The panchayat elections in Haryana have yielded results drastically different from previous elections. This is because a large number of persons were barred from contesting these elections due to educational and other disqualifications introduced through amendments by the Haryana assembly in September last year.
In the widely criticised Rajbala and others vs State of Haryana judgment, the Supreme Court upheld these disqualifications. These amendments stipulate that a person has to pass the matriculation examination to contest. However, a woman candidate or a Scheduled Caste (SC) candidate has only to pass Class 8 and an SC woman is required to pass Class 5 for the post of panch.
The amendments also disqualify a person who has no toilet, has not paid electricity dues or dues to a primary agricultural cooperative society, district central co-operative bank, etc. The respondents (state of Haryana, etc) had themselves provided data to show that out of the 67,827 candidates who had been elected in the last panchayat elections, 20,392 (30.06 per cent) were illiterate while 25,334 candidates (37.35 per cent) had not even studied up to the matriculate level.
The petitioners had provided data from the 2011 Census to show that educational qualification itself would debar an astounding majority of persons from contesting the polls. The petitioner’s disaggregated data from the census presented to the court showed that the disqualification excluded 55.63 per cent of non-SC men, 68.65 per cent of non-SC women, 62.16 per cent of SC men, and 83.06 per cent of SC women and 67.52 per cent of SC women for the post of an ordinary panch. The state of Haryana had provided inaccurate and misleading statistical data, which included all those who had studied up to Class 5 and above and claimed only 43 per cent people would be disqualified.
These amendments will exclude the poor and the most marginalised from contesting local bodies elections. These persons, particularly the women, were not educated due to reasons of poverty and the failure of the state to provide them schools, teachers and the necessary infrastructure. Haryana passed the Right to Education (RTE) rules only in 2011. This means persons who are now over 20 and are eligible to contest would not have benefited from the RTE Act.
This is particularly ironic as the 73rd constitutional amendment, which introduced panchayati raj had provided a legal framework for a representative democracy to function at the grassroots through direct elections. The amendment recognised that there was not sufficient representation of SCs and Scheduled Tribes in the three-tier panchayati raj institutions. It therefore specifically provided for reservations and sought to undo the injustices of the past, and make these institutions more inclusive and replace the “village oligarchy” with the rule of the common man (Bhanumati vs State of UP).
One possible repercussion of the amendments may well be that enough candidates, particularly SCs and women, will not be available to contest elections. The petitioners had argued that education was not necessary to be a person of integrity and commitment to development. They quoted an earlier SC judgment that had held that character and commitment and concern for welfare of the people were more important. The petitioners themselves were uneducated though literate persons who had been involved in social causes for years, and two of them had been exemplary panchayat representatives.
The SC judgment however held, “It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, prescription of educational qualification is relevant for better administration…” As far as the other criteria were concerned, the SC held there was “no harm” in disqualifying persons who had not paid their debts since insolvents were also barred. That Haryana had a high degree of indebtedness in cultivator families and the state was in the midst of an agricultural crisis due to unseasonal rain and consequent crop failure, leading to a large number of suicides, did not make a dent in the court.
Another discriminatory aspect was those who had taken huge amounts of agricultural loans from commercial banks were not disqualified from contesting. The fact that poverty and homelessness were also reasons for not having a toilet was also disbelieved by the court, which squarely blamed the people for not fulfilling the criteria.