By Sarwar Kashani and Shah Abbas
Srinagar, India, Nov 28 (efe-epa).- The first phase of the staggered Kashmir civic polls began on Saturday amid high security, more than a year after India revoked the semi-autonomous status of the disputed Himalayan region.
More than 6.7 million people are eligible to vote and elect their representatives to 280 development councils across 20 districts of Kashmir.
The elected councils will have no legislative powers but will be responsible for ensuring the economic development of the troubled region that has since long rebelled against the Indian rule.
The elections, which have generated a cold response in the Kashmir Valley, will be held in eight phases that end on Dec. 19. Officials will count the votes on Dec. 22.
The government has deployed tens of thousands of extra paramilitary troopers in one of the highest militarized zones in the world to thwart any attempts by separatists to cause trouble and disrupt the process.
Police laid spools of metal wire with small and sharp bits on the roads and barricaded them with steel barriers across 2,146 polling booths in the areas that voted in the first phase.
Election Commissioner KK Sharma said the authorities had put in place the necessary Covid-19 protocols to ensure the health safety of the electors.
He said a total of 296 candidates were in the fray, including 89 female candidates, for the first phase of “the biggest festival of democracy.”
The Indian government has claimed that the civic polls are vital for the development of the impoverished region.
Taja Begum, an elderly and ailing woman in a north Kashmir village, told EFE that she voted for better civic amenities in her area.
“I have chosen a candidate who has promised us better water and electric supply,” she said.
But Firdous Ahmed, a middle-aged shopkeeper in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, chose not to cast his vote.
“Elections cannot resolve the (Kashmir) dispute which is the cause of day to day killings,” Ahmed told EFE.
“I have lost many close relatives in the conflict. Can they be brought back if I vote? Or can others be saved,” he asked.
Pro-India political groups have allied to fight the civic polls jointly as they have vociferously opposed the controversial decision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced on Aug.5, 2019, to strip the Muslim-majority region of its semi-autonomy.
Allegations by regional political parties, like the Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference – that the authorities did not allow their candidates to campaign freely in the name of security – have already marred the elections.
Authorities on Friday detained PDP president Mehbooba Mufti when she was visiting south Kashmir.
The Hindu-nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last year removed the region’s special constitutional status and divided it into two federally-administered territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.
The disputed move also led to the removal of over century-old rules that reserved property and job rights for the permanent residents of Kashmir.