Jammu division.

The notification for the first phase of municipal elections was issued on September 18, for second phase on September 20, third phase on September 22 and fourth phase on September 24.

Last date for making nomination in the first phase was fixed September 25, while for the second phase, it was September 27, for third phase it was September 29 and for the final phase, it was fixed October 1st.

Scrutiny of documents for the first phase was completed on September 26, while for second phase it was done on September 28, for third phase on October 1 and for the fourth phase on October 3 respectively.

September 29 was fixed as last date for withdrawal of candidature in the first phase of elections, October 1 for second phase, October 3 for third phase and October 5 for the final phase.

In all the 1145 municipal wards spread across the 22 districts of Jammu and Kashmir, there were 16,97,291 eligible voters for the polling in four phases on October 8, October 10, October 13 and October 16.