With the passage of Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Amendment Bill 2015 in March this year, Rajasthan became the first state to insist that candidates for the panchayat polls meet minimum educational qualifications. The minimum qualification required was Class VIII for sarpanches, Class X for the zila parishad and panchayati samiti elections and Class V in tribal reserved areas.
- Amid criticisms, the state government went ahead and conducted elections. However, results of the elections were quite surprising. Two hundred and sixty sarpanches were elected unopposed, compared to 35 in 2010. Among regular panchayat members, 46% were elected unopposed. And the elections were dominated by men.
- The unopposed election of candidates at the most basic grassroots level in such large numbers would be worrying in any democracy. According to experts, such policies defeat the basic purpose of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act.
Following the footsteps of Rajasthan, even Haryana government made functional education—matriculation for all, except for women and Dalit men (Class VII) and Dalit women (Class V)—preconditions for contesting the panchayat polls.
- It should be noted here that these new requirements have disenfranchised 68% of Dalit women and over 50% of all women from contesting panchayat elections in Haryana.
- And such policies are not suitable for states like Haryana. Haryana is a state with one of the country’s worst sex ratios (877 women for every 1,000 men, well below the national average of 940) and a female literacy rate of 66, just above the national average of 65.
How such policies are creating gender imbalance in the country?
- Women in public life in India at all levels face systemic violence and discrimination. For many girls in India, school is a struggle and they battle unimaginable odds for the right to study: lack of infrastructure, general lawlessness, mindset of parents etc. Thus, it appears that being educated or not is not their choice, it’s made for them by society.
- Such policies also make panchayat seats open to very few women from the elite section of the society, often with political backing acting as proxy candidates for men in the family. Ultimately, this will lead to unequal representation.
- In rural areas of India, the literacy rate of women is only 45.8%— in tribal areas it is 25.22%— as opposed to the corresponding male literacy rate of 76.16%. The law therefore excludes the majority of potential women contestants. Thus, the educational qualification norms, on top of the existing massive inequality in literacy rates, will reduce women’s participation in politics.
Minimum education criteria also penalize an older generation of women and prevent them from seeking a measure of empowerment and change through elections. The panchayat election is the entry point for women into political sphere. Shutting the doors for most of them will endure far greater repercussion in women representation at higher level.
Constitution and Gender Balance:
- Gender equality is embedded in constitutional provisions, including substantive equality where the states are also empowered to make special provisions for women in order to undo the historical disadvantageous position of women.
- The 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Constitution in 1993 provided for reservation of seats in the Local Bodies of Panchayats and Municipalities for women, laying a strong foundation for their participation in decision-making at the local levels.
- But, policies creating ineligibility on the basis of education takes away the space created for women in political participation by the 73rd Amendment. This affects women and the marginalized more because of the stark contrast in which women are positioned at the receiving ends of access to education and other basic needs.
- The measure also excludes some women from the possibility of exercising their political right to contest elections thereby defeating the very purpose of reservation of seats for women in the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act.
According to the Supreme Court, a minimum education qualification would enable more effective discharging of various functions that panchayat members are expected to fulfil. It is true that education is a desirable qualification for politicians and, for that matter, citizens. But, according to experts, such experiments in India should begin with a top-down approach, starting from Parliament and the assemblies. The 1 million women in panchayats and the 80,000 women pradhans have earned their stripes. It’s time to reward, not penalize them with such policies.