Sirohi, Rajasthan: Twenty-eight-year-old Saroj Kumari was set to contest the 2015 elections for Bhimana panchayat in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district. Her nomination papers had been filed and campaigning was almost over. Everyone in the village had assured her of their support. People were eager to see Saroj as the sarpanch or head—a post they thought this young woman would do justice to.
But two days before the polls, Saroj found that her form had been rejected. Under a new law passed in December 2014, a candidate for the sarpanch’s post must have studied up to Class VIII. Saroj had only studied till Class VII.
Married off at 15, Saroj could not complete her education. “Hindi was my favourite subject. But after marriage I was embarrassed to go to school,” she says. “I wanted to become a sarpanch to serve the people, to learn more from my work but even that opportunity is gone now.”
Passed less than a month before the panchayat elections in January and February last year, the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Act, 2014, left thousands of candidates such as Saroj ineligible to contest.
Rajasthan is the first state in India to impose minimum educational requirements for candidates contesting the panchayat elections: Class VIII for sarpanch; Class V for scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) sarpanch; and those contesting the zila parishad and panchayat samiti polls must have cleared Class X.
Of the 33 districts in Rajasthan, six have a tribal population of 70% and more. These are Banswara, Dungarpur, Udaipur, Pratapgarh, Chittaurgarh and Abu Road block. Candidates contesting from these areas need to be educated at least till Class V.
According to the 2011 census only 61% of the state’s rural population had studied beyond Class V. The proportion of rural women with this qualification was 45%.
Over the last five years, Chenar panchayat in Sirohi district’s Abu Road block has undergone many changes. Unpaved roads have been replaced by cemented roads; villagers have started receiving their pensions under state schemes; brick houses have been built for more than 650 people under the Indira Awaas Yojna; more than 50 hand pumps have been installed; and the number of people getting employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has also gone up.
The woman credited with this progress is Duli Bai (45), the sarpanch from 2010-2015.
“Five years ago, I didn’t even step out of the house alone. But after getting elected we bought a bike so that someone in the family could drop me till the panchayat samiti, which is 20km away on Abu Road. I made sure I didn’t miss any meetings,” she says.
Duli Bai, who has studied only till Class III, did not allow her lack of education to handicap her, and attended workshops organized for women sarpanchs by Abu Road-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Jan Chetna Sansthan, where she learnt how panchayati raj, or local government institutions, functions.
“In addition, I never shirked in taking help from secretaries—after all, it is their duty to help us read and understand all documents. I learnt that we could not only use the funds given to panchayats but also MLA funds, and I made use of all these resources,” she says.
People in her village are grateful for her work. “Until Duli Bai became the sarpanch, whenever we had to go to the hospital we had to carry the patient and walk 3km to reach the main road. Now the road reaches our village. She has given us houses to live in, got our pensions sanctioned and provided water as well. She was very approachable and frequently visited the village to inquire about us. It would have been good if she became the sarpanch again,” says 35-year-old Babli Bai, who had her house built in 2011 under the Indira Awaas Yojna.
Abu Road block is dominated by two tribes—the Bhils and the Garasias. Nearly 71% of its 149,000 population are classified as ST. Literacy rate is low at 34.24%, compared with the state average of 66.1%. ST men have a literacy rate of 32.81%, but ST women are far behind at just 12.71%.
Duli Bai belongs to the Bhil tribe and although she was less educated than rival candidates—two had studied till Class VIII and another two till Class X— she defeated them by a margin of 1,270 votes in the 2010 election. Like Saroj Kumari of Bhimana, she too had been preparing for the 2015 elections, until she learned that she no longer qualified to run for the office.
“I wanted to study further but at the time when I was in school, conditions weren’t very favourable for girls to complete their education. The new rule is good for people who are educated but it is unfair for people like me. There is a lot of unfinished work that I wanted to complete, but can’t do it now,” says Duli Bai.
Many social and judicial activists in Rajasthan argue that the minimum educational conditions are unfair to grassroots leaders, especially when no such conditions apply to members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and Members of Parliament. “People who could not get education due to the scarcity of schools in the area are being judged on the basis of the Right to Education Act, which was implemented only recently,” says Kavita Srivastava, national general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties.
According to a 2013 report by New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms, 69 of Rajasthan’s 200 MLAs—35%— have educational qualifications of Class XII or below. Eight MLAs have studied only until Class V.
