Saturday, December 3, 2022

Eligibility Crisis

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The apex court has stayed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, which laid down minimum qualifications for contesting panchayat polls. Does the new law exclude a sizeable section of the population from contesting?

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

Can the state impose minimum educational qualifications for contesting elections? Will it empower and encourage citizens, particularly women, or keep them out of the democratic process? Is it the same as disqualifying those with criminal background or those who default on payment of government dues? These are some of the questions the Supreme Court may have possibly deliberated on when it stayed the Haryana government’s amended rules impo-sing conditions on the eligibility of candidates who can contest panchayat elections.

The state government has now been for-ced to indefinitely postpone elections to panchayats after the apex court stay. While seeking the state government’s views, the apex court had observed that fixing minimum educational qualifications to contest the panchayat elections would debar 50 percent citizens from the fray.

The Haryana assembly had passed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 on September 7. According to the ame-ndments, general candidates must have clea-red Class X, while women and Dalit candidates were required to clear Class VIII and Class V, respectively. It also made it mandatory that candidates should not have a criminal conviction, no pending electricity bills or loan payments and should have a working toilet at home.
The petition, challenging the provisions of the amended law, filed by the All India Democratic Women’s Association argued that it rendered many candidates in the state ineligible and was against the constitution. The petitioner claimed that 83 per cent of Dalit women and 71 per cent women in the general category and 56 per cent men would be excluded from contesting the panchayat polls by the law and it affected fundamental rights of those wishing to contest elections.

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According to a study, more than 80 per cent of female sarpanches are illiterate

Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, arguing for the state, referred to various constitutional provisions and said making class X pass mandatory to contest was part of a “progressive law making” process as the sarpanches and panches have to perform a host of jobs which needed a minimum qualification. He argued that panchayats were like mini state governments. The representatives were delegated powers of state governments and they were empowered to take part in economic reforms. “How can that be accomplished when officials put thumb impressions and later dispute such impressions or say we don’t know what we signed”, he pleaded.

Rohatgi also said when laws, such as barring persons having more than two kids from contesting polls, had not been stayed in past, then this law should also not have been stayed. When the apex court made its clear that it was staying the provisions of the new law, Rohatgi said the state would rather defer the elections and would like the Supreme Co-urt to rule upon the new law’s validity.

As per the available data, the new rules will make at least 50 per cent of the incumbent sarpanches and 70 per cent of the panches ineligible to contest. Out of the 6,075 sarpanches in the state, 15.8 per cent are illiterate and 35 per cent are not matriculate. A total of 28.8 per cent have passed Class X, 10.9 per cent have completed Class XII and 7 per cent are graduates. Only 1.9 per cent are post graduates and above.

The situation is even worse when it comes to panches. Of the 58, 608 panches, 32.2 percent are illiterate, while 38 per cent have not studied up to matric. Around 21.2 per cent are matric, 6.3 per cent have completed 10+2. Only 2 per cent are graduates and 0.3 per cent are post graduates and above.

The law seems slanted against the poor as this section of the society is most deprived of educational facilities. It was also against women in view of the discrimination based on gender, particularly in rural areas. This discrimination is reflected in comparatively poor literacy levels among females in rural areas as compared to males. A study conducted on the literacy levels of female sarpanches showed that 82 percent of them were near illiterates. While 16 per cent had attended school just 2 per cent were graduates. Such a law would further keep the already marginalized away from inclusion in the democratic process. Then, there would have been practical difficulties. Local newspapers had carried stories on some villages where no woman met the criteria even though the seats were reserved for them.

The Haryana government has taken the plea that the legislation was aimed at encouraging literacy. It appears preposterous considering that there is lack of adequate educational facilities in rural areas. Even where there are schools, lack of basic amenities has kept female students away. There have also been frequent reports of sexual harassment.

Incidentally, the Rajasthan government had also issued a similar ordinance in December 2014, imposing minimum educational qualifications for those contesting panchayat elections. The provisions of the ordinance were challenged but the courts had not provided any immediate relief. The elections were conducted under the new rules but the issue of constitutionality is still pending before the Rajasthan High Court.

The writer is former Resident Editor, The Indian Express, Chandigarh

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