Imagine, just for a moment, that the new panchayat law upheld by the Supreme Court on December 11, 2015 was for Uttar Pradesh, not Haryana. What would have happened then?
After the results of the gram panchayat elections were announced on December 14, 2015, the election commission said that the new government is one of women and the young. Women have won around 44 per cent of the pradhan seats – young and old, educated and uneducated, puppet candidates and independent women. Was it possible, then, for the impressive show if UP had passed this new law?
Under the new panchayat law, in Haryana, minimum qualifications have been imposed on the contestants. Men who wish to contest should have passed matriculation; women should have passed class 8; and SC candidates should have passed class 5. All candidates should have a toilet in their homes. Farmers should have no outstanding debts. With these restrictions, how many candidates in UP would have made the cut? Like Rajasthan, which passed the law earlier, UP would have had scores and scores of head-less villages. Which farmer would have been eligible, when 80 per cent of Bundelkhand’s farmers are under debt and unable to pay back their loans?
In the last two-three months of the panchayat elections, Khabar Lahariya has followed the campaigns of a wide field of candidates – men and women, incumbent and challengers, Dalit and minorities, victims of violence and perpetrators. One of our important takeaways from the coverage is the political standing of women candidates. More often than not, we have found and reported that women candidates/winners remain as proxies or puppets for the men of their families. These women may be educated or not, articulate or not, behind the veil or not, but the political clout continues to be wielded by men.
For women, who choose to strike out on their own, run their own campaigns designed around themselves, Khabar Lahariya found that there were few takers among the voters. Take Sushila Devi for instance. A Dalit, 29, unmarried, and educated with post graduate qualifications, Sushila Devi’s campaign was marred with personal attacks. People tore up her posters, spat at her speeches, and questioned her ability to take responsibility. That she is a well-educated woman, who could read, write, and pass government files, did not matter.
The real question is does education translate into better governance? If a Class 8 pass today from a government school in UP cannot add numbers, read or write in English, what good is that qualification?
The other major drawback of this new panchayat law is that it is anti-Dalit, anti-minorities, and anti-poor. The changes that this new law proposes would have been felt most deeply in UP by its Dalits, who have lesser access to education, to building toilets, to paying off their loans. In Khabar Lahariya’s reports, we have often talked about the systemic attacks Dalit candidates have faced when contesting polls, the most recent one being Dalit woman candidate Kamla Devi’s case in Banda district, where she and her family were forced to flee the village. To have such criteria in the law is to exclude them from democracy altogether.
What the Supreme Court has done is put the onus of accessing education and building better, richer lives on the individual, giving yet another opportunity to the State to abdicate its duties. Better you Haryana, than us.