Days ahead of the panchayat poll announcement in the state, an ordinance issued by Governor Kalyan Singh fixed minimum educational qualifications for contesting polls for panchayat samiti and district councils, drawing much opposition from political parties, local communities and civil society groups. The ordinance effecting an amendment to the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act 1994, has made it mandatory for candidates contesting zila parishad and panchayat samiti polls to be Class X pass and those contesting sarpanch elections to be Class VIII pass. In scheduled areas the eligibility has been fixed at Class V pass.
Even as the ruling government argues that this will check embezzlement of funds at the hands of illiterate panchayat level representatives, opposition groups alleged that the move is discriminatory to a large section of the rural population, particularly women among whom the literacy rate is the lowest. In rural Rajasthan, the literacy rate stands at 76.16 percent for males and 45.8 percent for females.
Defending the state government’s move, BJP spokesperson Kailash Nath Bhatt told Indian Express, “The Center is spending crores of money on panchayats and this goes directly to the sarpanch. There are thousands of pending cases of fund embezzlement against these elected representatives in the state and the standard excuse is that ‘I am illiterate and put my thumb impression on whatever papers were given to me’.
Earlier the audits were managed by the state government so the accountability was not with the sarpanch but now with funds to the tune of crores coming in for projects like MNREGA and others, there has to be better accountability. Let us take this decision positively as it will end up encouraging education in rural areas. We are confident this will lead to better literacy rate in the state and as it is we have a 50 percent reservation for women.”
Bhatt added that the two child norm (those with more than two children will be disqualified from contesting the panchayat polls) has helped in checking population growth and similarly the education eligibility will have a positive impact. “Through this experiment we will be able to address the literacy issue among elected representatives in a bottom upwards approach. If we cultivate educated sarpanches, we will eventually have educated MLAs and MPs,” Bhatt said.
Social activist Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan refuted Bhatt’s arguments and said, “Such a criteria is discriminatory and it is unfair to implement it with a set of people like Dalits, tribals and the poor who have not got an opportunity to go to school. Poor literacy rate cannot be used to against the disadvantaged sections. Why do all the rules have to apply to at the panchayat level, be it the two child norm or now the educational criterion?”
Dey said that as for embezzlement of funds the accountability should lie with government employees who are trained and qualified for the job. “Be it MPs or MLAs, they do not sign cheques then why do sarpanches have to do so? Financial accountability should not lie with the sarpanch. The handling of such huge amounts is anyway a complex process and even if they were to have a certain educational qualification it would not serve the purpose,” Dey explained.
Mridulika Jha of Mahila Panch Sarpanch Sangathan said, “In Rajasthan the literacy rate of women in rural areas is only 45.8 percent, which is lower than the national literacy rate of 57.93 percent. In tribal areas, the situation is even worse with literacy rate of women 25.22 percent. By introducing such a discriminatory disqualification criteria, it excludes the rest of the non-literate women from the possibility of exercising their political right to contest elections thereby defeating the very purpose of the 50 percent reservation of seats for women in the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act. By issuing such an Ordinance the state government is absolving itself of its primary responsibility of realizing the Right to Education Act (which only came into effect in 2009). Many of the current potential candidates have voiced their discontent and anger at being excluded from accessing their fundamental rights.”
“Moreover, potential and current candidates re-contesting elections have expressed their ire against the government by citing that literacy should not be equated with their capacity to be effective elected representatives of people.In a democratic country, introducing selective disqualification measures such as the two child norm and now the minimum education requirement is hindering inclusive participation of all in the grassroots development and governance of the country. We urge the government to take immediate action and retract this Ordinance at the earliest,” Jha maintained.
The state government had also recently made it mandatory for all candidates contesting the panchayat polls to construct toilets in their homes, a move that was lauded by all.
Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sachin Pilot said, “In principle we are all in favour of having educated people in elected positions but to bring such an ordinance just days before the polls is unacceptable. The BJP government does not believe in discussions because of its brute majority. When there are no educational qualifications for MLAs and MPs, then why such a rule for the most vulnerable sections who have the least educational qualifications. There should have been a debate in the assembly and then a decision could have been taken. When the Congress was in power, we also wanted a discussion on the issue but even then the argument had come up that it would be discriminatory to impose it on the sarpanches and not on the MLAs and MPs.”