August 5, 2021, will mark the second anniversary of the Government of Indias historic step to repeal the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and bifurcate it into two Union Territories — the UT of J&K and the UT of Ladakh. This move was long due and has dramatically altered the ground situation by ushering in peace and development.
Political elites had treated both Article 370 and 35 (A) of the Indian Constitution that gave the erstwhile state of J&K special status as a permanent feature of Kashmir’s political landscape. This status was abused to bring in a system of political patronage and pushed the whole Jammu and Kashmir into misgovernance and corruption. On practically every count of development — economic activity, education, infrastructure, healthcare, employment — Kashmir lagged. The heady cocktail of separatism and militancy only worsened this situation as the local youth, disappointed with nepotism and corruption, became cannon fodder for militancy even as the kith and kin of separatists studied in foreign universities and landed cushy jobs.
A once progressive society, proud of its intellectual legacy and pluralistic outlook, was reduced to a pale shadow of its former self. There was always recognition among the ordinary Kashmiris that the special status had benefited only the local elites to keep alive anti-India sentiments in the Valley. However, fearing violent reprisals, many dared not speak out against this and no government before dared to scrap it.
But two years ago, India crossed the Rubicon. And a perceptible change on the ground is already evident with the dramatically reduced hold of the separatist leadership, which had made protests and ‘hartals’ its main activity, impacting the ordinary Kashmiris, especially those dependent on daily earnings. Another noticeable change is the significant decline in stone-pelting incidents and reduced activities of the militant groups. It has denied the terrorist commanders and their masterminds based in Pakistan the much-craved anti-India narrative and propaganda to brainwash the local youth. Immediately the Union government extended more than 100 progressive laws to the J&K UT, including the Right to Education, Right to Work, Juvenile Justice Act, Women Representation Act etc. All these changes have given hope to the Kashmiris about better prospects for their families and the region.
Now under the direct management of New Delhi, the local administration has also stepped up, as evident during the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. An empowered administration quickly moved to do contact tracing and quarantining potentially infected citizens, beefing up the local healthcare facilities, imposing restrictions on public movement and rigorously implementing the vaccination programme to protect the vulnerable segments. The J&K UT’s pro-active measures ensured that the region didn’t witness large-scale infections during the second wave of the pandemic.
This proactiveness has been carried to other areas of the administration too. Infrastructure development has topped the administrative agenda to bring unprecedented all-year-round connectivity to the Valley. The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation has begun work to build five tunnels — Pir-Ki-Gali, Vailoo, Daranga, Zojila and Z-Morah — to be completed by 2024. Besides, work on the world’s highest railway bridge over the Chenab river is in the final stages of construction. Once completed, it will extend the rest of India’s train connectivity to north Kashmir.
Starved of funds from the state government earlier, the local Panchayati Raj institutions are now getting proper attention. Since August 2019, the UT has successfully conducted elections for Panches and Sarpanches, Block Development Councils and District Development Councils. These institutions are also being provided the required funds to ensure speedy completion of local work and address the developmental needs of the people.
Ambitious initiatives like ‘Back to Village’ have further strengthened the focus on Panchayati Raj institutions. Under this initiative, government officials visited all the 4,129 Panchayat halqas to get feedback on various government schemes in their areas. The government has also made it mandatory for carrying out at least two developmental works in every panchayat. These efforts have ensured community participation for the locals in managing their affairs.
The government’s efforts to promote development have not remained restricted to villages. Recognising Kashmiris’ indomitable entrepreneurial spirit and penchant for digital technology, the government has inaugurated the ‘Mission Youth’ initiative, which trains local youth for jobs and businesses in emerging sectors like banking and financial services, fashion and designing, cybersecurity, web designing, robotics and Artificial Intelligence. In addition, the Entrepreneurial Development Institute has promised additional funding for youth willing to start their business units.
Under the ‘Mumkin’ scheme, the government is providing small commercial vehicles to the youth with reasonable subsidies to earn a livelihood. Besides, the government is progressively bringing all the regions on the digital bandwagon by launching Digital Village Centres.
Investors from the rest of the country are looking to invest in hospitality, service and other sectors of the J&K UT. The changes in the land ownership rules hold potentially new changes as it will enable bigger and diverse hotel chains to invest in resorts like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg. More hotels will ensure more accommodation choices for people, which will boost tourism. This is a big opportunity for local employment.
Clearly, efforts are on to usher in a new dawn of development and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir. The politics of a small elite class has ended, and a more democratic way of life has been unveiled. And as expected, the locus of the region’s politics has shifted from one based on grievance and corruption to one focused on development and solving people’s problems.
Naturally, this sudden change from violence and pessimism to normalcy and optimism has not gone down well with Pakistan and those who benefited from Kashmir’s conflict. As a result, we have seen newer and more insidious attempts from Islamabad to disturb the normalcy in Kashmir and propagate lies about India. However, Pakistan doesn’t realise that its propaganda has not received global traction because the world has seen through its hypocrisy and its role in fuelling violence.