Norti Bai has never been to school. But she has been active in rural governance since 1981, even travelled abroad to represent India. She says she can ‘operate’ a computer, printer and fax machine. But she was recently rendered ineligible to contest the panchayat elections this year.
In December, days before the model code of conduct came into force, and during a time the courts were on vacation, the state government promulgated the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, prescribing minimum educational qualifications for candidates—Std VII for panchayats, Std X for zila parishads and panchayat samitis, and Std V-pass in scheduled areas. The ordinance also requires that candidates submit proof that they have a toilet at home. These are in addition to the requirement that candidates do not have more than two children. All this leaves thousands unable to contest. Moreover, it has sparked a debate: some see the move as exclusionist, though the government would have people believe it is aimed at encouraging education in rural areas. More immediately, however, the move is seen as disruptive: upsetting the election plans of several candidates.
The high court has refused to intervene, saying the electoral process is already rolling, but did note that the ordinance, on the face of it, seems violative of the right to equality. It said: “...the poor, underprivileged and downtrodden cannot be denied participation in democracy merely on the ground that he/she doesn’t have educational qualifications” and that “any (such) law that disqualifies a large section of the rural population...is thus prima facie arbitrary, irrational and unreasonable.” Norti Bai and others like her have filed a special leave petition before the Supreme Court.
Former CM Ashok Gehlot says what really matters in governance at village level is experience, not education.
To see the ordinance in context, Rajasthan has the third lowest literacy rate in the country, marginally above Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar. Only 18 per cent have studied beyond Std V, social activist Nikhil Dey points out. And the 2011 census found 54 per cent of rural women illiterate.
Former CM Ashok Gehlot, whose ministry had the uneducated Golma Devi as a minister, says that at the panchayat level what matters more is experience, not education. He says chief minister Vasundhararaje of the BJP owes people an apology for pushing through the ordinance without going through a consultative process.
Sawai Singh, of the Rajasthan Samagra Seva Sangh, sees a hidden agenda of the Sangh parivar at work. The ordinance is also in conflict with Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of gram swaraj. Sociologist Rajeev Gupta calls it “neo-casteism”: power is being sought to be confined to a few. Most affected will be the minorities, SCs and STs—particularly those in the tribal belt of southern Rajasthan, bordering Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. They form the core constituency of the Congress, which had managed to win panchayat elections even after losing the assembly and parliamentary elections.
The advocate-general, defending the ordinance, told the high court that some 9,000 panchayats receive grants of Rs 10,000 crore for welfare schemes and rural development and since the disbursement is made by sarpanches, some minimum education was desirable. And BJP spokesman Kailashnath Bhatt scoffs at all the criticism, saying that in the first phase of elections as many as 39,000 people satisfied the eligibility criterion and had already been elected. Eventually, 1.38 lakh representatives will be elected, says Bhatt, who wonders how such a large number of “educated” people could get elected if villages were bereft of education.
Dey and others remain unconvinced. Since neither MPs nor MLAs have any minimum education prescribed for them, there was little justification for such prescriptions at panchayat level. The ball is now in the Supreme Court.
By Kapil Bhatt in Jaipur