Shalini Nair travels to Rajasthan and Haryana, two states whose governments had made school education a prerequisite for those contesting the panchayat polls, and finds the new rules are pushing women, Dalits, Adivasis and minorities to the margins of the political process.
**Devi vividly remembers that day in 2010 when she got back home from work. She had barely put down her farm tools when the zamindar in her village in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, informed her that she must stand for the panchayat samiti election. The seat of the pradhan had been reserved for a Scheduled Tribe (ST) candidate and she, being more vocal than most Bhil men in her village, was a natural choice. A petrified Devi had protested vehemently. “As an NREGA labourer who earned Rs 100 a day, I didn’t know a thing about politics,” recalls Devi, who went on to leave her distinct mark in her five-year term as the pradhan in charge of 25 gram panchayats in Bhilwara district. In January 2015, when the post of the sarpanch for the Kaliyas gram panchayat in her own village was reserved specifically for an ST woman candidate, Devi saw in it her chance to work for her community. She had already won one battle for them when she forced open a nearby primary school attended by Bhil children after it was shut down by the state government to merge with another school much farther away. Destiny had other plans. Devi, a class two drop-out, found herself ineligible to contest the polls under the Rajasthan government’s new rules that made it mandatory for candidates to have certain minimum educational qualifications.
**Some 500 km and a state border away, the village of Ranyali in Haryana’s Mewat district had voted in an all-woman panchayat in 2010, with 60-something Sarifan as one of the panch or ward members. Villagers say that electing a woman-only panchayat was a desperate attention-grabbing tactic so that they could get timely and ample funds released for the development of Ranyali’s 11,000-odd largely poor Muslim population. In the process, however, Sarifan admits she learnt valuable lessons on governance. Her accomplishments include the raising of the school boundary wall, paving the kutcha roads and rebuilding the decrepit panchayat bhawan. A mother of eight and grandmother to several more, she was also instrumental in getting officials to do away with the vapid staple of dahlia in the aanganwadi centre to include servings of poha, chana, dal kichdi, saag roti and suji halwa. However, when Haryana held its panchayat election in January 2016, Sarifan, who wasn’t fortunate enough to step inside a school as a child, found herself disqualified from contesting the elections for a second term.
For Sarifan and Devi, education was never an entitlement. It was primarily the prerogative of the few forward caste men in their villages. The two had, however, managed to gain a foothold in the political power structures, another male preserve until over two decades ago. Today, however, Devi and Sarifan find themselves excluded from the political system because of rules that penalise them for not having a formal education.
In 1993, the 73rd constitutional amendment, which brought in the panchayati raj system, ensured one-third reservation for women and seats proportionate to their population for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). But the decision by BJP governments in Rajasthan and Haryana to make education a prerequisite for those contesting the panchayat polls has effectively denied women, Dalits, Adivasis and minorities their basic right to political participation. The worst casualties are those at the intersectionality such as Devi and Sarifan.
In December 2014, days before the announcement of the panchayat polls, the Vasundhara Raje government issued an ordinance amending the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act. It set minimum educational qualifications for those contesting the local elections: Class X for a member of the zila parishad or panchayat samiti and Class VIII for sarpanch of gram panchayats. Less than a year later, the Manohar Khattar government passed a similar amendment to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act.
Accordingly, general category candidates had to clear their Class X, women and SC candidates their class VIII and SC candidates for the post of panch their class V. In both states, candidates also had to have a functional toilet to be eligible to contest. Haryana imposed further property-based disqualifying factors such as failure to clear arrears due to electricity providers or agricultural cooperative banks.
When challenged in the courts, the constitutionality of the decisions were upheld by the Rajasthan High Court and, more recently in the case of Haryana, by the Supreme Court. A division bench of the apex court observed that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad.”
Data from the Rajasthan election commission shows that even after the panchayat poll in January 2015 and two by-elections thereafter, seven sarpanch posts in the state are vacant. Five of these are reserved for ST women and one for a woman in the general category. Due to lack of candidates who meet the education criteria, the number of sarpanch candidates who have been elected unopposed has more than doubled in the state as compared to the previous polls: 260 nirvirodh sarpanch now as against 97 in 2010.
In Haryana, where panchayat polls were held earlier this year, seats of 2,067 panch, 12 sarpanch and five panchayat samiti members, are vacant. As compared to the last term, when 39 per cent of the panch members were elected unopposed, this time, it has swelled to 64 per cent.
