Hope restoration of democracy happens soon in J&K…it’s been far too long: Srinagar ex-mayor Junaid Mattu

After serving as mayor of Srinagar from 2018 until last month, Junaid Azim Mattu of J&K Apni Party speaks to Naveed Iqbal about the challenges he faced during his tenure, the need for local body and Assembly elections to be held in Jammu and Kashmir, and about his plans for the future.

You had a nearly full five-year tenure as mayor, barring a six-month hiatus due to a vote of no-confidence. What were the challenges in getting urban local bodies (ULBs) functional again in 2018, almost 10 years after the last ULB elections were held?

The systems that function in ULBs through elected corporations were pretty defunct. The corporations were run by chief executives, administrators and commissioners… In 2018, when I took over, the first challenge was to reorient administrative systems, and (to figure out) how they work in tandem with elected bodies.

A lot of administrative mechanisms had evolved in such a way that they were functioning in a vacuum. That was the first challenge, and eventually, after 2019 (when Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was revoked), the 73rd and 74th amendments (Constitutional amendments regarding local self-government) also became applicable in J&K, which devolved a lot of powers to ULBs.

This is important because Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) today is an urban local government which oversees nearly 20-odd government departments in the city, including drinking water, primary education, primary health, floriculture, and roads and buildings. So, the process of transforming a municipal corporation into a city government started during my tenure, and that was a very unique experience.

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Was it a challenge to bring the SMC back into the control of elected representatives?

Bureaucracy is always reluctant to cede power, and that’s not an isolated issue. It’s a universal, systemic problem. The overarching intention of the administration over the last five years has been to empower local bodies. I think local bodies were empowered both financially and institutionally far more than ever before.

In that context, does it disappoint you that fresh elections for ULBs are not on the horizon for now?

In part, yes. The continuity of municipal corporations is something that everybody wanted. The democratic system should have continued, and I think that was the intention of everybody. To be fair, that was the intention of the administration.

But when the electoral architecture of the municipal wards were looked at, it was found that some wards consist of 4,000 voters, while others consist of 16,000 or 18,000. As per any benchmark in the world, that is disenfranchisement of the people. This is something that was done primarily by the National Conference in the past… So, the delimitation of wards is something that will correct a lot of historic wrongs, especially in the city of Srinagar.

Is it a worry that there have been no Assembly elections, no ULB polls, and indications of a possible delay in panchayat polls?

The very utility of an elected representative is to act as a bridge in grievance redressal, and that bridge has no alternative in the bureaucracy. I earnestly hope that local bodies get re-elected very soon and I hope that the larger democratic restoration in J&K also happens very soon. It’s been far too long now.

ULBs are not an alternative to the state legislature. This needs to be said unequivocally… (ULBs are) not an alternative to law making at that (state) level. And that is why our system is a tiered system. Law making at the level of the legislative Assembly is an essential part of that system. So, one hopes that the overarching restoration of democracy happens very soon.

I wouldn’t call it a lack of political representation, but I would say that the state legislature needs to be in place…

The same political parties that say that there has been political disempowerment and lack of representation – they have a fair point in saying so in terms of the legislature – failed to hold ULB elections for 10 years. We became a unique state, being deprived of central grants and assistance which goes to local bodies. What stopped those political parties from holding elections for 10 years? It was a state subject, and they categorically chose not to do it.

You’ve said that you are not keen on contesting ULB elections again. So, what are your plans?

I have been the longest-serving mayor of Srinagar. I have served in tumultuous and interesting times. I have learnt a lot and I have a sense of gratification that I have delivered on a lot of my promises. The city of Srinagar, at large, has seen an element of transformation. And the transformation is ongoing.

The intention was to transform the city into a growing, progressive, liberal tourist city, and also, equally, to address the transformative hopes of the residents of Srinagar for better infrastructure, better public space, better amenities…

Also, it was time to pay attention to those pockets of Srinagar that had been neglected for decades. I have spent most of the five years focusing on those pockets. I have tried to bring attention to those deprived pockets. If I felt that I had not succeeded in doing that, I would perhaps have yearned for another term, but I believe that I have contributed what I intended to at this level. I believe that five years in the mayor’s office are enough, and it is now prudent to try my luck at another level of public representation.

Have these options for you been discussed within the J&K Apni Party?

The question of parliamentary elections obviously needs to be discussed within the party’s parliamentary board. I have been told that I am a part of the party’s two-member shortlist for the Srinagar constituency, but there are other people in consideration as well. The decision rests with the party. If given a chance, I would definitely find that experience interesting, and if the party believes that is the role that I should fight in…I would be glad to do it.

I don’t believe that a place in Parliament is a place for “dharna”. I don’t believe that to go to Parliament representing J&K would be to protest in Parliament. What is normally said during campaigns is that we have to send somebody who can protest and who has to voice our anger. I think, equally incumbent on members of Parliament from Kashmir at this juncture would be to act as a bridge of understanding between the people of Kashmir and the people of the rest of the country… We don’t need to send an ambassador of conflict to the parliament, we need to send an ambassador of consensus building.

What are some of the markers of the transformation of Srinagar, as you say?

When we started out, we had no equipment and wherewithal, and had a completely dysfunctional sanitation mechanism… We invested heavily in sanitation, in solid waste management, in buying new vehicles, in reorienting sanitation systems. Also in reorienting our human resource, trying to reach every single household in Srinagar. We went from being one of the dirtiest cities, to at one point being considered one of the 20 cleanest cities of the country…

We also addressed the stray dog concern. The only option that we had was mass sterilisation. We allocated funds for it and created animal sterilisation centres… We are now on our way to achieving a static stray dog population.

One of the things I’m really proud of is the transformation of urban spaces in Srinagar. Our tourism profile has been tremendously augmented, (especially in) Polo View Market and the Ghanta Ghar plaza. When we started out, there was initial resistance from people. I remember calling the SMC commissioner and asking to demolish the clock tower, and there was pin drop silence. He asked why, and my thoughts were that it was one of the shabbiest clock towers in the country. It had become an emblem of our resistance to evolution. We anticipated a hue and cry over heritage, but I said that heritage is not an alibi for backwardness… I’m very happy with the way it has turned out. Earlier, it was just a space that we tolerated. Today, people go and hangout at Lal Chowk.

You have faced criticism about moving to different parties over the years. What drove those decisions

My foray into politics was very unconventional. I tried to find my way in a political system where a young politician is basically an old politician’s son. I started working closely with Omar (Abdullah) sahab and then Sajad (Lone) sahab, and I eventually realised that it’s very hard for people to not feel insecure about me…

I always thought that Omar Abdullah, for all his baggage, was well meaning. Most importantly, he’s perceptive. But eventually, I realised that he is entrenched in the same old system. The young politicians that surround him are the sons of the old politicians that surrounded his father. I saw Omar Abdullah struggle with trying to change that initially, and then I found out that he has made peace with it. At least internally, within the party, I saw him become a status quoist…

In 2018, the NC decided to boycott local body elections. And my opinion was very clear that if we boycott these elections they will still be held and we’ll be left without proper representation… My disagreement was that, and then I contested as an independent and cobbled an alliance.

After that, I rejoined the People’s Conference (PC) and took over as their chief spokesperson… (But) I had a very resolute opinion that Sajad Lone (chairman of PC) should not stay in the PAGD (People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration). I believed that if we are striving to be an alternative, we should not be in cahoots with the people you believe to be part of the problem… So one fine day, in a very dignified manner, we parted ways.

(The PAGD) might be a pressure group to hunker for power and relevance in Delhi, but it is certainly not a pressure group to fight for the aspirations of the people of J&K.

Apni Party, for all its criticism that it gets for being close to the centre, rose as a party that was a confluence of people from different backgrounds, and was not owned by a family.

It became an alternative where the basic unifying point was that we have to stop promising to the people what is beyond our reach. We have to realise what is deliverable and what is not. We cannot mislead the people for another generation based on rhetoric and sloganeering. We need to ask for our constitutional rights, but also at the same time, stop alienating our people from the rest of the country.