"We have got nothing from the state government. Whatever we got, we got from the central government," shouted one of the sapanches, prompting Gandhi to assure him that they will be empowered eventually. (Agencies)
Gandhi's two-day visit to the state beginning on Wednesday is seen as a move by Congress to build pressure on coalition partner National Conference to incorporate certain provisions of the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution on Panchayati Raj.
Gandhi assured the sarpanches, "We will implement the 73rd amendment." "You will get your right. I will fight this battle for you. I will keep coming and keep mounting pressure...You have to fight this battle. We are with you. We, all of us together, will put pressure on the state government. We are with you. This thing will happen cent per cent," he said.
Reminding them that it had taken almost one-and-a-half years to ensure passage of the new Land Acquisition Bill, he said this will also eventually happen "not easily" but only after people fight for it.
Highlighting right-based schemes like MNREGA, RTI and food security brought by UPA, the Congress Vice President said these programmes cannot be implemented without Panchayati Raj and without sarpanches as "in order to implement these programmes, the leadership should be in villages."
"This is the politics of the future and this is what will happen in Jammu and Kashmir as well. I want to assure you that in the time to come, you will get these rights...In 21st century, the Panchayats, the local bodies will have to be empowered.
"Decisions will be taken in villages in the 21st century. If we have to change Jammu and Kashmir, then first of all we will have to empower the leaders of Panchayats and local bodies...There is no other way to empower you if you have to run this state because MLAS, MPs cannot do what you can do. They don't have the kind of knowledge about villages that you have," Gandhi said.
The issue of incorporating 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution in the state's Panchayati Raj Act has been a bone of contention between the two parties for some time.
Amid complaints from the gathering of sarpanches that nobody listens to their problems, the Congress Vice President said, "Had I not wanted to listen to you, there was no need for me to come here. I have come here because I want to listen to you."
He said that he will keep building pressure till the issue is not resolved. "...We want to give the same powers, strength to panches and sarpanhces in Jammu and Kashmir what we are providing to them in other states. If you go to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, you will find politics interesting there because the sarpanches have power there. The district plans are made, local participation happens, meetings are held and people's views come out.
"And this is the future of politics. This will also happen in Jammu and Kashmir. I want to assure you that in coming time, you will get the rights. As long as you don't get, I will keep coming here. I will keep building the pressure, till this is not resolved," Gandhi said.
Gandhi also briefly touched on the issue of refugees in the state. "There is an issue of refugees. I know they feel pain. I also want to tell them that the Congress party will fight their battle. We will do whatever we can do for you," he said.
Maintaining that Congress is with the people of the state, Gandhi said, "Whatever we can do for Jammu and Kashmir, we are ready to do that. I want that people of the state are empowered. They get rights."
The Congress Vice President said that he has talked to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah about the Right to Food.
"He (Omar) had concerns that very little foodgrain will be available. I told him that the same problem was in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Central Government helped them and we are going to help you in the same manner as we did them.
"Right to food should be implemented here and if there is any deficiency, we will fulfill it. Because we want that Jammu and Kashmir should also get whatever benefits the UPA government gives to other states--- be it right to food, land acquisition and Panchayati Raj," Gandhi said.
The Congress Vice President also talked at length about the work being done by UPA for employment related training to youth and women in Jammu and Kashmir and noted "we are trying to take these things forward".
"We have got nothing from the state government. Whatever we got, we got from the central government," shouted one of the sapanches, prompting Gandhi to assure him that they will be empowered eventually.