In a landmark decision that will serve as a precedent to prevent illiterate persons from participating in grassroots democracy, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Haryana State law stipulating that only those who have minimum educational qualification among other criteria will be eligible to contest Panchayat elections in the State. The order will deprive an overwhelming majority to participate in grass-root level polls. The new state law mandates minimum educational qualifications, 10th pass for men, 8th pass for women, and 5th pass for Scheduled Castes for candidates in Panchayat polls. Suffice to say, this piece of legislation is biased against the rural poor because access to formal education is a consequence of their socio-economic status. Beside economics, there is an element of gender discrimination involved in the denial of education, especially in a state like Haryana, where rural women are subject to harsh patriarchal diktats. According to a writ petition that had challenged the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015, 83.06 percent of rural women above 20 years of age in the state will be disqualified from contesting panchayat polls, since they do not possess the requisite educational qualification.
The right to vote and the right to contest elections are two sides of the same coin, unless the state can prove how a lack of “literacy” plays a demonstrable role in negatively affecting the democratic process. For example, the law that prohibits those convicted of a crime from contesting elections is based on the rationale articulated by the Parliament that such elements negatively impact the democratic process. However, the law passed by the Haryana Assembly has not demonstrated how a lack of literacy creates negative outcomes for the democratic process. Unfortunately, the law passed by the Haryana Assembly does not stop at minimum educational qualifications alone.
Other disqualifications prescribed include non-payment of arrears of agricultural loans, electricity bills and failure to possess a toilet in the candidate’s residential premises. A large section of state works in the agriculture sector. It is a well-documented fact that farmers from the state have borne the brunt of the agricultural crisis sweeping across the country. Therefore, they seek cheap loans from rural banks to sustain their livelihood. Moreover, a farmer’s inability to pay loans in this country is usually contingent on factors beyond his control, such as erratic monsoons.