Legislation

Excluded by law

Print edition : January 22, 2016

Hussaini of Pipaka village in Mewat. An illiterate person, she will not be able to contest the elections. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Mamun Rashid, retired panchayat secretary. He plans to field his educated daughter from Silkho panchayat. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Abdul Hamid, sarpanch of Sehsola gram panchayat. His daughter-in-law will contest from the seat reserved for women this time. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act setting educational and other eligibility criteria for candidates can have disastrous social consequences.

“If they do not consider us good enough to contest elections, then why do they want the votes of us illiterates? We are like animals for them. They should forget about our votes also,” said Hussaini, 45, of Pipaka village in Mewat district of Haryana. The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act has effectively debarred several people like her, some 68.65 per cent of the women in the State who did not have the requisite qualification, from contesting the panchayat elections, which have been scheduled in three phases from January 10 through January 24.

The Act, stipulating educational and other eligibility criteria for aspiring candidates, was passed by the State legislature on September 7. The constitutionality of the Act was challenged in the Supreme Court by three petitioners who stood to be affected by the amendment. Their contention was that the eligibility criteria were violative of the fundamental rights under Article 14 of the Constitution. On September 17, the Supreme Court stayed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) government from going ahead with the elections, pending final arguments. On December 12, however, it dismissed the writ petition and upheld the amendment Act. A review petition has now been filed, arguing that the court had relied on inaccurate and incomplete data to ascertain the numbers and percentages of persons who stood to be disqualified.

According to Section 175 of the Act, the minimum qualification to contest for the post of a sarpanch or panch of a gram panchayat or to that of a member of a panchayat samiti or zilla parishad is class 10 or its equivalent. For a woman candidate or a candidate belonging to the Scheduled Castes (S.C.s), the minimum qualification shall be middle pass and for an S.C. woman candidate contesting for the post of panch, it shall be fifth pass. Other disqualifying criteria include failure to pay arrears of any primary agricultural cooperative society, district central cooperative bank or district primary cooperative agriculture and rural development bank, or failure to clear electricity dues. The Act also stipulates that the candidate give a self-declaration that he/she has a functional toilet at their place of residence. Hussaini is one among the thousands of women who will not be able to contest the elections as they fail to fulfil the educational criteria laid down by the Act. Neither does she have a functional toilet at her place of residence; lack of money and water has been the main problem in constructing one.

Hussaini had made up her mind to contest for the post of sarpanch of the Sehsola gram panchayat, which is now a reserved seat for women. Though illiterate, she did not think she was any less capable to understand, run and conduct the duties required of a sarpanch. She is known for raising people’s concerns in her village and in the gram panchayat. But the Act and the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of it has made her feel dejected. “What is the point of saying the government could have waited for some years and then implemented it? Or that now people will start sending their children to school? Those who are illiterate like me cannot be literate now and pass Class 8 in order to be eligible to contest. And there have to be schools to send the children to. People like us are condemned for being illiterate,” she said wistfully.

“We run our homes, are aware of what the village wants. We know all that is needed to know and yet are unfit to contest elections. Those contesting elections should not ask for our votes as well,” Hussaini said.

In her village, there is no school for girls beyond the fifth standard and classes are held in the building allocated for the gram panchayat. In Sehsola gram panchayat, there are only two women who fit the eligibility criteria.

Hussaini also narrated the case of a man in Ferozepur Jhirka block who got an “educated” second bride in order to make her stand for elections. “It is not their fault. It is the fault of this kind of a law that makes people do wrong things,” she said.

No women for reserved seats

Abdul Hamid, the outgoing sarpanch of Sehsola, was confident of retaining the seat in his family. He told Frontline that there was no eligible woman candidate in the entire gram panchayat comprising five villages other than those in his family. “I am fielding my daughter-in-law for the post of sarpanch. I know I stand to gain from this, but it should not have been so. Education is improving in our region, but it is at a slow pace. It is going to be very difficult to find candidates for many of the reserved posts, especially for the post of sarpanch where the criterion is eighth pass for both men and women. In a ward where there are 300 votes, there is no woman candidate who fits the bill,” he said.

