In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court upheld the Haryana government’s law mandating minimum educational qualifications as a prerequisite for contestants in panchayat polls.
The order validates a similar law passed by Rajasthan, the first state to do so. 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.
The other grounds for disqualification from contesting polls under the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 are: -failure to pay arrears to any primary agriculture co-operative society or agriculture co-operative banks, failure to pay electricity bill arrears and not having a functional toilet at home and not charged by a court for a grave criminal offence as criteria to be eligible to contest local body elections. These are in addition to insolvency and being of unsound mind, disqualifications that are specified in the Constitution.
(In 2013, the apex court had ruled that members of Parliament who are convicted of a criminal offence shall be disqualified from holding office or contesting polls subsequently.)
In contrast, the Haryana law only sets being charged as a criminal offence as the standard.
For General candidates: Matriculation pass (10th pass)
For women candidates: 8th standard
For Dalit candidates: 5th standard
This Haryana law creates “two classes of voters,” that is, “those who are qualified by virtue of their educational accomplishment to contest the elections to the panchayats and those who are not.”
Justice Chelameswar, who authored the verdict, reasons there is nothing “irrational or illegal or unconnected” if the law prescribes minimum educational qualification for candidates. Simply put, the court feels that basic education would “enable the candidates to effectively discharge duties of the panchayat.”
“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 ,”
The court completely agreed with Attorney-General that the law was meant to elect “model representatives for local self government for better administrative efficiency.”
It held that the right to vote and right to contest in an election are “constitutional” rights but it cannot be disputed either that both the rights can be regulated and curtailed by the appropriate legislature directly. “Every person who is entitled to vote is not automatically entitled to contest for every office under the Constitution. Constitution itself imposes limitations on the right to contest depending upon the office. It also authorises the prescription of further disqualifications with respect to the right to contest,”
The court, however, has recognized the right to vote and right to contest in an election are Constitutional rights, deviating from a 2003 decision in the Javed and others vs State of Haryana case.
It pointed out that when the Constitution itself stipulated certain disqualifications such as mental fitness and insolvency for occupying some offices, it cannot be said that more disqualifications by a competent legislative body would not be permissible if it does not lead to a situation where holding of elections to these various bodies becomes completely impossible.
In terms of ‘toilet’ as criteria, Court says “If people still do not have a toilet, it is not because of their poverty but because of their lacking the requisite will. One of the primary duties of any civic body is to maintain sanitation within its jurisdiction. Those who aspire to get elected to those civic bodies and administer them must set an example for others,”
“To the said end, if the legislature stipulates that those who are not following basic norms of hygiene are ineligible to become administrators of the civic body and disqualifies them as a class from seeking election to the civic body, such a policy, in our view, can neither be said to create a class based on unintelligible criteria,”
Under Articles 40 and 246(3), the Constitution grants powers to the states to make laws to enable the functioning of self-government units.
Criticism: “The intent is right but other scenarios, other factors also need to be looked into,”. Wisdom plays a greater role than education at local governance level, especially villages. Even in toilet construction, the problematic area is governance. There needs to be more reforms before such strict minimum qualifications are put in place.
If people are not educated, then its not their fault but it shows state’s failure to implement DPSP in true spirit.
If people in rural areas are indebted, then its not their personal choice or individual preferences but its a structural problem as crop failure, deficient monsoon, disaster in form of excessive rains, drought etc can bring any one under indebtedness category.
Many experts including noted civil rights activist Aruna Roy have argued that such a move by the states will “punish” those already discriminated against, by not allowing them a chance to contest elections and influence decision-making.
State legislative assemblies and even Parliament are filled with members lacking basic education. Hence, if such a filter based on minimum education qualification were to be introduced at higher levels of government, a large number of members would be staring at disqualification and being barred from re-election.