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Thanks to Haryana law and SC order, these women and their village will fall off the map

The residents of Nimkheda, a small settlement of 1,674 people in Haryana’s Mewat district, are visibly unsettled and worried.

Written by Ritika Chopra | Nimkheda(mewat) |
Updated: December 13, 2015 3:04:30 am
Sarpanch Ashubi and her team at her home in Nimkheda village in Mewat district of Haryana. (Source: Gajendra Yadav) Sarpanch Ashubi and her team at her home in Nimkheda village in Mewat district of Haryana. (Source: Gajendra Yadav)

Dressed in a white salwar-kameez, her dupatta wrapped as a headscarf, an upset Ashubi Khan (55) thumped her right palm with her fist as she spoke in Mewati.

“My illiteracy is not my fault, but a reflection of the state’s failure to fulfil its responsibilities. Did our village even have a school five decades ago? So why are we being punished?”

The residents of Nimkheda, a small settlement of 1,674 people in Haryana’s Mewat district, are visibly unsettled and worried. Their quiet hamlet, which created history 10 years ago by electing the country’s first all-women gram panchayat (village council), risks falling off the map as Haryana gets ready to announce dates for the next panchayat polls.

None of the 10 members of the panchayat, which continues to remain predominantly female (seven women and three men), is eligible to contest for another term because the Supreme Court, earlier this week, upheld the Haryana law barring the illiterate from fighting panchayat polls. Ashubi, the elected sarpanch (village head) since 2005, is among them.

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Residents claim the three seats (or wards) reserved for women in the gram panchayat this time may go unrepresented as the new criterion has virtually disqualified Nimkheda’s entire adult female population, except a handful, from contesting in the upcoming elections.

The state law requires that general candidates should have passed the Class X examination while women and Dalit candidates need to have cleared Class VIII. Dalit women candidates must clear Class V.

The few women who meet the educational requirements — “there aren’t more than three or four,” claims Ashubi — are employed with the local anganwadi (government-sponsored child-care and mother-care centre) and do not wish to quit their jobs to fight elections.

The situation looks grim for the men of the village, too. Noor Mohammed (60), presently one of the three male panchayat members in Nimkheda, is worried that everyone in his ward is illiterate.

“So where do we find candidates? Does the government expect us to import them from other states to contest polls this time?” asks Sajauddin (39), a government servant, who is among the few educated residents of Nimkheda. “And we aren’t the only ones facing this problem. This story is playing out across villages in Mewat.”

Mewat is one of 21 districts of Haryana, but is better known as the region with the worst literacy rate in the state and is, perhaps, the worst affected by the Supreme Court verdict. With the reality of poor education now haunting this district more than ever, Meos fear the recent development will breed corruption as political aspirants will be forced to produce fake educational certificates.

In fact many of the 431 villages in Mewat only have a primary school (up to Class V) even as the new state law expects panchayat candidates to have passed their matriculation examination.

According to a study sponsored by the NITI Ayog this year, the average number of middle schools (Class V to X) in the district is just 0.62 per village. Similarly, the average number of senior secondary schools (Class XI to XII) stands at 0.16 per village.

Nimkheda’s story, however, has been different since 2005 when Ashubi was elected as its first female head. An illiterate herself, she has promoted women’s education and got the village primary school extended up to Class X. Consequently, the literacy rate in the age group of 12 to 18 years, villagers claim, has gone up.

Water scarcity, which forced women to fetch water twice a day from a pond 2 km away, is no longer a problem as the village is now connected to the inter-state Ujina canal that flows from Delhi to Rajasthan.

For the sarpanch, however, her biggest feat during the two consecutive terms is discouraging the practice of female foeticide and infanticide in her village.

“I went knocking on doors to spread awareness against the evils of this practice. I invoked the fear of God in people as I told them that in Islam killing a child is a sin. It worked,” she said. “I also counselled villagers on dowry and rallied women together with the help of my female panchayat members to fight the problem of alcoholism prevalent among men.”

Achieving all this wasn’t easy as the female members acknowledge that the local administration and bureaucrats initially were indifferent to their demands because of their illiteracy. In 2008, in a moment of despair, the then all-female panchayat led by its sarpanch decided to resign, but eventually didn’t when Meenakshi Datta Ghosh, former secretary, panchayati raj, intervened at the behest of former panchayati raj minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Things have only looked up since then.

With a great track record behind them, Ashubi, along with many of her colleagues in the village council, were confident of winning a third term. Until they discovered the state government’s plan to introduce educational qualification in panchayat polls. The apex court on Thursday upheld the constitutional validity of the law ruling that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”.

“If that’s the case then are the educated not corrupt? How you prove they are more honest than uneducated people like us,” Ashubi asked.

“Also, if leadership is about encouraging education, laying pucca roads, reducing social evils, then haven’t I proved myself and my leadership skills? If the government and courts think we are not fit to fight elections then let them also take away our right to vote,” she added.

Being elected to the panchayat, has been a learning experience for the illiterate women of Nimkheda. Rampyari (60), who won in 2010, feels her confidence has grown tremendously. “I can go to the DM’s office alone and get the work done,” she said.

Ten years of being the village sarpanch has changed Ashubi’s personality, too. “She would tremble every time she faced journalists and bureaucrats but she is a changed person. People listen to her. We now have our meals together. She even has an ego,” her husband Israil Khan (58) said with a chuckle.

The apex court’s decision, for now, has robbed Ashubi and of the only education she has ever known.

Mewat Deputy Commissioner Ashok Sangwan defends the new state law: “This Act has been upheld by the highest court. It’s a progressive law which will promote only those who can make informed decisions. There have been instances when illiterate sarpanches and panches were misled by people. Some basic education will help the elected representative handle accounts and discharge duties more effectively.”

Asked how the law will impact Mewat in light of poor literacy rates, he said, “Yes, literacy rate is low in Mewat, but the law will encourage the uneducated to go back to school. I’m optimistic that there will be candidates who meet the new education criterion. The pool of candidates might be smaller.”

On the specific example of Nimkheda and the fact that there are hardly any candidates there, Sangwan said, “This issue has been argued at length in the Supreme Court. We have to take a position on this matter and that’s done. Let’s wait and watch and see how this works out.”

No next term in Nimkheda

> Ashubi (55), sarpanch since 2005, illiterate
> Rashidan (65), panch since 2005, illiterate
> Maioona (50), panch since 2005, illiterate
> Aktari (40), panch since 2010, illiterate
> Shaerbi (70), panch since 2010, illiterate
> Jaida (doesn’t know her age), panch since 2010, illiterate
> Rampyari (60), panch since 2010, illiterate
> Noor Mohammed (60), panch since 2010, illiterate
> Rashid Ahmed (30) studied till Class VIII
> Sarab Khan (52), panch since 2010, studied till
Class IX

None eligible to contest under new Haryana panchayat law

 

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