In some wards there was no eligible woman candidate at all. “There will be nominations from other wards which may create some tensions,” he said, adding that in the gram panchayat only 5 per cent of the people over 40 had passed Class 10.

“In 1973-74, there were only five or six people from the entire panchayat who went to college,” said Hamid, a graduate. As argued by the three petitioners in the case, according to Census 2011, on the criteria of education alone nearly 83.06 per cent of S.C. women and 62.16 per cent of S.C. men stood disqualified from contesting elections.

Mewat is among the most educationally backward districts in Haryana. However, its sex ratio at 906, though lower than the national average, is the highest in the State. The Mewat region, which is inhabited predominantly by Meo Muslims, spills over to Bharatpur and Alwar in Rajasthan. It has suffered years of neglect in every sense of the term. There are parts in Nuh block where water for both drinking and irrigation have to bought in water tankers. Most villages do not have piped water supply. Agriculture and dairy farming is the main source of livelihood here. Fertility of the region varies from place to place, with some parts having groundwater and others being arid, rocky and dry. The region does not have a railway line or cold storage facility for the onion crop that grows in abundance. The nearest government hospital is not less than 10 kilometres away from most villages. “How can people be blamed for their backwardness?” said Khaleel Ahmed, a social worker. Retired panchayat secretary Mamun Rashid of Silkoh gram panchayat in Tauru block told Frontline that at least two wards had no candidates who fulfilled all the eligibility criteria. He was confident that his daughter who is planning to file her nomination papers would get elected unopposed.

Education apart, there was also hardly anyone who did not have a loan against their names, he said. “People are not going to clear their loans or electricity dues just because they have to stand for panchayat elections. Why would they have taken those loans in the first place? They needed the money. My own nephews have loans against their names. They are educated but can’t contest. Even if people clear their loans, there isn’t any guarantee they will win. So they prefer not to,” said Rashid.

His argument made sense. For instance, when the two-child norm was imposed for contesting elections to the panchayat and urban bodies in several States, people did not start having fewer children but rather it disrupted family relationships and wives and children were disowned. Further, it resulted in a spate of sex-determination tests as the boy child remained the preferred choice in the small family as well. The sex ratio got further skewed in the process and reproductive health issues of women took a beating.

Most of the districts falling in the Mewat region lie in the dry and rocky Aravalli plains. With a ban on stone mining in force and limited options for agricultural activity, the levels of indebtedness in the region are high and bank loan arrears are common. The first to close down after mining stopped were private schools as people were unable to afford the fees. Satbir Singh, general secretary of the State unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said that almost 50,000 workers in the Mewat region, parts of Faridabad, Tosham (in Bhiwani district) and Alwar (in Rajasthan) had lost their livelihood following the ban.

The gram panchayat seat of Aklimpur (Nuh block) is reserved for women. Seventy per cent of the girls here have not seen a school. There is only a primary school in the village and the nearest girls’ school is 7 km away, in Nagina block.

The outgoing sarpanch, Deen Mohammad, a father of eight, got himself another bride a month ago in order to get her to contest elections. Frontline met the family which defended the second marriage. Forty-seven-year-old Deen Mohammad’s case went viral in the media as a photograph of him and his two wives was splashed on the front pages of newspapers. His 21-year-old bride, Sajiya, was quite unsure about what lay ahead though her family was confident that she would win the post.

“My father was elected sarpanch two times. Ours is not the only case. There have been 73 such marriages in the region following the amendment. Galti pe galti ho rahi hai (one error is following the other),” said Saikul, Deen Mohammad’s eldest son, who has passed Class 12. “We are the biggest family in the village. There was pressure on us to contest. The law forced us to do this, otherwise my mother or someone else from the family could have stood for the elections,” he said.

Asruddin, a former sarpanch, was planning to field his daughter-in-law for the post. There were in all three candidates.

