Last year, in June, a reluctant Tirath Singh, 59, was asked to attend a meeting at Panchayat Ghar and was told that ‘ache din aagye hai’ (Good days have come). He rushed along with other men and women from Bobiya, a border village, to meet the officials who had come on a three-day visit under the newly launched Phase One of Back To Village Programme.
Located in Hira Nagar of Jammu’s Samba district, Bobiya is home to around 150 families, largely Rajputs and a smattering of families belonging to the Scheduled Castes. Ahead of the panchayat polls in the UT, which will be conducted in eight phases beginning November 28, NewsClick visited four villages in the Jammu division – Bobia village in Samba district, Treva Village in RS Pura, Dansal village near Udhampur, Manduchak village in Jammu to take stock of the ground situation.
However, residents of all the four villages narrated a story of disappointment with the B2V programme.
Singh recalled that the officials asked the villagers about the problems while penning them down in the notepad. “Everyone was thrilled. Most of the issues raised by the people in the village revolved around employment, basic healthcare and education,” he said.
He, however, had an additional thing to worry – the safety of his family.
Despite belonging to a border village which is prone to frequent shelling from across the border, Singh’s house doesn’t have a bunker. Bunkers are mostly underground, constructed in the border areas of Jammu division, as safe shelters to protect the lives of the people from shells and other explosives. Normally, the Army announces the expected timing of the commencement of shelling to the villagers, who would hide in these bunkers until told otherwise.
So when the officials came to him, Singh promptly asked for a bunker. He claimed to have been assured of the construction within three months. Over a year and half later, he is still waiting for the construction to begin while the third phase of the B2V programme is underway since September 2020.
He went on to add that before the COVID-19 pandemic, his family would rush to the nearby transit camp installed by the army till the shelling stopped. “But now, the situation has changed. The fear of contracting infection has made everyone hide in their own individual bunkers inside their houses and there is no camp,” he said. Now, he said, he is just lucky enough to be alive.
Tirath Singh with fellow villagers.
The much-lauded Back to Village programme, launched last year in June, was a public outreach programme aimed at “energising” Panchayats in Jammu and Kashmir with a focus on “equitable development” by undertaking an assessment of the needs of the villagers and delivering accordingly.
The programme was conducted in a phased manner. In its first edition, the government officials visited the Gram Panchayats to assess the situation following which the second phase began in November last year.
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This year, when the third phase of B2V was apparently launched in September, it was outrightly dismissed by the villagers who claimed that the public grievances recorded in the last two phases were yet to be implemented.
Singh along with other villagers in Bobiya have boycotted the programme. “When officials came to Panchayat Ghar, we didn’t meet them. How could they start the third phase when the demands raised in first and second phase have not yet been implemented?,” Singh questioned.
Bobia might not appear as a “typical” village because of the huge, fertile and smooth road leading to the area, that facilitates army movement to the border, but it has all the features of a remote village in any part of India including dilapidated old structures of health sub centre and primary school.
Villagers told NewsClick that the primary school has been shut since the last six years and the doctor at the health centre is a once in a blue moon occurrence.
“There are no medicines except for paracetamol, no doctors. We have to go all the way to Jammu to visit hospital. During emergencies, few patients have died in the midst of this travel,” said Bajan Singh, a resident of Bobia.
He said that in his seventy years of life nothing has changed in his village and even the disappointments from the government have remained constant. He expressed his discontent while claiming that the boycott had no effect on the administration.
“Few visiting officers came, sipped a cup of tea and left without even enquiring as to why we have boycotted the programme,” he said.
The dilapidated Health Centre at Trewa.
About 30 km away from Jammu city, in Trewa, another border village in Arnia sector of RS Pura, Balbir Kaur, the first female sarpanch from the village, appears miffed. Kaur is the same sarpanch who was lauded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his monthly radio address ‘Mann ki Baat’ for her efforts in fighting COVID-19 by establishing a 30-bed quarantine centre.
Kaur said her primary demand to visiting officials was the construction of a bridge and two ambulances for the health sub centre. However, both have remained unfulfilled so far. As per Kaur, the bridge holds significance as after crossing it, the villagers will be out of shelling range.
“It will take 2 minutes for a thousand people to cross the bridge and be out of shelling range,” she said.
Besides the perpetual fear of shelling, the villagers at Trewa are also victims of frequent snake bites in monsoon and there are no ambulances at the health sub centre which is mostly locked. Kaur added, a month ago, when a young boy broke his leg while playing in the night, she had to drive him to the hospital.
“It has to do with the inefficiency of the health centre in the first place. The health centre in the villages are not capable enough to treat minor ailments let alone emergencies. I raised these demands at B2V but there has been no acknowledgement,” she said.
Panchayat Ghar at Churrta Village
In Churrta village in Dansal Tehsil at the outskirts of the Jammu city, on the way to Udhampur district, the board hailing the road’s inauguration by a BJP leader Jugal Kishore is ironic, as the roads are battered and in extremely poor condition. When officials visited the village last year, their primary demand was unanimously resonated by the villagers, panchs and Sarpanchs – the construction of a road.
“It's going to be two years since we submitted our grievance to the officials for road construction, yet the work has not started,” said Sanjay Kumar, one of the five panches.
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With dilapidated, narrow roads, Dansal has no access to even basic transportation including Matador (Mini Buses). Residents have to trek for hours to reach the main road and said that no Matador was willing to enter their village. “We have often requested the drivers to include Dansal as one of their stops but they just don’t listen,” said one of the residents.
Home to around 200 families of Bakarwals who migrate to Dansal for six months in winter, the villagers had made another major demand for a veterinary hospital, along with basic demands of better healthcare and schooling.
“These Bakarwals don’t have anything except their animals. So, in winters, whenever their animals catch infection or fall ill, they go around the village asking for money so that they can reach Jammu for the treatment,” said Kumar.
Recently, ahead of the Panchayat elections, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has lauded the Back to Village programme as a tool for ensuring “development and restructuring of J&K.” However, the programme’s failure is glaring in every village.
In Manduchak village of Khandwal panchayat of Jammu Tehsil, the residents are unaware of any such programme. To them, people from cities visit their villages, sell them dreams and leave. “Yes, few officials came twice, we showed them around and shared our problems. They assured help and left,” said a turban clad 70-year-old Rampal.
Manduchak is riddled with the same problems as other villages, deprived of basic health facilities, road and school. Rampal insisted on this reporter to note his number so that whenever there is any offer or benefits, he is the first one to be kept in mind. “Call me whenever, I will pick your call on the first ring,” he said.
NewsClick tried contacting DC Jammu, Sushma Chauhan for a comment but there was no reply. The story will be updated as soon as there is one.