Behind these vacant seats and unopposed candidates lies the story of multitudes who have been excluded from the election process. Going by 2011 Census figures for literacy rates, over 70 per cent of the overall rural population over the age of 20 years have been barred from contesting the sarpanch elections in Rajasthan and the panchayat elections in Haryana. The degree of exclusion is highest for women belonging to the SC/ST category. More than 93 per cent of ST women over the age of 20 years in Rajasthan and 83 per cent of 20-plus SC women in Haryana have been disqualified.
Sixteen months after the local elections and two by-polls later, the seat of sarpanch in Devi’s village in Bhilwara remains vacant as the village, with an abysmal female literacy rate of 40 per cent, doesn’t have a single ST woman who has been privileged enough to finish her Class VIII.
Devi’s 16-year-old daughter Lakshmi is the only Class VIII pass ST woman in the entire village that has 200-odd families. It will be another five years before she is old enough to contest the elections. For now, the village is paying the price of being headless. With no one to escalate their issues, for the last one year, the near-empty shell of a primary health centre is without a doctor. When pregnant women from the 40-odd nearby villages come here for their delivery, they are attended to by one of the three male compounders.
The complicated cases are referred to a hospital 50 km away in the district headquarters of Bhilwara. The government tankers stopped coming to the village last year and with the tubewells and dugwells dried up, women have to trek 4 km daily to fetch a few pots of water. “I may not be able to read or write but I am aware of what my village needs. Five years as a pradhan has taught me a lot about how and where to assert myself so as to get things done. Had I been the sarpanch, I would have gone to any length to get a doctor and tankers in order,” rues Devi.
While three gram panchayats reserved for ST women are without a sarpanch in Bhilwara district, Bundi has two such gram panchayats. Bundi’s barren landscape of sandstone quarries employ children as young as nine years old from the Bhil and Banjara communities. A UNICEF report states that children account for 20 per cent of Bundi’s mining workforce. Here, girls are married off even before they enter their teens. Gorulal, a Banjara, explains why children from his village don’t go to school. “What is the point of an education when there are no jobs in the village other than toiling away in the mines? A BA-pass works as an accountant in the mines and earns Rs100 a day. A child who chisels away at the sandstone earns almost the same amount,” he says.
The male literacy rate here is 48 per cent and for women, it’s 20 per cent. The few who are sent to school don’t have it any better. The senior secondary school in Gopalpura gram panchayat has a 60 per cent vacancy for teachers. “For a year now, we have not had teachers for Hindi, science, history and drawing,” says principal Rajan Kumar.
The state had 84,000 schools when the Raje government took over in December 2013. According to an April 2016 Vidhan Sabha reply, the government has shut down 14,672 functional schools, citing lack of an adequate number of students, and merged it with the nearest school.
Gopalpura is one of the two gram panchayats in Bundi district that is unable to get any Class VIII pass ST woman for the post of sarpanch. Sarayu, who held the post of sarpanch the last time the seat was reserved for an ST woman, has gone back to working as a labourer in the mines since she was ineligible to contest this time.
Ramchandra Gujjar, a villager in Gopalpura, believes that as a voter, it is his right to decide who to vote for. “How does it matter whether our sarpanch is literate or not? What matters is whether he or she can get our work done, generate employment under NREGA, build roads and ensure water supply to our homes and fields. All such work has come to a halt now,” he said.
A red-beacon car pulls in outside the three-storey BJP office in Nuh, the district headquarters of Mewat in Haryana, and Alam Mundal steps out. Its number-plate reads ‘Zila Pramukh’, a seat that is reserved for a woman candidate this term. However, it is Alam who is always spotted using the vehicle, attending the official meetings and taking most decisions. The locals have by now naturalised this incongruity.
They have never seen their pramukh, Anisha, Alam’s daughter-in-law — not before the elections and rarely after. It is no secret how Anisha became part of the Mundal family. Alam’s hunt for an educated bride for his son began soon after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Haryana Panchayat Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015.
Alam, who contested and lost the last MLA elections, ensured that the nikah was solemnised just in time for the elections in January 2016. He himself has never been to school but he concurs with the government’s new rule while grudgingly admitting, “If not for the rule, maybe I would not have got my son married so hastily.”
Some 40 km away, the tiny village of Ranyali in Mewat, whose 140-odd families had voted in an all-woman panchayat in the 2010 election, finds half these seats vacant for want of a literate candidate even as all six former panch members, including Sarifan, were eliminated from the race as they were uneducated.
“I grew up in a hilly belt in Rajasthan where there were no schools,” laments Sarifan. Not that things have changed for the better. The nearest secondary school is a good 8 km walk away and Ranyali has all of four women who have managed to complete their Class X.
