The decision of the Supreme Court upholding the new law in Haryana mandating minimum educational qualification as a prerequisite for the candidates contesting panchayat elections comes as a shot in the arm for the BJP government in the state.
The elections for more than 72000 posts of panchayat members, panchayat samitis and zila parishads in Haryana were scheduled to be held in three phases on October 4, 11 and 18. The process of filing nominations for the first phase was on when the Supreme Court was moved challenging the validity of Haryana’s amendments to the Panchayati Raj Act, leading to the elections being stayed. The election commission then allowed “conditional” nominations to be filed by all candidates with the fate to be decided following verdict of the apex court. The decision of the court had now paved the way for the elections to be held.
The Haryana Assembly had in September this year passed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act 2015, amidst protests from the opposition, introducing prerequisites for candidates who were contesting the panchayat elections. As per the amendments, Class 10 was the minimum qualification for a candidate of the general category. For women candidates the minimum qualification is Class 8 and for Dalits it is Class 5.
Among the other conditions was that the persons against whom charges have been framed by the competent court for grave criminal offences punishable by not less than 10 years of imprisonment will not be allowed to contest the elections till they are acquitted by the court. Another amendment was that only those persons who have cleared their outstanding electricity bills would be eligible to contest. Defaulters of co-operative loans were to be debarred from contesting. It was also mandatory for the candidates to have toilets in their houses.
Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar in an interview with The Indian Express had stated that the educational qualifications criteria was imposed, because if a sarpanch of a village is illiterate, how can he use the budget worth lakhs of rupees. He had said that the government was planning to take computer education to the villages. In such a case, if a sarpanch is not literate, he would not be able to cope with it.
The government had also defended its decision highlighting how when the election notification was issued during this time, its cash registers had started ringing, as propsective candidates rushed to pay their dues. The government raked in Rs 12 crore of pending power tariff dues and Rs 80 crore of loans from co-operatives at the time.
The new conditions had led to opposition from several quarters. As per the data of the election commission, of the 6075 outgoing sarpanches in the state, 15.8 per cent are illiterate and 35 per cent below matriculate. A total of 28.8 percent have completed matric, 10.9 per cent have completed Class 12 and 7 per cent are graduates. Only 1.9 percent are post graduate and above.
Of the 58608 panches, 32.2 percent are illiterate, while 38 percent are below matric. Around 21.2 percent are matric, 6.3 percent have completed 10+2. Only 2 percent are graduates and 0.3 percent are postgraduates and above.
The new conditions implied that around 50 per cent of the incumbent sarpanches and 70 per cent of the panches were ineligible to contest the elections again. A plea taken by them was that they have years of experience of running the village despite not having the requisite educational qualification. The incumbents were of the view that when there were no minimum educational qualifications for MLAs and MPs who have to take policy decisions with wider ramifications where was the need for having such conditions for them.
While several incumbents will now become ineligible to contest, a problem of lack of candidates for certain villages also surfaced when the nominations were on. Especially in villages where the post of sarpanch was reserved for women or Dalits, finding suitable candidates with requisite qualification became difficult. In one instance, the outgoing sarpanch of a village in Hisar decided to get his son married to an educated girl after the post was reserved for a woman candidate.
Other instances were of sarpanches who won awards for their initiatives during their tenure, but were ineligible to contest again. One such case was of Rajbala, the outgoing sarpanch of village Sultanpurian in Sirsa who had studied till Class 4. The village won the swachh village award from the Haryana government. The imposition of the educational qualifications is likely to witness a generational shift in the villages with the outgoing sarpanches who are ineligible to contest pitching for their sons and daughters.