Educational qualifications for contesting panchayat elections

Reacting to the ruling of the Supreme Court that upholds the decision of the State of Haryana to allow only persons with certain minimum educational qualifications to contest panchayat elections. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has said:

“We need to distinguish between what our objectives are and what is the state of the country… It does not mean that everybody should be literate and have a toilet in their homes and till that happens, we deny the people their privileges… “We do not have to deprive the people who are already deprived and take away what is their privilege.”

At the heart of this issue is our understanding of the democratic process.

Democracy means rule by the people – all the people, irrespective of their caste, bank balance, gender or certificates. The Constitution gives every citizen aged 18 years or older the right to vote and the right to vote contains to the right to stand for election.

What would happen if right to stand for election were curtailed by educational qualifications?

Literacy rates vary between states and between rural and urban areas within a state.

Gender inequality is also reflected in literacy statistics. Throughout India, men have higher literacy rate than women.

Literacy rate is tied to economic status. A labourer is much more likely to be illiterate than a salaried employee and the higher one goes up the economic ladder the higher the individual’s educational attainments are likely to be.

Haryana’s panchayat polls are scheduled to be held in January, 2016, and on the face of it, the prescribed miminum educational qualifications do not sound too harsh:

Male candidates must have a minimum qualification of matriculation (Class 10) while middle pass (Class 8) qualification is the minimum for women candidates and male Scheduled Caste candidates and women Scheduled Caste candidates need to be at least class 5 pass.

But once we accept that the right to stand in election can be restricted by educational qualifications where is the guarantee that the state will not set the bar higher in future and add more and more restrictions until at last only a small elite is eligible?

A study conducted some years ago in Punjab revealed that less than 5 per cent of all students enrolled in Punjab Universities hail from rural Punjab. More than 65 per cent of Punjab’s population lives in rural areas. Let’s look at the reasons why should so few rural students go on to universities.

Compared to urban young people, fewer young people in rural Punjab are eligible to seek admission in institutions of higher education. Punjab in general has the highest rate of school dropouts in the region. The number of dropouts is between 48 and 44 per cent in the higher classes and between 25 and 23 per cent in the primary classes. The drop-out rate from rural schools is significantly higher than that of urban schools. A very small number of rural students are able to pass entrance tests and of this small number an even smaller number can afford to live away from home. Frustration runs high among Punjab’s rural youth and this is reflected in the phenomenal rise in the suicide rate in rural Punjab.

The state of Punjab spends very little on rural education and every year the percentage-wise allocation for rural education gets smaller. In rural areas, most children from ordinary families go to government schools and here the quality of education is very poor. Both infrastructure and staffing is pathetic. Some schools have only one teacher to manage all classes. The most recent ASRA study found that only 50 per cent of rural students in standard V could read the texts of standard II.

If Punjab were to impose educational qualifications for contesting panchayat elections it would be the height of injustice. A state cannot deny education to people and then turn around and tell them that they may not contest an election because they are uneducated. The same goes for all the states.

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