Asserting that the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) have been able to provide “good governance” on the ground while the number of developmental concerns coming to the administrative secretaries dwindled over some time, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, Pandurang Kondbarao Pole in an exclusive interview with Greater Kashmir Senior Editor, Nazir Ganaie, talks about a series of issues including government’s land retrieval campaign, schemes, administrative inertia, grievance mechanism, power generation, digitisation of revenue records and much more. Excerpts
Greater Kashmir: Lieutenant Governor-led administration claims to have brought many positive changes in people-administration handling affairs. However, people still complain about not being heard. Why?
Divisional Commissioner: See there are many things that have been done on the ground administratively. Putting things in the right direction takes time. We have been working hard to provide the people of Kashmir with the utmost efficient and accountable governance. People have been given the right to decide the fate of their revenue and other cases. The administration is speeding up the processes everywhere at every stage. We are happy those people with grievances are coming forward and getting them addressed on a priority.
Greater Kashmir: The representatives of grassroots democracy or Panchayat Raj Institutions are of the opinion that they are not being heard or given their share in handling the governance affairs.
Divisional Commissioner: Our Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) are vibrant. We have seen the number of people with complaints or any of their developmental concerns have been largely addressed by the PRIs only. The office of the Divisional Commissioner or offices of Deputy Commissioners don’t witness such a rush now. For Panchayat Halqa, we have kept around Rs 50 lakh budget allocation and for DDC members it can go up to Rs 1 crore. This money is purely for addressing the developmental concerns and issues of the people at large.
Greater Kashmir: Divisional Kashmir’s office remains busy with the issues concerning all the district headquarters. The revenue matters of the people continue to remain a large pending issue. What are you doing on that front to streamline it?
Divisional Commissioner: The Divisional Commissioner Kashmir office in J&K has been largely a law-and-order coordinating agency. Also, the revenue matters of the people are addressed by us. We are not able to focus much on the developmental issues, which normally happen with the other states. We are also busy providing protocols to the various VVIPs and union ministers visiting Kashmir region. The Divisional Commissioner’s office remains constantly in touch with the DCs for regular updates on the district headquarters.
Greater Kashmir: While rural areas have been given more focus on the development front. The downtown areas of Srinagar continue to remain neglected. Are you initiating any projects under Smart City?
Divisional Kashmir: I won’t even call it downtown. Shehr-e-Khaas is our special area. It is very special as far as the Kashmir region is concerned. It is an area with an abundance of talent and a place of master artisans. We are developing the lanes and by-lanes of these areas. A special focus is also given to the historical markets and we are giving them a face-lift. We are also identifying and developing them under various circuits so that visitors and tourists directly visit the artisans and have a first-hand experience of the crafts and craftsmanship.
Greater Kashmir: Wetlands of Kashmir region have been subjected to unabated encroachments and there is no check from the official machinery. Kashmir is losing its prime wetlands to the towering malls and shopping complexes. Is there any check on that?
Divisional Commissioner: It isn’t entirely true. Whenever we receive any complaints of the encroachments in the wetlands and other vital water bodies, our men and machinery act quite fast. Stopping encroachments needs societal involvement. We may only be able to stop the mess when people of these areas report such issues. The Lakes and Conservation Management Authority (LCMA), Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), and the Srinagar Development Authority (SDA) have been directed to keep a strict vigil around Srinagar city. The government is adopting a multipronged strategy to revive Brari Nambal lagoon to its pristine glory. The government has kept around Rs 40 crore budget to uplift this dying water body. We are having consultative meetings with the stakeholders and a roadmap is being devised to start working on the plan. However, the people of the area should come forward and help the administration in executing the much-needed works. To revive any vital water body, people’s participation and their active role is very important. Brari Nambal lagoon has been left unattended and people also have shown an adverse role. So, the time has come when a strategy is to be developed and get this important water body back to its pristine glory. All the sewerage outlets go to the lagoon. That is a major challenge. The government alone can’t achieve the goal of its revival. We have to work in close coordination with the people, especially the inhabitants of the areas supposed to install necessary sewage treatment units on a priority basis.
Greater Kashmir: There are many projects undergoing under Smart City. What is their progress? In some projects, the stakeholders including the business community in Lal Chowk say that the timing wasn’t good to start the project.
Divisional Commissioner: The work of several projects under Srinagar Smart City Limited (SSCL) is underway. We are addressing issues including left-out spaces under flyovers, the development of Sonwar junction, the realignment of Convent road, the construction of footpath on the right side of Boulevard, the construction of the second storey of FC building, the urban development of Nallah Mar Road, the beautification of flyovers, Jhelum riverfront development, Jhelum waterfront development and ghats, renovation of Chinar Bagh, conservation of existing shrines, and Raghunath temple. I have directed the concerned agencies to work in coordination to complete the pending work on scheduled time. Officers have been asked to conduct site visits to take stock of the work executed by the respective departments and expedite projects. All the departmental development work is to integrate with SSCL. I have asked the officials to conduct internal audits of parked and unspent funds and submit Action-Taken Reports so that the blueprints of projects is not changed frequently.
Greater Kashmir: As the winter approaches, people start facing immense hardships in Kashmir despite the government claiming to have revived winter preparedness. How does it go wrong?
