By Gautam Adusumalli, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, Delhi University.
On the 7th of September, the Haryana State Assembly passed the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Bill, 2015. By virtue of this, Haryana became only the second state in the country, after Rajasthan, to fix educational and certain other qualifications as eligibility criteria for the candidates to contest elections to Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs).
According to the Bill, if you are a general candidate contesting elections to a Panchayati Raj institution, you need to at least be class 10th pass. Similarly, for women (general) and schedule caste candidates, the essential qualification is middle standard or class 8th passed, and for women SC candidates, the essential qualification is class 5th pass. The Bill has certain other provisions as well. The Bill makes it mandatory for the candidates to have functional toilets at home and payment slips of power bills, and also debars cooperative loan defaulters from contesting elections to PRIs.
The man responsible for introducing the Bill in the State Assembly, the Agricultural Minister of Haryana, Mr. O.P Dhankar, labeled the legislation as “historic”. This historic legislation, however, has not been free from controversies over the past few weeks. Here’s why-
Just a couple of days after the Bill was passed, a petition was filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, challenging the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 on the State Government’s move of prescribing educational qualification for the candidates. What is also interesting here is the fact that when the Punjab and Haryana High Court stayed the operation of the education clause a month ago in August, the Haryana State Government then claimed that they would soon introduce a Bill to amend the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, to include a clause for making educational qualification mandatory for candidates contesting the panchayat polls in the state.
On the 17th of September, in a setback to the Manohar Lal Khattar government, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India stayed the state law providing that a candidate aspiring to contest elections to PRIs should have a certain minimum educational qualification. A bench of Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre stayed the law and issued a notice to the Haryana Government seeking its response. On the 22nd of September, the State Government asked the Supreme Court to decide whether educational qualification could be an eligibility criteria for candidates aspiring to contest rural local body elections, following which the Hon’ble Apex Court, saying that it had serious doubts over the constitutional validity of such laws, directed that the Panchayat elections in Haryana cannot be held till it decides the validity of the law. It is important to mention here that the bench had said that it would allow the elections to happen only if the Haryana government agreed to drop minimum educational qualification as an election contesting criteria, following which the Attorney General of India, Mr. Mukul Rohatgi, defending the law on behalf of the state, informed the Court that it was neither possible nor appropriate to drop the provisions. He further added that the government was ready to argue the case in Court and the Court should decide it one way or the other.
Though the decision of the Court on the whole matter is still pending, the debate over the issue still goes on. One side believes that taking such a step is progressive, while the other says that by alienating a large section of the society from the electoral process, the law would do more harm than good.
The Attorney General of India, Mr. Mukul Rohatgi, on behalf of the State of Haryana, made a very interesting point on the issue in Court. He argued, “Panchayats are like mini state governments. Powers of state governments are delegated to them and they ought to take part in economic reforms. How can that be accomplished when officials put thumb impressions and later dispute such impressions or say we don’t know what we signed?” He also added, “What is wrong with prescribing for minimum educational criteria? This is a progressive step. Parliament should also take a lead from this.”
Taking such a step would be progressive indeed, but it comes at a massive cost. The downside of this situation is that if the law actually goes through, it would mean that about 83.06% of rural women above the age of 20 in the State would straight away be disqualified from contesting the Panchayat Polls as they do not possess the required educational qualification. Also, the law might set a very worrying precedent. If the Haryana State Government wins the case in the Apex Court, The Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 could become a model for future panchayat elections in the country, which could further mean the alienation of a large section of the country’s population from contesting Panchayati Raj elections.
The final hearing on the matter is dated for the 7th of October.