Upholding the constitutional validity of a law enacted by Haryana government to bar the illiterate from contesting panchayat polls in the state, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”.
The top court also said it would be perfectly valid for the legislature to disqualify a candidate from seeking election to a civic body if he or she lacks “basic norms of hygiene” by not having a functional toilet at home.
Delivering the verdict, which may pave the way for introduction of minimum education as a prerequisite for contesting polls at various levels, the bench of Justices J Chelameswar and Abhay Manohar Sapre said such a disqualification has to be upheld as a reasonable restriction on people’s “constitutional right” to contest polls.
Apart from Haryana, Rajasthan is the only other state to fix minimum education qualifications for those contesting panchayat polls.
The bench dismissed a batch of petitions challenging the validity of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015. The Act requires that general candidates must have passed Class X examination while women and Dalit candidates need to have cleared Class VIII. Dalit women candidates must clear Class V.
The bench acknowledged that the minimum education criteria may disqualify a significant populace from contesting panchayat polls but underlined that neither the state government lacked the power to enact such a law nor could it be quashed for being arbitrary or discriminatory because the classification is reasonable and based on intelligible differentia.
“The proclaimed object of such classification is to ensure that those who seek election to panchayats have some basic education, which enables them to more effectively discharge various duties which befall the elected representatives. The object sought to be achieved cannot be said to be irrational or illegal or unconnected with the scheme and purpose of the Act or provisions of Part IX of the Constitution,” the bench said.
Part IX relates to the three-tier Panchayati Raj Institutions and was added to the Constitution by the 73rd Amendment in 1993.
“It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats,” the bench said.
It held that the right to vote and right to contest in an election are “constitutional” rights but it cannot be disputed either that both the rights can be regulated and curtailed by the appropriate legislature directly.
“Every person who is entitled to vote is not automatically entitled to contest for every office under the Constitution. Constitution itself imposes limitations on the right to contest depending upon the office. It also authorises the prescription of further disqualifications with respect to the right to contest,” the bench said.
It pointed out that when the Constitution itself stipulated certain disqualifications such as mental fitness and insolvency for occupying some offices, it cannot be said that more disqualifications by a competent legislative body would not be permissible if it does not lead to a situation where holding of elections to these various bodies becomes completely impossible.
The bench also upheld another criterion which disqualifies a person from contesting panchayat election — not having a functional toilet in his or her house.
While the petitioners claimed a large number of rural population cannot afford to have a toilet at their residence as it is beyond their economic means, the bench noted that the state government is now giving Rs 12,000 to every household for construction of a toilet.
It also took note of a submission by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who defended the law for Haryana government, that out of 8.5 lakh households classified to be below the poverty line, approximately 7.2 lakh households had availed the benefit of the scheme.
“If people still do not have a toilet, it is not because of their poverty but because of their lacking the requisite will. One of the primary duties of any civic body is to maintain sanitation within its jurisdiction. Those who aspire to get elected to those civic bodies and administer them must set an example for others,” it said.
“To the said end, if the legislature stipulates that those who are not following basic norms of hygiene are ineligible to become administrators of the civic body and disqualifies them as a class from seeking election to the civic body, such a policy, in our view, can neither be said to create a class based on unintelligible criteria,” it noted.
About another provision in the Act to disqualify those who still have arrears of any loan or electricity bills, the court said that an inquiry into indebtedness of distressed farmers would be “irrelevant” for deciding the constitutionality of the impugned provision.
“We are also not very sure as to how many of such people who are so deeply indebted would be genuinely interested in contesting elections whether at panchayat level or otherwise. We can certainly take judicial notice of the fact that elections at any level in this country are expensive affairs. In such a case the possibility of a deeply indebted person seeking to contest elections should normally be rare as it would be beyond the economic capacity of such persons. In our opinion, the challenge is more theoretical than real,” it said.