SRINAGAR: More than a year after the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the Jammu and Kashmir administration, backed by the central government, is working on a multi-pronged strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people of the strife-torn union territory.
A brand new sport complex in Anantnag to keep the youth from being drawn to terrorism, a new high tech “Spice Park” in Pulwama to ensure the region’s saffron growers get good prices for their crop, and a programme that ensures officials regularly visit villages and work with heads of locally elected village councils or panchayats to deliver governance.
Pulwama and Anantnag besides Shopian and Kulgam in South Kashmir have had the dubious distinction of being terrorist hotbeds. Pulwama made headlines last year for a suicide car bomb attack on a paramilitary convoy that killed 40 and renewed tensions between India and Pakistan. This is what officials were working to change.
“Pulwama produces 310,000 tonnes of milk on an average,” said Raghav Langer, deputy commissioner of Pulwama. The district has the potential to be known as “the Anand” of Kashmir, he said. The reference was to Anand in Gujarat known for its milk marketing cooperatives.
In Anantnag, officials plan to highlight trout farming besides lavender and rice cultivation. “Mushkbudji is a fragrant rice variety endemic to this region. We are pushing for a Geographical Indication tag for this variety as a means of increasing farm incomes,” said district collector Kuldip Krishan Sidha.
Officials in Jammu and Kashmir admitted to anxiety and uncertainty among the local populace in the aftermath of New Delhi revoking the special status granted to the erstwhile state. The aim of the move, the Centre had said, was to ensure a new beginning for the region by delivering governance directly to the people.
“There was corruption in the system, politicians having links with separatists,” said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “These are the things that have changed now after the revocation of article 370.”
Speeding up development and governance delivery also helps puncture Pakistan’s age old narrative of oppression and human rights violations by security forces in the region, Sibal added.
Ajai Sahni of New Delhi-based think tank Institute of Conflict Management said the region has seen many attempts to integrate it with the national mainstream. “There is a new narrative no doubt but I hope it will reach all the people not just a section,” he said.
Officials say programmes like “Back to the village” that involves approximately 5,000 gazetted officers of the union territory spending two days and a night in more than 4,400 panchayats of the region is for the people. And they seemed convinced that sentiment among the populace was changing.
At least some among the locals vouched for that.
“There is a direct conversation between the administration and the people, which is good,” said Pir Mohammed Hussain, a resident of Anantang district, some 60 kilometres from Srinagar. He said he was one of the beneficiaries of a new 4.5 million gallon drinking water plant in Bumzoo area of Anantnag, that has come up in the past few months. It will provide piped drinking water to all houses in Anantnag and peripheral villages under the central government’s Jal Jeevan Mission – especially once it gets upgraded to 7.5 million gallon capacity in the next phase.
“We are able to convey what we want directly to the authorities. Previously, we had to approach MPs (members of parliament) or MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) who passed on our requests to officials. In the process, our demands would be ignored,” Hussain said.
At the gate of the water plant, a small group of Sikhs said despite staying a few metres from the new water facility, they did not have access to potable water – a testament to the scale of efforts required to fulfill aspirations of all in the union territory.
“As we respond to people’s requests, their expectations from us go up. We are trying to fulfill as many demands as possible,” said an Anantnag district official.