Haryana is known for its sub-par social indicators for women. Of its 21 districts, Mewat, an 80 per cent Muslim-populated district, is at the bottom of the ladder. Only 36 per cent of the women in Mewat are literate as against 69 per cent of the men.
The government’s new norms have simply reinforced the gender imbalance further. Across the 316 gram panchayats in Mewat, there are 310 vacant seats. Eighty per cent of these vacant seats are reserved for women while another eight per cent are seats reserved for the backward castes. Like Sarifan, scores of women who have managed to take small strides on the path of political empowerment, have been left out of the fray. On the other hand, educated women like Anisha have been reduced to a front for furthering the political ambitions of the men in the family.
An hour’s walk along a narrow dirt track from Ranyali is the hamlet of Madapur. Everyone here, as well as in the neighbouring villages, know of Shaukat Ali. He is the man who got his son Junaid remarried this January so that the family could have a literate candidate for the post of sarpanch. Najma, the new bride, was made to stand for elections only to lose. As a strong dust storm sweeps through the village, Shaukat turns belligerent at the mention of the elections. “Junaid’s wife is uneducated but Najma has cleared her class 12,” is all that he offers.
District Development and Panchayat Officer Rakesh Mor talks of the many cases where men got remarried only so that they could field an educated candidate in the panchayat elections. Legally speaking, the marriages as well as the candidatures, are valid. For now, Mor has to contend with a new problem that the rule has given rise to, an increasing number of cases filed against alleged fake education certificates being furnished by the elected representatives —34 and counting in Mewat alone.
It is not only the education rule that is a disqualifier. The new rules have also barred those without a functional toilet at home and those who have been unable to clear electricity or bank loan arrears.
Jamaluddin, 62, a two-time sarpanch of Ranyali, is among the many in his village who have not been able to clear a farm loan. He had taken Rs 45,000 from the cooperative bank over two decades ago but over the years, his three-acre farm had turned arid. “The water table has depleted severely. The wheat output has been reduced to a fraction of what it was earlier. Where do we get the money to repay the bank?” asks his son Nisar Ahmed.
Ranyali’s new sarpanch is the 23-year-old Nafeez Ahmad, who has a diploma in mechanical engineering from Gurgaon. He admits he lacks the experience that comes with age but says that on his priority list is “a secondary school for girls”. Despite being a political novice, he is not oblivious to the absurdity of a rule that makes education a precondition when there are no schools.
Takes on the new rule:
Indira Jaising: Advocate, Lawyers Collective, who represented the petitioners challenging the rule in the Supreme Court
This judgment is elitist and constitutionally incorrect. The constitution doesn’t prescribe any kind of educational qualifications for MPs and MLAs, then why at the panchayat levels? We cannot make the lack of education, for not fault of the individual, a crime.
Ruchi Gupta: In charge of the Congress’s SC department in Rajasthan
Earlier too, states such as Haryana and Rajasthan had introduced the two-child norm for panchayat candidates. But at least that didn’t result in such mass disqualification since it was imposed with prospective effect unlike the case of the education criteria. Contesting elections is a key citizenship right and it cannot be made contingent on other factors.
Bezwada Wilson: National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan
The rule only mandates a ‘functional toilet’. Most of these toilets in villages are open pits or ones with septic tanks, which perpetuate untouchability as it is serviced by manual scavenging. About 1.5 lakh women clean human excreta in the country only because the state has failed to provide underground sewage in rural areas.
Surendra Goyal: Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Rajasthan
Educated candidates have common sense. We have not only got graduates and post graduates but also engineers and lawyers in our gram panchayats this time. This will ensure timely work gets done in villages, funds are utilised more effectively and accounts are maintained properly.
OP Dhankar: Development and Panchayats Minister, Haryana
Women’s education is being given greater importance now due to the new rule. Men have started marrying educated girls without even taking dowry so that these women can stand for elections even from the general seats. The increase in the number of unopposed elected members shows this rule has led to creation of better consensus among people.
Barred: Going by 2011 Census figures for literacy rates, over 75 per cent of the overall rural population over the age of 20 years has been barred from contesting the sarpanch elections in Rajasthan and the panchayat elections in Haryana. The degree of exclusion is highest for women belonging to the SC/ST category. More than 93 per cent of ST women over the age of 20 years in Rajasthan and 83 per cent of 20-plus SC women in Haryana have been disqualified.
Photographs: Renuka Puri and Rohit Jain Paras