Mahendar, a Dalit who works in a two-wheeler showroom, said how his own uncle who was educated and elected sarpanch did little for the Khanpur Ghati gram panchayat in Nuh. “There are no toilets in my village. There is no water and no drainage either. People defecate in the fields. We have had a State Cabinet Minister from our village,” he told Frontline.

Punished for being illiterate

Nimkheda village in Ferozepur Jhirka block lies on the border of Haryana and Rajasthan. The seven women members of the panchayat, led by Asubi, are livid that none of them is now eligible to contest elections in any category as they are all illiterate. In 2005, it was an all-woman panchayat that got elected from here, winning it accolades from across the country. Asubi and three others were elected for a second time in 2010. “We succeeded in eradicating many social evils, including gambling, alcohol addiction and female foeticide. And we are illiterate,” said Ram Pyari, the sole Dalit member who won a general seat.

Except for Asubi, they are all landless. Asubi said that they had also got the government to sanction funds for a high school, roads and a power house in the village. “I am 58 years old. You will find no one in my age group who is literate. Where were the schools when we were growing up?” she asked.

Female literacy in the 512 villages of Mewat district is as low as 36 per cent. “I told my husband to get an educated bride, but he declined,” she said laughing, pointing to Israel Khan, her husband. “It is the fault of the government that we are not educated. The first primary school in the village was set up in 1982. I did not expect the court to support the government. We nurtured the panchayat so well despite our illiteracy and we are being punished for that,” she said.

The women representatives pointed out that instead of education levels going up, polygamy was on the rise. In Singaar village in the Punhana Assembly segment, the sitting sarpanch married a 24-year-old educated girl. In Jamaalgarh village too, there was an instance of a man marrying again in order to get his bride elected.

In Haryana, it was only the Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in particular and its mass organisations, that took to the streets when the State government came out with an ordinance and then passed the amendment in the Assembly. The Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal did not think the issue was important enough to register a protest.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) was critical of the Supreme Court order which, according to it, had long-term implications for socially and economically disadvantaged sections, including Dalits and women. AIDWA general secretary Jagmati Sangwan said, “The Supreme Court has not examined the facts and arguments put forth by the petitioners and has majorly depended on the inconclusive data supplied by the State government.”

The review petition filed by Maanav Kumar and Kirti Singh, advocates for the petitioners, argues that the number of persons who would be disqualified would be much higher than what is thought to be. The figure of 57 per cent of people eligible for contesting the elections did not give the disaggregated details and break-up for each category of post, it says. According to calculations based on the Census figures, the petitioners contend that 55.63 per cent of non-S.C. men had education below tenth pass; 68.65 per cent of non-S.C. women were educated below middle pass; 62.16 per cent of S.C. men and 83.06 per cent of S.C. women were educated below middle pass, and 67.52 per cent of S.C. women were educated below primary school pass. Neither was there any proof given by the government (the respondents) that there was a connection between illiteracy and ill functioning of panchayats on a large scale.

Irrespective of the outcome of the review petition, one thing is amply clear. Grass-roots democracy will never be the same. In the previous panchayat elections, 30.06 per cent illiterate candidates, 37.35 per cent under-matriculate candidates, 22.16 per cent matriculates, 7.04 per cent intermediate qualified candidates and 3.33 per cent graduates and postgraduates were elected.

The State government has now decided to introduce similar disqualifying criteria for the urban local body elections too. On December 29, the State Cabinet decided to amend Section 13 A of the Haryana Municipal Act, 1973, and Section 8 of the Haryana Municipal Corporation Act, 1994, requiring all candidates to be matriculates in order to contest urban body elections.

The minimum qualification for women and S.C. candidates is fixed at Class 5. This ironically has been touted as an affirmative action. And similar to the Panchayati Raj Act amendment, a functional toilet too is a prerequisite.

Defaulters of electricity bills and cooperative bank loans will also get debarred from contesting elections. The moot question is how truly are any of these elections going to be representative when a good part of the electorate has been prevented from contesting.

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