Rajasthan

Controversial ordinance on local elections

Print edition : January 23, 2015

THE Bharatiya Janata Party government in Rajasthan has taken recourse to issuing an ordinance that the opposition parties say goes against the grain of grass-roots democracy. The ordinance specifies educational qualifications for persons contesting elections to local bodies. Political observers are baffled that the party took this step despite securing a three-fourths majority in the Assembly elections in 2013 and winning all the 25 seats in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

The Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, promulgated by the Governor on December 20, less than a month before the panchayat and zilla parishad elections, amends Section 19 of the 1994 Act to expand the eligibility criteria by including educational qualifications for contesting the elections. To contest a zilla parishad or panchayat samiti seat, a candidate must have passed class 10 of the Board of Secondary Education or its equivalent. To contest for the sarpanch’s post in a non-Scheduled area, a person must have passed class eight and in a Scheduled area class five.

Several persons, including former Election Commissioners J.M. Lyngdoh and S.Y. Quraishi, Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, and former members of the judiciary, have written to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje requesting her to withdraw the ordinance on the grounds that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional and will debar 80 per cent of the rural populace from contesting the elections. Census 2001 records that only 18 per cent of the State’s population has studied beyond class five.

The education clause is unique to Rajasthan, which had earlier amended the Act to debar persons having more than two children from contesting elections.

The “education ordinance” was preceded by an ordinance on December 8 which made it mandatory for a candidate to have a functional sanitary toilet, which meant a water-sealed toilet system or a set-up surrounded by three walls, a door and a roof. Candidates were required to give an undertaking that neither they nor their family members defecated in the open. The State Election Commission issued a circular on December 22 adding another amendment to the rules of the Act that the toilet needed to be clean and in working condition.

On the face of it, both ordinances appeared progressive, but the timing and the intent appeared suspect. The government’s justification was that sarpanches handled crores of rupees, hence literacy should be a criterion. Pradesh Congress president and former Union Minister Sachin Pilot said the intentions of the government were mala fide as the ordinance was issued 24 hours before the notification of the panchayat elections and there had been no stakeholder consultation. “My party is not against education, but this is like saying that the uneducated and the poor are corrupt and not fit for public office. The courts are in vacation and it does not give any option to challenge it. The objective of panchayati raj was to empower, not to discriminate against the already discriminated,” Pilot said.

The PCC chief added that the ordinance was promulgated to avoid a discussion in the Assembly. “The government plans to close down 17,000 schools. The labour law reforms were introduced in an arbitrary manner, again without consulting the stakeholders. The Congress party is not against reforms, but we are for reforms with a human face,” Pilot said.

Amra Ram, president of the All India Kisan Sabha and a former four-time legislator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the educational criterion should apply to all categories, including elections to the Lok Sabha and legislative Assemblies. “Only one month ago, we had the municipal elections. No conditions were imposed then,” he said.

The literacy rate in the State, according to Census 2011 data, is 66 per cent against the national average of 74 per cent, and rural literacy rate is even lower, at 61 per cent. Only 45.8 per cent of the rural women are literate. The literacy rates among women and Scheduled Castes and Tribes are even lower.

Literacy as defined for Census purposes means simply the ability to read and write with a basic understanding, not requiring a formal education or minimal educational standards. It is pointed out that going by this criterion, of the 5,273 candidates elected to panchayat samitis in the 2010 elections, 3,717, or 70.4 per cent, did not meet the education requirement. Of the 1,013 candidates elected to zilla panchayats, 558, or 55.08 per cent, would stand disqualified. As many as 115 of the 190 S.C. representatives and 117 of the 185 S.T. members would not be eligible. Of the 384 OBC members, 204 would have been disqualified.

One of the reasons for introducing the educational criterion for contesting panchayat elections is the apparent success of the two-child norm. The two-child norm has been upheld by the Supreme Court in “Javed and others vs the State of Haryana and others”, in which it ruled that it did not violate any fundamental right, including the right to contest.

In Odisha, Maharashtra and Gujarat, too, persons having more than two children are debarred from contesting panchayat elections. In the case of Gujarat, the Gujarat Municipalities Amendment Act, 1963, disqualifies a person from continuing as a municipal councillor if he or she has more than two children.

T.K. Rajalakshmi

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