Hisar (Haryana): The 1,500-odd residents of Dhani Kendu village in Hisar district of Haryana were happy with their sarpanch (village head) Parkash. As the elected head of his panchayat, a village-level statutory institution of local self government, Parkash improved roads, installed water pumps and won government permission to build toilets under the Clean India Mission.

Yet Parkash, who belongs to the scheduled-caste Naik community, cannot contest a panchayat election anymore as he has studied only up to Class 4. The minimum educational qualification needed to contest panchayat polls for men from his community has been set at Class 8 by the state government under the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015.

The law, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in December last year, says that candidates must meet certain minimum educational qualifications, have a functional toilet at home and should not have defaulted on loans or electricity bills. They must also be free of any criminal charges that carry a jail term of more than 10 years.

The fallout of such a move was evident in the first panchayat election held under the new rule in January—it kept 40% of men and 60% of women belonging to the scheduled castes (SC) in the state away from contesting.

According to Census 2011, Haryana has the fifth largest SC population in India—of the total population of 25.35 million, 5.1 million people are SCs.

“The sarpanchs before me were all educated but did nothing for the village. I don’t think I faced any trouble or barrier during my tenure due to my lack of education," laments Parkash.

In December last year, a group of petitioners, all who were set to be disqualified by the new eligibility criteria, moved the apex court. According to one of them, Kamlesh, a dalit woman, the new rules discriminate against Dalits and women. “These conditions have betrayed the rights of the people," she said. “Earlier, it was the rich who fought the elections. Now, this new rule is once again discriminating against Dalits and women."

Kamlesh, who contested in the previous elections and lost from Kaimri, a village with more than 8,000 people, says it is the poor who often cannot pay back loans and electricity bills. “The government is dictating who should be elected as sarpanch and panch members. Soon, the government will also take away voting powers from the uneducated," she said.

The minimum educational qualification required to contest elections in the general category is Class 10 for men and Class 8 for women or an SC candidate.

For elections to the post of a panch, or panchayat member, the minimum qualification has been set at class 5 for SC women.

Under the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution, at least one-third of all panchayat seats must be reserved for women. In the 2010 panchayat elections, of the total 6,075 seats contested for the post of sarpanch, 796 were reserved for SC, 432 for SC women and 1,585 for general category women.

“The higher castes make it very difficult for the SC candidates to win, unless the seats are reserved," said Rajat Kalsan, a Hansi-based lawyer and activist with the Human Rights Law Network.

Om Prakash, 55, a Class 10 fail, who contested against Parkash in the previous panchayat elections in Dhani Kendu, has also been disqualified from contesting. “It is not that we didn’t want to study; we couldn’t study because we didn’t have schools in our village. How are we supposed to get education then?" said Om Prakash. He had to travel to the neighbouring village to attend school.

The new rules by the Haryana government come at a time when many villages still lack access to public schools at secondary and senior secondary levels. For instance,Dhani Kendu has only one government school with classes up to eighth standard. “Only those who can afford to travel far away attend school. People still send their sons, but most girls do not study beyond middle school," said Prakash.

According to the Census 2011, Haryana has a literacy rate of 75.55%. While male literacy rate is at 84.06%, it is 65.94% for women. The literacy rate as low as 58% for men and 38.5% for women belonging to SC communities. In the Hisar district alone, approximately 6.3 lakh people out of its population of 17.44 lakh are illiterate, and so cannot contest panchayat elections.

At a time when India is staring at an agrarian crisis with two consecutive droughts and deficit winter rains, farmers are living on loans. A major source of employment in the state is agriculture. In Haryana, 51.1% of all rural households depend on manual labour as the main source of income. This accounts for 67.3% of SC households and 51.4% scheduled tribe (ST).

According to a 2014 study on farmers in Haryana published in Journal of Rural Development, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, 21.3% of the farmer households belong to SCs, 30.4% to other backward classes and 0.6% to STs.

In Bhatla village of Hisar district, 26-year-old Sudesh, who belongs to the Jat community, had to clear her outstanding electricity bills for the past two years to contest the panchayat election.

Sudesh, who won the election, has studied up to Class 8 and is the only one in her family of five adults eligible to contest. “It is the responsibility of the government to build toilets. They have schemes under which residents below the poverty line get incentives to construct toilets. It is not the contestants’ responsibility to construct toilets," she said.

According to the first phase of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-16 released last month, 99.6% of households in Haryana have electricity and 81.7% have improved sanitation facilities.

Experts say that keeping caste aside, it is the access to money that makes it possible for candidates to contest elections.

“The criteria set by the government are good. In most elections, the people contesting elections are those (who are) economically sound. It does not matter if they come from the higher caste or scheduled castes; if they have the financial backing, they can contest elections," said Prem Kumar, professor at Kurukshetra University in Haryana who specializes in the sociology of the weaker sections.

“Any elections that are fought in Haryana and the country are on the basis of caste. It is the biggest factor. It is only when people of the same caste fight, then the personality of the candidate comes to play," Kumar added.

In Jitakhedi, a village in Bhiwani district with 700 voters of which 300 are SC, Sukhvinder Kaur has managed to beat two rival contestants by more than 140 votes.

“If this wasn’t a reserved constituency, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to become a sarpanch," said Kaur, who is currently pursuing her masters in library science through a correspondence course and also teaches mathematics at a private school near her village.

In 2010, Kaur’s husband was elected sarpanch. But this time, since Jeeta Kheri was reserved for SC women, she decided to contest instead. “Even though we come from a dalit household, we didn’t want to waste this opportunity. We have both studied well and feel it is important to use that education," she said.

She welcomed the criteria set by the government as a move to push education and women in the state.

“Development has become the main agenda. Thanks to the education criteria, more women have been pushed to contest elections, even though they are unmarried. This restriction should not be restricted to the panchayat elections alone but should also be implemented for other elections," Kaur said.

This is the third 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.

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