Epic failhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/epic-fail-2/

Epic fail

Rajasthan government’s ordinance introducing minimum education criteria for panchayat polls is unprecedented and unacceptable

Voters showing their voter identity card before casting their votes at a polling station in Nagpur on Wednesday. (Source: PTI)
Voters showing their voter identity card before casting their votes at a polling station in Nagpur  (Source: PTI)

BY K. Raju and Sachin Pilot

Days before the model code of conduct goes into effect for the panchayat polls in Rajasthan, the BJP-led Rajasthan government sprang a nasty surprise. The governor promulgated the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, which stipulates a minimum education qualification of secondary education (Class X) for candidates contesting zila parishad or panchayat samiti polls, and Class VIII pass to be eligible to run for the post of sarpanch. This ordinance is discriminatory, violative of the constitutional right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 and, coming just before panchayat polls, highly disruptive for all candidates and political parties.

There are multiple issues with the ordinance. First, an ordinance of this import was promulgated without any consultation or dialogue with political parties or civil society. Political parties, including the principal opposition, the Congress, Dalit and mahila civil society organisations and sarpanch sangathans have criticised the government’s move. It was perhaps in anticipation of this resistance that the Rajasthan government timed the ordinance for just before the panchayat polls, while the courts are on vacation.

The ordinance is especially ill-advised given Rajasthan’s low literacy rate. As per the 2011 Census, the literacy rate in Rajasthan is 66 per cent (lower than the national average of 74 per cent). The rural literacy rate is lower at 61 per cent, with only 45.8 per cent literate women in rural Rajasthan. Literacy rates for rural SCs are even lower, with less than 50 per cent of rural SCs literate and only 31 per cent of rural SC women literate, as per the 2001 Census. The number of people qualified to contest the panchayat polls will be even lower, since “literacy” as defined in the census is the ability to read and write with understanding, and not linked to formal education or minimum educational standards.

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It is evident that the ordinance will disenfranchise lakhs in rural Rajasthan, with women and Dalits and the poor hit especially hard. The purpose of the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution — reservation for marginalised groups — was to deepen their democratic participation. This ordinance actively ensures the opposite by arbitrarily excluding large numbers from the same groups. A look at the 2010 panchayat polls in Rajasthan reveals the extent of exclusion: of the 5,273 panchayat samiti elected representatives, 3,717 do not meet the education standards set by the ordinance. Similarly, of the 1,013 zila parishad wards, 558 elected representatives would be disqualified. The situation with the sarpanches will likely be worse, nullifying thousands of political careers in one shot. Many representatives have worked hard to build their political capital, such as some Dalit and women sarpanches, who have won elections even after their seats were unreserved in the next round of elections.

It is notable that no other state has stipulated minimum educational qualifications to contest panchayat polls. There is also no such condition to contest elections to the higher offices of MLA or MP. In fact, if MLAs were required to meet similar stipulations, 23 BJP MLAs in the current Vidhan Sabha would be disqualified. In addition, two BJP MPs from Rajasthan would not meet the Class X-pass criteria. This is absurd, given that the primary role of an MLA/ MP is legislative and the role of panchayati raj institution (PRI) representatives is more tactical and less contingent on educational attainment. It is difficult to understand why such criteria should be mandated for candidates contesting panchayat polls. Experience shows that educational qualifications alone are no indicator of an elected representative’s effectiveness or ability to perform her job and serve constituents. In any case, the decision about the candidate’s suitability is best left to the electorate, rather than subjected to arbitrary and exclusionary standards.

The BJP government has justified its decision by arguing that sarpanches are the main executive agency for panchayat and rural development works, and that there are many cases of corruption, embezzlement and forgery against panchayat representatives, who often defend themselves by saying they did not know the rules. This is a genuine concern. However, the BJP government, instead of concentrating on ensuring a minimum level of education for all in Rajasthan by focusing on educating SCs, STs and the poor, is in effect punishing them. Further, the government has advanced no evidence that the bulk of defalcation has happened where the elected representative’s education is below Class VIII or X. One could argue that a highly educated sarpanch would be even more adept at defalcation than a less educated one. These are both absurd conclusions. Corruption in panchayat works is an outcome of intent, and the distribution of power and awareness among the rural populace. Social justice and the implementation of government programmes would be better achieved if the government focused on improving awareness and increased mechanisms for transparency and accountability rather than looked to these shortsighted and hastily introduced measures. We strongly urge the state government to withdraw this ill-advised and discriminatory ordinance immediately.

Raju is chairperson, AICC SC Department. Pilot is president, Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee