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“It [the roundtable conference] will, however, achieve historical importance if we are able to unleash a process by which we can arrive at a workable blueprint that can help to create a new chapter in Kashmir’s history.”  —  Manmohan Singh at the first roundtable conference on Kashmir at New Delhi, Feb 25, 2009

By Syed Nazakat in New Delhi

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh definitely gave it his all. When he spoke to Kashmiri leaders at his residence, it was termed one of the biggest political initiatives on Kashmir by any government. There was nothing in it that had not been thought about, argued over by top policy makers, and honed by the Prime Minister himself. The high point of the conference was the formation of five high-level working groups to formulate a blueprint for peace and progress in Kashmir.

But now, in a major embarrassment for the Prime Minister, the reports of four working groups are gathering dust in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Worse, the fifth group on Centre-state relations, headed by former Supreme Court Justice S. Saghir Ahmad, has not even submitted its report. This group has not met for the past two years. “For New Delhi, the working group reports offer a perfect starting point,” says Prof. Amitabh Mattoo, Kashmir affairs expert who teaches international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It’s disheartening that major recommendations are yet to implemented.” He says the government should revamp the fifth group as it has failed even to draft a set of proposals.

The fifth was the most sensitive group as it was formed to find a political common ground on issues like self-rule, autonomy and regional aspirations. To break the deadlock, Manmohan Singh asked top bureaucrat and Kashmir expert Wajahat Habibullah to give Ahmed his proposal for introduction of three-tier local governance in the state. At the heart of the Habibullah’s model is an attempt to promote “a local self-government”. “After I presented the report, I never heard from the group,” says Habibullah. “The problem with the group was that there was no consensus.”

In some cases, the government did the exact opposite of what was recommended. The working group on economy made a strong case for the promotion of broadband connectivity and telecom industry. They said telecom would deepen the state’s integration with the rest of the country. In contrast, the government banned pre-paid cell phone connections in the state, leaving tens of thousands people disconnected and hundreds jobless. “It is an unwise step,” says National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah.

The working groups brought together the country’s best economists, policy makers and strategists along with top J&K politicians and leaders of surrendered militants. The Prime Minister personally appointed the head of each group and their mandate was to prepare a roadmap for development and dialogue in the strife-torn state (see box).

For example, Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari’s working group on confidence-building measures asserted that certain laws made operational during the period of militancy, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act, should be reviewed and revoked. In addition, the working group suggested that the “cases of all persons in jail should be reviewed, and a general amnesty given to those under trial for minor offences.”

“It was a genuine recommendation,” says Prof. Bhim Singh, member of a group. “There should, at least, have been some discussion on it.”

To revive the economy in the state, Dr C. Rangarajan, chairman of the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council (PMEAC), made specific recommendations, including transfer of 390 MW Dulahsti hydel power project and 1020 MW Bursar storage scheme from NHPC to Jammu and Kashmir. Rangarajan’s report, submitted in 2007, said that the water-rich state had a potential of 14,000 MW, but only 10 per cent of this has been exploited so far. Most of the recommendations by Rangarajan’s group were made earlier by another high profile team—the Task Force for Development on J&K set up by the Prime Minister in 2005. “The [working group] report had many specific recommendations and I do hope that the report will be implemented in stages,” says Rangarajan.

But are things happening on the ground? “No, there is stagnation,” says noted economist Haseeb Drabu, chairman of the J&K Bank, who represented the state in the Prime Minister’s Task Force for Development. He says the problem with the development projects is that there is no deadline to meet. “There is no race against time,” says Drabu.

Today, Bihar and Jharkhand are the only states with the same literacy rate as Jammu and Kashmir. At 13 per cent, road connectivity in the state is among the lowest in the country. The health sector is a shambles, and there is an army of educated jobless youth. The only thing thriving is corruption. “The unemployment, poverty and poor public services have fuelled a violent uprising,” says a senior home ministry official.

On its part, former foreign secretary M.K. Rasgotra’s working group on strengthening relations across the Line of Control lays out new possibilities for cooperation between the state and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. What puzzles many people is why many simple recommendations have not been implemented yet. Former Planning Commission member N.C. Saxena’s working group on good governance, for example, has called for the creation of a high-power committee for enforcing human rights. “This committee should have been established a long ago. It will not cost you millions,” says a senior state official. He says the State Human Rights Commission is a toothless tiger. “There is a culture of impunity in the state and that creates a climate of mistrust among common people,” he says.

Amongst the pile of recommendations from the working groups, the government has implemented only one major recommendation—the appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner. “It is a big responsibility,” says Habibullah, who has taken charge as the first CIC of the state. He says the situation in Kashmir has atrophied because of unemployment and the lack of reforms.

The PMO says that some other recommendations are also being taken up. The Prime Minister’s media adviser, Harish Khare, declined to comment on the progress of the working groups’ recommendations; he says he is not aware about specific recommendations. He, however, says, “the Prime Minister has had a successful visit to Kashmir and he has reiterated his commitment to dialogue in and development of Jammu and Kashmir.”

The Prime Minister has assured the state, in his recent visit, that additional funds are being provided to ensure the timely completion of the Mughal Road. The Centre has also agreed to hand over Bursar and Pakal Dul hydel project to the state, though the files are held up. The Centre has also promised Rs 350 crore for the cleaning up Dal and Nageen lakes.

Drabu says that the speed with which the things are moving frustrates common people. “The worry is that, for many people, the promise of a new Kashmir and a better future seems to be becoming a distant dream,” says Drabu.

For the Prime Minister, the biggest disappointment could be that the last four years of roundtable talks and back-channel negotiations have yielded no progress on the political front. Everybody agrees that dialogue is the only way forward, but even mainstream political parties have failed to find a common ground. “The Prime Minister has taken a holistic approach on Kashmir,” says Prof. Radha Kumar, director of the Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. “But it seems to be heading nowhere.”

Status Report Of PM’s Working Groups

On Centre-State relations

Recommendations: Yet to submit report

On confidence-building measures

Recommendations: Review and revoke AFSPA, review cases of all prisoners, offer amnesty for minor offences, have an investigative arm for state human rights commission, offer comprehensive package for the Kashmir Pandits, offer rent or compensation to people whose land or buildings have been taken over by the armed forces

Progress: Centre refused to curtail AFSFA, SHRC still has no investigative wing, huge land remains with the security forces & the army without compensation. Package for migrant Pandits cleared

On strengthening relations cross the LoC

Recommendations: Open new routes between Jammu-Sialkot, Kargil-Skardu, Titwal-Chilhan and four more routes, establish meeting points in Ladakh, cross-border travel should not be restricted to relatives, allow telephone calls across the LoC, constitute joint consultative group of 10 members each of the legislatures of both sides, promote tourism and protect the environment

Progress: No new route opened, telephone still banned. A delegation from PoK recently visited the valley

On economic development

Recommendations: Transfer Dulahsti hydel power project and Bursar scheme from NHPC to J&K, enhance J&K’s share of free power in Central hydel projects, develop growth-generating initiatives, promote broadband service and telecom, establish special industrial zone, improve health care and establish a transmission utility for reduction of transmission losses and efficient management

Progress: Yet to get environmental clearance for new power projects, both Dulahsti and Bursar projects are with NHPC and pre-paid cellphones have been banned.

On good governance

Recommendations: Committee for enforcing human rights, appoint chief information commissioner, set up minority commission, introduce e-governance in police procedure, survey to know perception about governance, chief secretary to conduct monthly review on utilisation of Central funds

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