Tasneem Kabir Kashmir
The months of April and May of this year are critical times, for they are what will decide the next course of our country’s leadership will see the next set of people that will represent us. Jammu & Kashmir is all set to cast its votes for the Lok Sabha elections in five phases – April 11, 18, 23, 29 and May 6, 2019.
With barely any time remaining for the State’s election season to set in, the political discourse set up by our regional parties as well as those at the national level, is dominated by issues like the validity of Articles 35A and 370, the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and the Public Safety Act of J&K. The Articles 35A and 370 empowers the state’s legislature to define “permanent resident” of the state and provide special rights and privileges to those permanent residents exclusively, such as the right to own land. The AFSPA, on the other hand, is an act that is declared in ‘disturbed areas’, investing the armed forces with the authority to prohibit a gathering of five or more persons in an area, using force or even open firing after giving due warning if they feel a person is in contravention of the law. If reasonable suspicion exists, the army can also arrest a person without a warrant, enter or search premises without a warrant, and ban the possession of firearms. Lastly, the Public Safety Act allows for pre-emptive imprisonment of those suspected of malicious behaviour. While all these are issues of a grave nature that begs for an address, we have to understand that your common citizen of J&K is unlikely to satisfy his pangs of hunger with such issues, nor is he likely to sleep more soundly knowing his state is still ‘special’.
Issues that have to do with the state’s status under the ambit of the Indian nation, in absolute terms, are a non-issues for the citizens who are deprived of the most essential constituents of a dignified life. Pollsters have predicted that issues pertaining to development are likely to take a backseat this election season in the state. Instead, Kashmir’s special status will now be seen at loggerheads with vikas, an idiom that has, for now, remained a cornerstone of Bhartiya Janata Party’s election campaigns. That is not an ideal trajectory for the Lok Sabha elections, for there are more immediate issues that concern you and me, and drive our everyday existence – issues related to the state’s economic and social development. Consider how a look at some of the key development indicators suggests that Jammu and Kashmir fares better than the rest of the country when it comes to most development indicators. In comparison to other insurgency-affected states, Jammu and Kashmir appears to be far more developed. Recent data from the fourth round of the National Family and Health Survey, which was conducted in 2015-16 (NFHS 2015-16), also shows that Jammu and Kashmir fares better on development indicators when compared with all-India averages, or with insurgency-affected states such as Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Chhattisgarh. Moreover, Jammu and Kashmir fares better than the average Indian state, according to a 2011 ranking of states by HDI, published by the erstwhile Planning Commission.
Having said that, it seems rather irrational that the parties, both local and regional, aren’t drawing on extending this record of a decent performance in development indicators. Issues that have to do with the actual ‘vikas’ have started to slip into poorer records and performances. For instance, according to the 2011 census, the share of 0-14-year-old population was slightly higher in Jammu and Kashmir (34%) than all-India (31%). Today, a part of this cohort would be in high schools and colleges, whose participation in anti-state demonstrations and stone-pelting has been widely recorded. Not only does Jammu and Kashmir have more people than the rest of country in this age-group, its youth population (15-34 years) also has a bigger employment problem. According to the 2011 census, Jammu and Kashmir had a much smaller share of main workers (who are employed for more than six months in a year) in comparison to the rest of India and other conflict-ridden states. This trend is in keeping with Jammu and Kashmir’s low share of main workers in the total population as well. Where is the unemployment problem’s share of discourse in the political scenario? We feel its need, for out of boredom in the plenty free time, we find the youth indulging in futile activities, the prime amongst them being stone pelting.
Drawing further on the practice of stone pelting, we see no political group addressing the citizens on how it plans to locate the sources of such practices and how it plans to rehabilitate and counsel the youth involved and trapped in this mesh. What’s more, J&K is also plagued with an all-time high rate of addiction and misuse of narcotics and steroids. Issues such as these propel crimes in the society, and make everyday a travail we must get through. How come we see no promise of installation of de-addiction and therapy centres and allied infrastructure to curb the problem before it escalates to insurmountable levels? Further, all one has to do is make a trip to districts that are far-removed from the states. The roads therein are in such appalling conditions that one wishes they didn’t exist at all! This lack of connectivity with the nearest hubs of economic activity leave the residents far removed from the rest of the populace. Additionally, the lack of physical infrastructure for connectivity can be quasi-compensated for by digital infrastructure such as internet. But again, even with the internet having reached far-flung areas, the problem of capricious electricity supply has stalled people from reaping its complete benefits. In the rural districts, electricity cuts can span as long as 20 hours out of 24 in a day in winters, not to mention the hefty bill receipts that hinder the locals from getting electronic devices that aid survival, like refrigerators, heaters and washing- machines. All this, and yet not one party has hinted at an upliftment of the status quo in these areas.
In summary, what Jammu and Kashmir’s political narrative needs, above all, is for political leaders to address and alleviate the issues that plague the common man’s existence – be it unemployment, stone pelting, substance abuse or lack of physical and digital connectivity. This is required urgently, for only then can the state continue on its trajectory of maintaining above average records of development parameters. Otherwise, with a persistent and concentrated stress on issues vis-à-vis the status of the state, issues that actually define our lives will remain on the side-lines of our democracy.