Last Thursday, on 10 December 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed a batch of petitions that challenged the constitutional validity of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015. Taking a cue from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, the Haryana government had passed an act that prescribed minimum educational qualifications as one of the essential requirements for contesting panchayati polls. The apex court acknowledged that the minimum education criteria may disqualify a significant section of the population from contesting, but defended the decision, stating that only education can give a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad.
On Saturday, 12 December, I visited Jhunjhunu, which falls on the eastern edge of Rajasthan that touches Haryana, to observe the effects of a similar ordinance passed a year ago—the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act—since the last civic body elections. With a literacy rate of 74 percent, Jhunjhunu is one of the most literate districts in Rajasthan, and one where, I thought, that the impact of the ordinance would be most visible.
The village of Kakoda is like most others in the Jhunjhunu district: flat and brown. Men sit at roundabouts, in the shade of old trees; playing cards, smoking bidis, reading newspapers and lounging on string cots. The educational requirements of the ordinance had barred the unlettered wife of Satbeer Singh, the erstwhile sarpanch of the village, from contesting, and aided the victory of Mamta Daila—a Master of Arts graduate. Daila is also the first woman to be elected sarpanch of the village.
In this flat landscape, the instructions to reach Daila’s house were easy to follow: “cross the [mobile] tower, and her house is the one after the speed-breaker.” I reached the house to find a woman stooped over a pile of laundry on the porch. “Is this the house of Mamta Daila?” I inquired, tentatively. “I am Mamta,” the woman said, picking a scarf from the pile to cover her head.
She removed the rest of the pile from a plastic chair, to offer it to me, and got herself another from inside. Before sitting down, she asked if I wanted her to call her father-in-law, Satbeer Daila, who I would learn was the de facto sarpanch. Satbeer had never gone to school, but he still goes to the panchayat. People I later met in the village identified him as the sarpanch, conceding, “the name in the papers though is his daughter-in-law’s.” I assured Daila that it was her that I wanted to speak with. Still hesitant to sit down, she asked if I wanted tea. I refused, and she finally sat down to talk to me.
She goes to the panchayat, she told me, “occasionally to do some paperwork…signatures and all.” After completing college, she had wanted to become a teacher, “but somehow got married” and became the sarpanch because she “did not have a choice.” “What do you want to do?” I asked. “You tell me,” she said, a faint smile flickering across her face. “What should I do?”
Daila’s was not a unique story. In the nearby village of Ureeka, I found a similar tale. Everyone I asked named “Vedpal Tholia” the sarpanch. “Vedpal had contested the elections earlier as well, but got lucky this time because the post was reserved for women,” a man sitting in front of a cement shop informed me. Tholia, of course, is not a woman; but he doesn’t let that fact bother him. He rules in the name of his daughter-in-law; he too, like Satbeer, is the de facto sarpanch of his village. The man in front of the cement shop couldn’t even remember the actual sarpanch’s name, nor could a man sitting beside him. Suman Tholia, like Daila, is also a graduate, and though I couldn’t meet her, I was told “she stays at home.”
Researchers and activists who have worked in Rajasthan have raised concerns about the effect of the ordinance ever since it was promulgated. While the issue of proxy candidates effectively nullifies the ordinance, their concerns relate to the direct impact of the ordinance. Rohini Pande, a public policy professor at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who has done research on the gram panchayats of Rajasthan, wrote in a New York Times article that the ordinance would cripple one of the key characteristics of a representative democracy: anyone’s ability to run for election, without regard to income, gender or social status.
Among Indian states, Rajasthan, with a 66 percent literacy rate, is only slightly ahead of Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar. But it also has a wider gap between male and female literacy than both these states—only 52 percent of the women here are literate, compared to 79 percent of the men. In effect, the ordinance bars about half the women in the state from contesting elections.
This was evident in the elections last year. Thirteen villages could not elect a sarpanch because there was simply no candidate who has been formally educated. In Bhadu village near Bhilwara, one of the least literate districts in the state, the seat was reserved for women. But apparently not a single woman in the village had passed the fifth standard. Moreover, 64 elected village heads had used fake passing certificates to contest the elections. All of them were arrested. The additional director general of police, PK Singh, told the media, “The number of such elected representatives could be more as action was taken against only those against whom complaints were received.” The election commission responded to this stating that there was no mechanism to verify the authenticity of the documentation provided by the candidates.
Defending the ordinance, Kailash Nath Bhatt, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson in Rajasthan, had argued that the new policy would help curb corruption at the lowest link of the administrative chain. “The [central government] is spending crores of money on panchayats and this goes directly to the sarpanch. There are thousands of pending cases of fund embezzlement against these elected representatives in the state,” Bhatt had told the Indian Express, adding, “and the standard excuse is that ‘I am illiterate and put my thumb impression on whatever papers were given to me.’”
In Surajgarh, a city in Jhunjhunu, the seat of the municipality’s chairman was reserved for Scheduled Tribe candidates. The municipality itself, I was told, underwent a generational shift in the last election. “[Those in the new administration] are all very young, some not even older than you,” Ramkishan Kumawat told me. Kumawat rents out construction equipment in Surajgarh, and had just finished reading the newspaper when I met him. I asked him what he thought of the ordinance and its effect on Surajgarh. He said that administratively, nothing had changed. “They are all new, they are learning. It will probably reap some fruit later—because of the policy, maybe more people will start sending their kids to school.”
“An educated sarpanch is always going to be better for the village than a person who can’t even hold a pen,” said Vikas Gareva, a 30-year-old with spiky hair. He sat cross-legged on a stool sipping tea at a roadside tea stall in Pilod—the village closest to the Haryana border. Pilod’s last sarpanch, Mahesh Sharma, couldn’t contest this year because he never went to school. The new sarpanch, Chiranjilal Sharma, “knows how to sign his name,” the owner of the tea stall told me. “Have you noticed a difference in the way things are running?” I asked. He stood up, went the stove, and started stirring the pot. “Yes, the new guy carries a pen in his pocket,” he said. The four men sitting around me all chuckled, and sipped tea.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.