Photo: Pramod Singh

Almost half of Haryana’s Nemkheda villagers in Mewat district will go unrepresented after the local body election, to be held early next year. The reason: the state government first and later the Supreme Court (SC) has decided that most of the villagers would not eligible for contesting the panchayat election any more. Their crime: these people are either illiterate or their houses do not have a functional toilet. Despite their purported ‘social backwardness’, this was the village which elected an all women gram panchayat in 2005.

With the Haryana Panchayat Raj (Amendment) Act 2015, which was upheld by the apex court recently, many of the serving members cannot run for the election. The amendment stipulates that the general candidates should have cleared class 10 with an exemption made to Dalits and women candidates. Women and male candidates belonging to Dalit communities should have cleared class 8 while Dalit women need to have passed class 5. Apart from this, those who owe money to banks are also not entitled to contest. Haryana is the second state, after Rajasthan to discriminate people on the basis of their social status. Though it is being trumpeted as a precursor to good governance, this move has the potential to push the marginalised sections further from finding a solid footing in mainstream discussions.

The retrograde policy will seriously affect the already disadvantaged by denying them representation at the basic foundation of democracy. It must be noted that no educational qualifications are prescribed for lawmakers and legislators. The main problem with the amendments and the sc judgment is that both conflate the representative and administrative role of a panchayat member. It misconstrues their functions as that of an administrator, ignoring the important factor of representation, which definitely influences the course of administration. To penalise people for being illiterate is like punishing the people for the sins of the State, because it is the duty of the State to change the socio-economic condition that perpetuates illiteracy.

The callousness of the State can be seen in its approach towards those who do not have toilets. As in the case of the literacy, the government and the top court seems to place the burden on the citizen rather than on the State. The new mandate reeks of class bias which will undermine the true democraticnature of our polity. Hence before more states are inclined to come up with such discriminatory laws, political parties and civil societies must join hands to protect the democratic content of the local bodies.