Using State Ordinance to Thwart the 73rd Amendment

Rajasthan government’s ordinance introducing minimum education criteria for panchayat polls is unprecedented and unacceptable Sachin Pilot and K Raju Published in The Indian Express

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Days before the model code of conduct goes into effect for Panchayat Polls in Rajasthan, the BJP-led Rajasthan Government sprang a nasty surprise. The Governor promulgated The Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 which stipulates minimum education qualification of secondary education (Class 10) for candidates contesting Zila Parishad or Panchayat Samiti polls and Class 8 pass to be eligible to contest Sarpanch elections. This ordinance is discriminatory, violative of Constitutional right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 and – coming as it does just before Panchayat polls – highly disruptive for all candidates and political parties. The Ordinance raises multiple issues, which bear discussion. First, an Ordinance of this import was promulgated without any consultation or dialogue with political parties or civil society, many of whom have expressed severe opposition. Political parties including the principal Opposition – Congress Party, dalit and mahila civil society organizations, sarpanch sangathans have all criticized the Government’s move. It is perhaps in anticipation of this opposition that the Rajasthan Government timed the Ordinance just before the Panchayat polls while the Courts are on vacation. The ordinance is especially ill advised given Rajasthan’s low literacy rate. As per the 2011 Census, literacy rate in Rajasthan is 66 percent (lower than the national average of 74 percent). Rural literacy rate is even lower at 61 percent with only 45.8 percent literate women in rural Rajasthan. Literacy rates for rural SCs are even lower – with less than 50 percent rural SCs literate and 31 percent rural SC women literate as per 2001 Census. The numbers who will qualify to contest Panchayat polls will be even lower since “literacy” as defined in Census operations, is the ability to read and write with understanding – not formal education or minimum educational standards. It is evident that the ordinance will disenfranchise lakhs in rural Rajasthan, with women and Dalits and the poor from all communities, being hit especially hard. The purpose of the 73rd amendment with reservation for marginalized groups was to deepen their participation in democracy – this ordinance actively ensures the opposite by arbitrarily excluding large numbers from the same groups. A look at the 2010 Panchayat Polls in Rajasthan reveals the extent of exclusion: of the 5273 Panchayat Samiti elected representatives, 3717 do not meet the education standards set by this ordinance; likewise of the 1013 Zila Parishad wards, 558 elected representatives would be disqualified. The situation with Sarpanches will likely be worse. This ordinance will nullify the political careers of this entire lot in one shot. Many of these representatives have worked very hard and assiduously to build their political capital, such as some Dalit and women Sarpanches who have won elections even after their seats were unreserved in the next round of elections. It is notable that no other state has stipulated minimum educational qualifications to contest Panchayat polls. There are also no such stipulation to contest elections for higher offices of MLA/MPs. In fact, if similar stipulations were required of MLAs, 23 BJP MLAs in the current Vidhaan Sabha will be disqualified for being below 10th pass. In addition, 2 BJP MPs from Rajasthan have educational qualification below 10th pass. This is absurd given that the primary role of an MLA/MP is legislative while the role of PRI representatives is more tactical and less contingent on attainment of any educational standards. It is thus difficult to understand why such criteria should be mandated for candidates contesting Panchayat polls. Experience shows that educational qualifications alone are not a judge of an elected representative’s effectiveness or ability to perform his/her job and serve his/her constituents. In any case, the decision about the candidate’s suitability is best left to the electorate rather than being subjected to arbitrary and exclusionary standards. The BJP Government has justified its decision by arguing that Sarpanches are the main executive agency for Panchayat and Rural Development works, and that there are large number of cases of corruption, embezzlement, and forgery against Panchayat representatives who often defend themselves by saying they did not know the rules/schemes. This is a genuine concern; however, the BJP Government, instead of concentrating on ensuring a minimum level of education for all in Rajasthan by concentrating on educating the SC/ ST and other poor of the State, is in effect punishing them (incidentally the Government has closed 17000 Government schools across the state directly causing the most marginalized students to drop out). Furthermore, the Government has advanced no evidence that the bulk of defalcation has happened where the elected representative’s education is below 8/10th standard. One could argue that a highly educated Sarpanch would be even more adept at defalcation than a less educated one. These are both absurd conclusions. Corruption in Panchayat works is an outcome of intent – and distribution of power and awareness in the rural populace. The ends of social justice and implementation of Government programs would be better served if the Government focused on improving awareness and increased mechanisms for transparency and accountability rather than looking to these shortsighted and hastily introduced measures. The Congress Party has been instrumental in ensuring the right of Dalits and women to participate in Panchayat polls and we strongly urge the State Government to withdraw this ill-advised and discriminatory ordinance immediately. Aruna Roy’s interview in TOI on Rajasthan Panchayat Ordinance Open Letter to Vasundhara Raje on Rajasthan PR Ordinance

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