The Supreme Court’s new Rajbala judgement regarding Haryana’s Panchayat election candidates’ qualifications is as undemocratic and classist as it is terrifying. Threatening to the very nature of universal adult franchise–the cornerstone of democracy.
Haryana’s BJP-led Manohar Lal Khattar’s government, in a law introduced in Rajbala this year, sought to amend the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994. Calling for five new disqualifications for those who seek to contest panchayat elections, this new amendment was passed on September 7, 2015, and consequently challenged in court.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court (SC) upheld the constitutional validity of the law with Justice J Chelameswar and Justice AM Sapre on the bench. The amendment that they passed had the following disqualifications for panchayat elections candidates:
First, against whom charges are framed in criminal cases for offences punishable with imprisonment for not less than 10 years. Second, who fail to pay arrears, if any, owed by them to either a primary agricultural cooperative society or district central cooperative bank or district primary agricultural rural development bank. Third, who have arrears of electricity bills. Fourth, who do not possess the specified educational qualification (10th standard pass for men, 8th for women, and 5th for scheduled castes). And finally, not having a functional toilet at their place of residence.
While several of amendments were justified by Chief Minister Khattar, such as the educational qualification one, ‘because if a sarpanch of a village is illiterate, how can he use the budget worth lakhs of rupees.’ The court even stated that education is required for distinguishing between right and wrong, and good and bad. It’s important to note that ‘education’, as per the Haryana government and Supreme Court, refers to formal school education. Looking at Haryana’s current sarpanches and panches, based on their current level of education and literacy, 70 percent of the panches and 50 percent of the sarpanches will be ineligible to re-contest the elections. It’s also important to note that these conditions apply purely to panchayat election candidates, and not MLAs or MPs.
As for the disqualification on the basis of ‘not having a functional toilet at their place of residence’, the government and SC fail to take into account that 29 percent of households in rural areas have no permanent residence, so a functional toilet is out of the question. While we can pull out statistic after statistic proving how many sections of society are disqualified on the basis of this ‘functional toilet’ stipulation, pointing to the severely lacking sanitation in several parts of the state, this provision is both statistically and ethically flawed. Ethically, because it puts the responsibility and onus of sanitation facilities on the citizen, whereas it is the state’s duty to provide for the same to sections of society below the poverty line–which it has failed to do effectively.
The SC’s judgement to uphold these amendments to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act, 1994 comes as a blow to democracy, and constitutional rights of people across the state. It calls into question how casteist, classist and discriminatory the government today stands, wherein it legally disqualifies large sections of Haryana’s population from panchayat elections–sections that are already riddled with poverty and indebtedness, and which ensures that they cannot even take matters into their own hands by standing for elections, and thereby standing up for others like them.
As Venkatesh Nayak, senior activist of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, summarised, “Thanks to this judgment, the very poor, unlettered, the indebted and the underprivileged are being ‘cleaned out’ of the political scene in Haryana.”
Words: Rhea Almeida