Insights into Editorial: Let the grassroots breathe
One of the first decisions of the newly elected government in Rajasthan has been to scrap the minimum educational qualification criteria for candidates contesting local body elections.
This reverses the amendments introduced in 2015 which required candidates contesting the zila parishad and panchayat samiti elections to have passed Class 10 and those contesting sarpanch elections to have passed Class 8.
Further, it disallowed those without functional toilets in their home to contest. Following this, Haryana also introduced similar restrictions for contesting local body elections.
Decision had Challenged in Courts: SC in 2015:
However, in December 2015, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Rajbala v. State of Haryana upheld the validity of the amendments to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act.
In a contentious judgment authored, the court held that prescription of educational qualification was justifiable for better administration and did not violate the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution.
Prescribing educational qualifications for contesting elections is problematic in multiple ways:
- Fundamentally, it unduly restricts a citizen’s right to contest elections and thereby challenges the basic premise of a republican democracy.
- Denying the right to contest effectively restricts the right of a citizen to vote for a candidate of her choice since more than half the population is restricted from contesting.
- Further, it disproportionately disenfranchises the more marginal sections of society: women, Dalits and poor.
- In a country like India with unequal access to education, it is cruel to blame citizens for the failure of the state to fulfil its constitutional obligations.
The disqualification of candidates who don’t have toilets in their home or defecate in open is clearly an example where the implementation of a Central programme like the Swachh Bharat Mission gets precedence over the need for representative government.
Basic Qualification rules didn’t improve the situation:
- Education is beneficial to implement the government policies in appropriate way but one can say that, this is a failure of government machineries who overburden with the things of inefficiencies with poor results of the PRI’s and now it transfers to the citizen’s mandate on the form of the education compulsion.
- More than half of the women and 68% of the Schedule cast/ST women and 41% of the Schedule Cast/ ST men cannot contest in these local elections.
- The Panchayat Law is discriminatory and such criteria are arbitrary.
- Experience has shown that wisdom plays a greater role than education at local governance level, especially villages.
- Although more educated people should be part of the political system, more ground reforms are needed before such a law is implemented.
- It is always good that more educated people become a part of panchayats, but the rest of the systems including something as basic as education and sanitation should be put in place first. Nothing can be so alienated from reality.
The very objective of the 73rd and 74th Amendments that sought to make panchayats and municipalities representative institutions with adequate representation from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women.
Though local governments now have a definite space within India’s constitutional structure, they are still seen as administrative vessels for implementing programmes of the Central and State governments.
Denying local democracy by not holding elections to Local Governments:
The undermining of local governments as representative institutions does not take place solely through the introduction of restrictions for contesting elections.
Many State governments have sought to defang local governments by simply delaying elections on various grounds.
- Elections to panchayats and municipalities in Tamil Nadu have not been held since 2011.
- In Visakhapatnam, elections to its Municipal Corporation were last held in 2007.
- These local governments now function as bureaucratic machines without an elected council to hold them accountable.
The continual delay in elections goes against the purpose of the 73rd and 74th Amendments which listed the “absence of regular elections” and “prolonged supersessions” as stated reasons behind their introduction.
These amendments also mandated the creation of a State Election Commission (SEC) in each State for the preparation of electoral rolls and the conduct of elections to panchayats and municipalities.
However, in most States, tasks like delimitation of seats are still done by the State government instead of the SEC.
It is often under the guise of delimitation of seats that local government elections are delayed, especially when the party in power fears losses.
India prides itself as a robust democracy, at least in the procedural sense, with regular elections and smooth transfer of power.
However, the absence of elected councils in some local governments punches holes in this claim.
The lack of alarm caused by the denial of local democracy reveals our collective bias regarding the place of local governments.
Delaying elections and adding restrictions to contest prevent local governments from becoming truly representative institutions.
Previously, basic qualification verdict completely ignores the outstanding work done by many uneducated leaders, despite having the illiterate they played the major role in bringing the developmental procedure with the effective implementation based on the local resources and local common and cultural knowledge and experience and are closely connected with their constituents.