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What has education got to do with panchayat politics?

Preet Singh, one of the petitioners who filed a case in the Supreme Court against Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, a law that makes minimum educational requirements compulsory to contest panchayat elections in the state. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/MintPremium
Preet Singh, one of the petitioners who filed a case in the Supreme Court against Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, a law that makes minimum educational requirements compulsory to contest panchayat elections in the state. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Education is a desirable quality among elected leaders, but making it compulsory to contest polls raises questions

Preet Singh, 62, has never been to school, has never cleared an exam. And, yet, he reads six Hindi newspapers a day, lectures his neighbours about their democratic rights and even won an election as a member of a panchayat in 1991.

In 1994, after the 73rd amendment to the Constitution mandated 33% reservationfor women in panchayats, Preet Singh got his wife Baladevi to contest as, he confesses, “proxy candidate". She did so well, he says, that in 1999, she contested on her own steam, and won again.

But in the just concluded Haryana panchayat polls, although Singh campaigned vigorously for other candidates, neither he nor his wife could contest. Without their school certificates, they were, by law, ineligible.

In September last year, as the previous panchayats’ five-year tenure was coming to an end, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Haryana government passed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, listing out eligibility criteria for candidates in the forthcoming panchayat elections.

The five conditions include minimum educational requirements, functional toilets at home, proof that candidates are not defaulters in loans from either cooperative societies or banks, have no electricity dues and have not been charged in criminal cases that carry a punishment of over 10 years in jail.

Ineligible to contest on the education criteria, Preet Singh, along with two women panchayat members, Rajbala and Kamlesh (both use only one name), challenged the law in Supreme Court. In December, a two-judge bench conceded that the education clause alone would result in disenfranchisement. Yet, ruled the judges, the “prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats".

Similarly, the judges observed that an indebted person would not be likely to want to incur additional election expenses. And the lack of a toilet—particularly in view of state funding—could no longer be an excuse, especially amongst candidates who aspire to become administrators of civic bodies.

In other words, the law would stand, the petition was dismissed, and elections for the panchayats were announced.

Haryana now is the second state in India that imposes preconditions on who may or may not contest the most basic grassroots-level election, to the panchayats.

In December 2014, Rajasthan became the first state in India to pass legislation that required panchayat poll candidates to have both functional toilets and minimum educational requirements: Class X for the zila parishad and panchayat samiti polls, Class VIII to be a sarpanch and Class V for scheduled areas.

Passed barely a month before panchayat polls were scheduled to be held in the state, a group of sarpanchs, who were now rendered ineligible to re-contest, went to court with a petition that the education requirement was irrational, arbitrary and in violation of the Constitution.

“Nobody disputes that education is a desirable quality. But you have to ask, who does the law exclude? Who benefits, and who is coming in?" says senior advocate Indira Jaising of Lawyers Collective, who represented the petitioners in challenging both the Rajasthan and Haryana laws in the Supreme Court. “It is very clear that it discriminates against the poor, the marginalized and women and denies them their fundamental right to contest an election."

Others such as activist Jagmati Sangwan of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) calls the legislation a “black law" that has disenfranchised over 83% of dalit women (the worst affected), 72% of dalit men, 71% of general category women and 55% of general category men on just the education clause in Haryana alone.

The conditions have resulted in the shrinking of the pool of candidates who are eligible to contest. In Haryana, the education requirements—matriculation for the general candidates, Class VIII for women and Scheduled Caste men and Class V for Scheduled Caste women—has disenfranchised 78% of all men, 89.1% of all women and 62.1% and 67.5% of Scheduled Caste men and women, respectively, according to Census 2011 data analysed by Mint’s data partner, How India Lives.

More worrying are reports of large numbers of posts that have been won unopposed or, worse, have gone vacant. Of the 6,207 sarpanch elections across Haryana, 274 were won unopposed and 22 went vacant.

It’s more or less the same story in Rajasthan where the January-February 2015 election saw 260 sarpanchs getting elected unopposed, compared to 35 in 2010.

“We fought for 33% reservation for women because of their work," says Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Brinda Karat. “Now you are disempowering women within an institution that was meant to empower them."

In any case, points out Karat, it is unfair to expect candidates at India’s most basic grassroots- level of electoral politics to meet eligibility criteria when we don’t expect it from those contesting elections to Parliament and the state assemblies.

On the ground, when you ask contestants and voters alike, all agree that education is a desirable quality in candidates.

“Of course education is good," says Preet Singh. “But by imposing these conditions, the government is denying voters a choice. An uneducated person can also be honest and hard-working."

Namita Bhandare is gender editor, Mint.

This is the first part 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.

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