One of the first decisions of the newly elected government in Rajasthan has been to scrap the minimum educational qualification criteria for candidates contesting local body elections.

Background –

  • This reverses the amendments introduced by the previous government in 2015 which required candidates contesting the zila parishad and panchayat samiti elections to have passed Class 10 and those contesting sarpanch elections to have passed Class 8.
  • Further, it disallowed those without functional toilets in their home to contest. Following this, Haryana also introduced similar restrictions for contesting local body elections.
  • The decisions by the Rajasthan and Haryana governments were widely criticised and also challenged in the courts. However, in December 2015, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Rajbala v. State of Haryana upheld the validity of the amendments to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act.
  • In a contentious judgment authored by Justice J. Chelameswar, the court held that prescription of educational qualification was justifiable for better administration and did not violate the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution.

Arguments against the restrictions –

Prescribing educational qualifications for contesting elections is problematic in multiple ways.

  1. Fundamentally, it unduly restricts a citizen’s right to contest elections and thereby challenges the basic premise of a republican democracy.
  2. Denying the right to contest effectively restricts the right of a citizen to vote for a candidate of her choice since more than half the population is restricted from contesting.
  3. Further, it disproportionately disenfranchises the more marginal sections of society: women, Dalits and poor
  4. In a country like India with unequal access to education, it is cruel to blame citizens for the failure of the state to fulfil its constitutional obligations.

Arguments in favour of restrictions –

In Rajbala v/s Sate of Haryana case, the court held that prescription of educational qualification is relevant for “better administration of the panchayats”. But it reveals an underlying assumption that State governments and courts place a premium on administration over representation in case of local governments.

Where does the problem lie?

  • The approach over good administration over representation goes against the very objective of the 73rd and 74th Amendments that sought to make panchayats and municipalities representative institutions with adequate representation from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women. 
  • Though local governments now have a definite space within India’s constitutional structure, they are still seen as administrative vessels for implementing programmes of the Central and State governments.
  • The disqualification of candidates who don’t have toilets in their home or defecate in open is clearly an example where the implementation of a Central programme like the Swachh Bharat Mission gets precedence over the need for representative government.

Conclusion –

The lack of alarm caused by the denial of local democracy reveals our collective bias regarding the place of local governments. Delaying elections and adding restrictions to contest prevent local governments from becoming truly representative institutions.

SourceThe Hindu