The much-debated poll reforms for panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) in Haryana that have made educational qualification mandatory for poll contestants promise to bring far-reaching changes in grassroots democracy in the state.
The new criterion, upheld by the Supreme Court, has the potential to change the complexion of panchayats and transform their functioning. The outcome of the electoral results for the posts of over 6,000 sarpanches after the completion of the third and final phase of voting on Sunday bears testimony to the fact that younger and better educated candidates have made it to the top this time. This poll also suggests to the growing role of educated women as over 2,500 women were elected sarpanches despite the fact that there were only 2,097 seats reserved for them.
Sample this: The average age of elected sarpanch has come down to 36 as against 43 in the 2010 panchayat elections and the number of matriculates has gone up from 28.8% in 2010 to 59.7% this time. Also, there has been a marginal increase in the number of graduates and postgraduates — 12.8 % this time as compared to 10.9% in 2010 — getting elected to the post of sarpanch.
While there were only 33% seats reserved for the post of woman sarpanch, they accounted for about 42% of the elected sarpanches, indicating their growing role in grassroots democracy.
A case in point is the newly elected woman sarpanch of Ajaib Khas in Meham block of Rohtak, Manisha Nain. A student of MA (economics), Manisha would not have dreamt of entering the poll arena had her mother not been rendered ineligible to contest due to the educational qualification criterion. “My mother, Naresh Nain, was interested in contesting the panchayat polls, but after the Haryana government imposed the education criterion, villagers convinced me to enter into the fray,” she said.
In the socio-economically backward Meo-Muslim district of Mewat, women candidates sprung a major surprise by wresting 24 unreserved seats of sarpanch. Also the average age of elected woman sarpanches in Mewat district is 26 as against 32, the state-wide average for elected woman sarpanches.
However, many of these elected women may turn out to be proxy candidates for their fathers and spouses. “It is a fact that education levels have gone up in Mewat in the past 10-15 years. There might be some proxy woman candidates, but there will also be cases where an educated woman sarpanch refuses to get influenced by her illiterate spouse,’’ said an officer, who served in Mewat.
AMENDMENT AND ITS JOURNEY
The Haryana state assembly, on September 7, 2015, amended the Haryana Panchayat Raj Act to include certain stipulations, such as minimum educational qualification, for people aspiring to contest in the panchayati raj institution elections.
The controversial Haryana amendment bill, which replaced an ordinance promulgated by the state government in August, stipulated matriculation as minimum education for general category contestants, Class 8 for women and scheduled caste candidates and class 5 for scheduled caste women contesting for the post of panch.
The amended law said that persons against whom a court has framed charges for grave criminal offences punishable by not less than 10 years of imprisonment will not be allowed to contest the PRI elections till they are acquitted by the court.
Also as per the amended law, only those who have cleared their outstanding electricity bills (domestic rural connections only), are not defaulters of cooperative loans, and have a functional toilet at home will be able to contest the elections.
The amended law was challenged in the Supreme Court, which upheld it.
In their order, justice J Chelameswar and justice AM Sapre of the apex court said: “It is only education that 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 of panchayats.”
(With inputs from Bhaskar Mukherjee in Hisar and Neeraj Mohan in Rohtak)