In a judgement that could change local governance in the country, the SC has recently upheld Haryana panchayat literacy criterion that requires a candidate to have studied up to a particular standard to be able to contest panchayat elections. A bench comprising justices J. Chelameswar and Abhay Manohar Sapre dismissed a plea challenging the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, and upheld all the amendments. These are in addition to insolvency and being of unsound mind, disqualifications that are specified in the Constitution. The law fixes matriculation as the essential qualification for general candidates and Class VIII for women in the general category as well as scheduled caste candidates.
Salient features of Haryana Panchayat Raj (Amendment) Act 2015
The Act bars five new categories of people from contesting elections. This includes:
Those, on whom, the charges are framed in criminal cases for offences punishable with imprisonment for not less than 10 years.
Those who fail to pay arrears owed by them to either a Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society or District Central Cooperative Bank or District Primary Agricultural Rural Development Bank.
Persons who have arrears (Outstanding payment) on electricity bills.
Persons who do not possess specified educational qualifications (The law states that general candidates must have passed the Class X examination, while women and Dalit candidates need to clear Class VIII. Dalit women candidates must clear Class V)
Those who do not have a functional toilet at their residence.
Haryana is not the first state to introduce such requirements. In December 2014, Rajasthan brought in the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, which provides for a minimum qualification of Class X for contesting the zilla parishad or panchayat samiti polls and Class VIII to contest sarpanch elections. In the scheduled area of a panchayat, a contestant should have passed Class V to become a sarpanch.
In August, the Bihar assembly also passed amendments making it mandatory for candidates contesting panchayat polls to have toilets in their homes. In Andhra Pradesh, hearing and speech impaired, leprosy patients cannot contest for panchayat elections, while Odisha also enacts similar criterion where no hearing, speech impaired, tuberculosis or leprosy patients are allowed to contest.
Karnataka makes it mandatory to have a toilet at home or the candidate must give a written undertaking that it would be built within one year. In Maharashtra, a candidate contesting for panchayat election cannot have more than two children. The state also disqualifies those who defecate in the open. Gujarat and Chattisgarh also make it mandatory to have a toilet at home to contest for elections.
Why the apex court has upheld this act?
The apex court said there was nothing wrong in having such conditions as the Constitution itself had imposed limitations on people’s right to contest elections, be it for Parliament, Assemblies or for the offices of the President and the Vice-President. Acknowledging that educational qualifications were necessary for effective discharge of various duties of the panchayats, the Bench said this “cannot be said to be irrational or illegal or unconnected with the scheme and purpose of the (panchayat) Act.”
"It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats,” it explained. The SC said two conditions on prompt clearance of electricity bills and loans were similar to insolvency that rendered people to contest any election. On the necessity to have a functional toilet at home, the Bench said the primary duty of any civic body was to maintain sanitation. “Those who aspire to get elected to these civic bodies and administer them must set an example for others," it held.
According to the Supreme Court, a minimum education qualification would enable more effective discharging of various functions that panchayat members are expected to fulfill. It is true that education is a desirable qualification for politicians and, for that matter, citizens. But, according to experts, such experiments in India should begin with a top-down approach, starting from Parliament and the assemblies.
The apex court ruling puts at rest the question whether the condition of literacy violates the right to equality. What lingers is the troubling reality, that half of India’s population will be debarred from contesting polls if the minimum educational qualification is prescribed. The democratic institutions in rural settings suffer from glaring functional glitches, most a result of administrative inadequacies. Pinning hopes on representatives with matriculation certificates (of doubtful merit) at the cost of experienced ones without these, in the absence of attendant reforms, defies logic. A liberal democracy must of necessity refrain from certifying who may contest elections to represent the people. It is dangerously illiberal to debar citizens from contesting elections when they are able to fulfill their responsibilities as panchs, or legislators, as the case may be.