In December 2014, social activist Aruna Roy led a group of former sarpanchs who stood disqualified under the new law to file a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court. The petitioners argued that the right to contest was a fundamental right and the literacy requirement was irrational, arbitrary and violated the Indian Constitution. Moreover, the current law would bar 50% of current zila parishad and 70% of panchayat samiti members from recontesting.
But the Supreme Court refused to hear the plea and asked the petitioners to approach the Rajasthan high court instead.
In January 2016, the high court dismissed the plea, citing the Supreme Court’s December 2015 judgment that upheld the constitutional validity of a similar law enacted by the Haryana government.
“We are not against educated sarpanchs,” says Srivastava. “We are against the way in which the new law has been implemented.”
As a result of the law, 260 sarpanchs were elected unopposed in 2015 (up from 35 in 2010) and 46% of all panch members were elected unopposed.
“The exclusion of people from participating in these elections on unfair criteria is what we are opposing,” says Srivastava.
Not eligible? Bypass the law
Exclusion from participating in grassroots democracy is just the most immediate effect of the new law. Another less visible repercussion is the growing number of candidates with fake educational certificates. Authorities say that the number of such cases is much more than what has been reported.
“There are many who won uncontested and have deposited fake certificates,” says Jitendra Singh Sandu, block development officer (BDO), Pindwara. Complaints, if any, have been filed by rival candidates.
At Pindwara’s Vatera panchayat a complaint was filed against 23-year-old Raju Kumar Gameti, the incumbent sarpanch, by his opponent Veena Ram for submitting a fake Class VIII certificate.
Gameti spent six days in jail and says that he had studied till Class VIII but failed the final exams. “My friend took me to Udaipur district’s Tilarwa village to get the certificate made. I was told to arrange Rs.10,000 and that’s all I did,” he says.
In the past one year, Gameti has got five water tanks installed in the village and has also started repair work of unpaved roads. He is now working towards making his panchayat an open defecation-free area. “Villagers see the work I am doing. In fact, they are against Veena Ram for filing the complaint. Everyone knows he did it to take revenge for losing,” he says.
Gameti argues that it is experience and not education that makes a good sarpanch. People like him must be given a chance to learn, he says. “Does the new rule mean that people who didn’t get an opportunity to study will never get the opportunity to progress?”
Not everyone agrees though. “Most sarpanchs now are below 30 and come prepared for meetings, suggest ideas and keep a track of their work,” says Manhar Vishnoi, the BDO of Sirohi district’s Abu Road block. “Earlier, the panchayats were run by the secretaries, with the sarpanchs just signing or putting thumb impressions on documents.”
Another positive outcome, says Vishnoi, has been the breakdown of family monopoly on the post of sarpanch.
For 20 years, the Surpagla panchayat in Abu Road, for instance, was run by a single family. When the seat was reserved for women, the wife would contest; otherwise the husband would become the sarpanch. The new educational qualification put an end to this practice and the area now has a new sarpanch from outside the family, says Vishnoi.
The rule is unfair to those who did not have access to education, concedes Vishnoi. But the system cannot keep on compensating for the past: “We have to start afresh from somewhere and unfortunately some people will have to make sacrifices to give way to better governance.”
A new beginning for old sarpanches?
When 35-year-old Shanti Devi, former sarpanch of Abu Road block’s Girwar panchayat, found out that she had been disqualified from contesting the 2015 panchayat elections, she did the next best thing: she started preparing for the 2020 elections.
Shanti, who has studied till Class III, got herself enrolled in the Basic Literacy Programme of the National Institute of Open Schooling.
She attends evening classes in the primary government school in her village where she is learning reading, writing and arithmetic.
“I have been a sarpanch twice and know that education helps in your work. But my lack of schooling doesn’t make me a lesser person in any way. I have done a lot of work for the people here,” says Shanti Devi, who claims she got hand pumps installed, established four schools in the area, got houses constructed and helped people get their pensions.
Having no children of her own, Shanti Devi sits with her 12-year-old niece, Devi Kumari, who helps with her studies. First Devi reads a line from her Hindi text book and then Shanti Devi repeats after her.
“I have come a long way since I first became sarpanch in 2000. I have learnt from panchayat secretaries and from training workshops organized by local NGOs. I am not backing down without a fight,” she says.
In September, Shanti Devi took her Class V exam. She awaits her results.
This is the fourth in a series of on-the-ground reports from three recent panchayat polls in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, to understand what’s at stake. For the earlier parts, go to www.livemint.com.