Divisional Commissioner: I have been regularly convening meetings regarding winter preparedness across Kashmir division. I have directed the DC Ramban to facilitate the smooth movement of vehicles from their side, particularly during morning and evening hours when markets along the National Highway remain abuzz which creates traffic jams and interrupts the smooth traffic movement. The officials at these district headquarters have been asked to stock salt in advance that can be used to spray over the road at Patnitop when it gets slippery due to snow and frost. Besides, I told them to keep the snow-clearance machinery ready at critical junctions for instant action to facilitate the flow of vehicles. The DCs have been directed to chalk out a priority-wise snow clearance plan. The priority-wise snow clearance plan will be out in the public domain so that people know in advance about the locus standi of their respective areas. Similarly, PMGSY and SMC officers have been directed to enhance the capacity of men and machinery for snow clearance. The concerned DCs have been directed to streamline ticket booking and issuance of tickets in a transparent manner besides I have directed the deputation of staff there and improvement in the snow clearance mechanism.
Greater Kashmir: Your office also has avalanche warnings in hilly areas, still there is some lapse in certain cases. How to mitigate that?
Divisional Commissioner: I have given directions for issuing advance avalanche warning for hilly areas so that damage to property and loss of lives is avoided. For saving orchards, I have instructed the Director of Horticulture to issue an advisory for the pruning of plants so that damage due to snow can be reduced. Similarly, PDD has been instructed to prepare a schedule for power distribution and confiscate crude electric appliances from the market besides advance dumping of stock at the subdivision level. The officials on the ground have been asked to advance the dumping of stock of transformers, poles, and conductors.
Greater Kashmir: People face a lot of issues with stocks during winter. Are you prepared this time?
Divisional Commissioner: We ensure no such issues arise. But then winters for us are a calamity. Anything can happen. That is how the administration takes it. But the directions have been passed to the concerned for maintaining a sufficient quantity of essential food items in stock besides asking for market checking to control black marketing and illegal profiteering by traders during the closure of highways due to snow
Greater Kashmir: This year we saw a lot of protests by the farmers, and apple growers as the truck movement remains blocked. Who do you blame this for?
Divisional Commissioner: There was no restriction on the movement of goods carriers or material supply vehicles. The fruit-laden trucks faced difficulties on the National Highway as Kashmir witnessed a bumper apple crop, which crossed 21 lakh metric tonnes this year. I have talked about this in the press earlier that the apple crop usually remained in between 17 to 18 lakh tonnes, however, this year it crossed 21 lakh metric tonnes. Due to the bumper crop this year, fruit-laden trucks faced some difficulties on the highway as people here harvested the apple in bulk.
Greater Kashmir: Does more productive mean more difficulties for the growers and the farmers?
Divisional Commissioner: Keeping in view the hardships faced by the common farmers and growers, we are also developing some mechanisms for this. We got to work very closely during the peak harvest time with the growers.
Greater Kashmir: The government is saying that J&K is doubling the hydropower generation capacity from the existing capacity of 3500 MW. We are getting a royalty from different power projects, water flow in rivers is fine at present and generation hasn’t drastically gone down, where does this power go?
Divisional Commissioner: Basically, our power requirement is 3500 MW. We have an immense hydel power capacity but actually, that capacity has not been tapped fully. It demands huge investments. We don’t have huge investments to go into this sector. In addition to that, we are importing power worth Rs 4000 crore annually. Our major power projects have the potential to come on the River Chenab. People get confused. We have the resources and we can generate but that hasn’t been tapped. Moreover, some of the existing power projects are being upgraded. In one of the power projects, there was litigation going on. I am sure it will be addressed soon.
Greater Kashmir: Government seriously took up the issue of land retrieval, especially in the case of Kashmiri Pandit properties. How much land have you retrieved and what is the status of this now?
Divisional Commissioner: First of all, I would like to clarify this. This wasn’t a retrieval for the Kashmiri Pandits only. Under the Migrant Act, this was a process of retrieval for all migrants that included Kashmiri Pandits, Kashmiri Muslims, and non-Pandit Hindus like Punjabis. We have retrieved 2600 kanal of land so far and the process is on. People who migrated some three decades back are also coming out with grievances. New generations don’t know about it. Some people have got power of attorney. However, no registry has been done. So dubious claims have come. The landowner has one story and the occupant has another.
Greater Kashmir: Do you see any connection between this and the abrogation of Article 370?
Divisional Commissioner: No, clearly not. This act (Migrant Act) was passed in 1997 and the law gives them every right to explore their options.
Greater Kashmir: The government swung into action about Rsohni Act landholders. What is its status now?
Divisional Commissioner: They have again moved to the court and the case is sub judice.
Greater Kashmir: Getting a simple revenue document, Intekhaab, continues to remain a cumbersome process for the common people. Why?
Divisional Commissioner: We are now digitising land records. All the revenue records are being digitised and the owners are getting a Land Passbook. The people will get this passbook in three printed languages including English, Hindi, and Urdu. Online services will be provided under Apni Zameen Apni Nigrani.
Greater Kashmir: People are complaining about gross discrepancies in revenue records online while comparing it to actual records. Hasn’t it been fully updated?
Divisional Commissioner: See government has hard-working human resources. There are some officials who indulge in mischief. Patwari is the lowest-rung revenue official but the way he rules the record, you can’t find it. Have you ever been able to understand what Pathwari writes? You won’t. To overcome that we are digitiSing the entire records. The more we put the record online, the more we will be able to minimise all these issues and grievances.
Greater Kashmir: Does the government have plans to create infrastructure for revenue officials like patwaris so that they will be static in one place and people wouldn’t have difficulty in locating them?
Divisional Commissioner: We have identified Patwar Khanas. But the problem is they can’t keep this precious record there. We are working on this.