No to ‘thumb rule’, but what about inclusiveness?

Rajasthan panchayat leaders have to be fifth graders with only two children and a toilet at home

Shipra Mathur | February 24, 2015


#rajasthan   #panchayat polls   #toilets  

If you have more than two children, don’t have a functional toilet in your house and haven’t passed Class 8 (Class 5 for reserved areas), sorry, you are disqualified from contesting an election for sarpanch in Rajasthan. The state is trying to impress the world that village leaders would no longer use thumb impressions and would be literate enough to read official documents. Nobody can, however, be sure if the formula would work for elected representatives when performance reports of schools indicate that a fifth grader in a government school can’t even read books prescribed for Class 2.

The second amendment (section 19) in Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Ordinance-2014 demanded minimum qualification of Class 10 to contest the zila parishad or panchayat samiti polls, Class 8 pass for general area or Class 5 pass for reserved area to contest the sarpanch elections. This amendment, just a month ahead of panchayat polls in the state has given a twist to the whole debate of grassroots governance.

The elections were held in three phases in January - February to elect 1,014 ward members of zila parishad, 6,236 members of panchayat samiti and 9,875 sarpanchs in 33 districts. 

Rajasthan has a proud past, as the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation of panchayati raj in 1959 in Nagaur district of the state. But the recent panchayat elections in the state were interesting and controversial at the same time.

With the government seemingly keen on strengthening panchayati raj institutions by making way for the qualified, ideal family keeper with a small family, and endorsing Modi’s Swach Bharat agenda, the question remains when there is no qualification for MPs and MLAs why impose these norms for those aspiring to be grassroots elected leaders? This also clearly contradicts the agenda of inclusiveness.

Civil society has strongly condemned this move, which they see as injustice to the already discriminated. With this move, chances of 82.5 percent of rural population (people above 20 years who have not studied till Class 5) of the state have been blurred. Rural women are far behind in educational qualification, with 95 percent of them failing the Class 5 criteria. So, even previously enforced 50 percent reservation formula for women in panchayat institutions in the state had no meaning in this election for the majority, as among women, literacy here is as low as 42.2 percent in the rural and 47.76 percent in urban areas.

If we compare, the state assembly has 28 MLAs who have not passed their Class 10 exam and six MLAs of the ruling party are illiterate. This also speaks of the moral authority of the government to bring in such an amendment through the route of ordinance, which may have otherwise been discussed and debated or, in the least, have been passed a little early.

This ‘time rush’ helped only in one way – prospective candidates got little time to manipulate their academic, toilet and children records. It’s surely good that villagers hunted for the educated ones and many unfortunate villages have even been pushed to the misery of finding no one at all meeting all the requirements. Funny, it may seem, but many disowned their children to restrict the count to two to fit the jacket of norms. Yet others took pains to show two of their three children as twins, while some arranged for school certificates. Toilet structures were also constructed overnight to ensure eligibility.

Bureaucrats have surely fancied this idea of an ‘ideal sarpanch’ to score points on progressive governance initiatives. In the process, however, they have clearly ignored the reality of the government not having achieved significantly in literacy, population control and sanitation. Imposing these diktats would further marginalise those who are already on the fringes. The burden of the failure of governance should not be passed on to voters in a village without giving them enough time to prepare for such a move. But, even then, resistance was inevitable. In this three-tier governance model, it has been debated that when at the national canvass the less educated human resource development minister (Smriti Irani) could steer ahead, with her leadership qualities and vision to her advantage, how could the logic be reversed when it came to village leadership? Does education really lead to better understanding of realities and common sense? Besides, our constitution also doesn’t discriminate anyone on the basis of education or other development indicators.

Naurati, the woman sarpanch who had earlier moved the supreme court to secure minimum wages for unorganised workers, filed a petition in the supreme court on this issue, but the apex court denied to interfere in the matter and sent the petition to Rajasthan high court where other women leaders, Kamla and Shyama, had already filed a public interest litigation (PIL). The high court has expressed its displeasure over the procedure that was followed to rush up this ordinance without much time in hand for anyone to assess its impact, but at the same time expressed its inability to interfere in the matter at a time when the ball of elections had already started rolling.

Grassroots governance is pivotal for the flow of development benefits to the lowest rung and this three-tier self-governance model has constantly been under watch while it strives to gain deeper ground. Change is surely slow and certainly some move was imminent to make it work more efficiently. There have been more than 3,000 complaints against elected representatives of panchayats and the reason is said to be sheer ignorance or lack of understanding. What is even more urgent is to empower the officials responsible for accounting and financial matters, the sarpanch just needs to be more accountable and practical, and a visionary, which is more a part of social and moral education than a mere school certificate.

Practically, after elections, all panchayats in Rajasthan now have literate village leaders though the fact remains that in the last term, village government hardly had any illiterates in its tally. Out of 9,166 sarpanchs, only 814 were illiterate in 2010 elections, indicating that the people already preferred the literate.

The just finished elections have shown a better face with slightly better educational background of elected leaders. Thirteen village panchayats will, however, bear the brunt of this provision, as in these villages there was not a single candidate who had studied till Class 8, as stipulated in section 19 of the state PRI Act. They shall remain sarpanchless. And, voiceless.

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(The article appeared in February 16-28, 2015, issue)

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