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No school for scandal

In the 1990s, a number of States amended panchayat laws. One could no longer run for office if one had more than two children. Human rights groups and women's organisations protested against the move at the time, warning that it would have bizarre consequences. Now, this has come true in Kondapur village of Mahbubnagar district. Here, a sarpanch seeking to evade this law, has kept his three children out of school a long time, says P. SAINATH.

Hard reality ... the dalit wedding in Kondapur village, Mahbubnagar, that was held outside a temple.

Kondapur, Mahbubnagar district (ANDHRA PRADESH)

HE'S a sarpanch who has not merely failed to send his children to school. He's actively prevented them from going anywhere near a place by that name. Karumannah says he's tutoring them at home. He's fighting a case in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, no doubt curious, over his eligibility to hold office. He refers to judgments of the Rajasthan High Court to explain his stand. Never mind that he knows little about the content of those.

It's all connected. And you can blame it all — or most of it — on the much criticised law introduced in the 1990s. The law that several States brought in at the panchayat level. The one that says you cannot run for office if you have more than two children. Women's organisations attacked the law at that time as being anti-women. They pointed out that in our families, a woman does not have a say in how many children she will have. She could be forced to have as many children as it takes to produce a male heir. She would then be ineligible to contest panchayat polls for no fault of hers

M. Karumannah shows that it could also devastate the lives of school-going children. It could deny them any kind of a future. In order to evade the law, he stopped sending his children to school. "Because then there would be a record of their being there," he says. He did not want to risk having it on record that there were three of them. So, Karumannah just kept them — - two sons and a daughter — out of school. Since he had nurtured the ambition of occupying office from the mid-1990s, when the law came into effect, the damage had been done. The children, aged 11, 8 and 7 years never had a chance. Their father, however, did. Those actions ensured that he was elected sarpanch of Kondapur village in Dhanvada mandal.

The children are kept out of sight while we talk to Karumannah. It appears they could be a bit older than he says they are. He admits to having pulled off his little scam.

"When the people have elected me," he asks with hard logic, "why should it matter if I have three and not two children?" He argues that since the locals knew this anyway and still voted for him, the matter should have ended there.

It didn't. His rivals dragged him to an election tribunal that held his victory as being void. He denies none of this. But he has taken his case to the High Court of Andhra Pradesh and continues to function in the meantime as sarpanch. He talks of a judgment of the Rajasthan High Court which he believes favours him. He doesn't have the details of it though.

His activism on his home front is less vigorous. The children are still not going to school. Maybe because the sarpanch has not firmly decided on his line of defence. "Karumannah! Must the children grow up without a day in school while your case winds its way through years in court?"

"Not at all," he answers cheerfully. "By the time it really comes up in court, my term as sarpanch will be over." That's two years from now, so he has got his share of it worked out. Even if it is at the cost of his children. He being the sarpanch, the example it sets is serious.

Karumannah is a dalit and this is a reserved seat. Yet, some in his community of Madigas accuse him of being dependent on and controlled by the Reddys of the village. A charge he denies. One suggestion is that the Reddys advised him on the novel poll strategy that has landed him in the courts. Karumannah is not well off. "My family of seven lives off two acres of (degraded forest) land," he says.

While we are speaking to him, a dalit wedding is on in the same colony. It's an interesting spectacle on two counts. One, it's being held just outside the locked gates of the temple. Two, it is being conducted by a woman priest, a traditional dalit dasari, Venkatamma. Being dalit, the wedding party is not allowed to enter the temple and "pollute" it. Now this Hanuman temple is in a Scheduled Caste colony and the upper castes wouldn't dream of conducting their own weddings within that shrine. However, they will not allow the dalits to do so either. (Karumannah knows this is happening but is not galvanised into action by it.) Even after the marriage ceremony, the dalits have to make their offering from outside the grill gates. The brahmin poojari has vanished. He is not missed much, except that he has the keys. The priestess conducts the show with practised ease. (Still, rubbing in the hold of caste within the dalits themselves, she wants it known that she is a Mala Dasari. As against being a Madiga, which is the main dalit community here.)

... and a second dalit wedding in Vepur village ... outside another temple.

"They will never let us inside that temple," says Venkappa, father of the bridegroom. "We don't even ask anymore," says Balappa, an uncle of the bride. "We once did have a temple entry movement, a couple of years ago," says young Chennaiah, a guest. "And we did get into the temple. Then came the backlash. Even the Dasari's son was beaten up. And they brought five brahmins here to do a yagna or havan to `clean up' the temple because we had entered the premises. So now you know why the weddings are held this way." Later, a similar scene was enacted at Vepur village where we stayed the night. But Karumannah has too much on his mind to even dream of intervening. The notorious "two-glass" system still goes on in some teashops of his village. That doesn't grab his attention, either. Bhagyamma and her husband, Balakishta Goud, run a shop where they serve dalits tea in plastic cups and everyone else in glasses. "You want to drink it, you drink it. Otherwise go," Bhagyamma told us pointedly. She began by half-heartedly denying the practice. Now she's quite aggressive about it.

Where we are talking to Karumannah, though, the "hotel" run by Saranamma, also a non-dalit, is quite different. "We are from Karnataka. We use one glass for all castes," she tells us. And quite clearly, practises it, too. She is a Lingayyat. "Everybody's money is the same." She admits it wasn't always so. Till a few years ago, the two-glass system was practised in her teashop too.

"But the older generation which believed in that is all gone," she says. Yet, there were other factors, too. "We came and asked that it stop," says Saiulu, a dalit here. Pressure from the community did its bit. Commerce, too, chipped in. Bhagyamma's teashop is patronised mainly by the upper castes. Saranamma's customers are mostly dalits.

The diversion in the debate gives Karumannah a chance to slip out. "I have an important phone call waiting for me," he says. How he got to know of it while sitting with us is a mystery. "He was getting worried that he had admitted to too much," say the others, laughing as he vanishes. "Don't forget he's got a case to fight."

And while Karumannah goes to court, his children don't go to school. So is it the law that's an ass? Or Karumannah? Or both?

Many children in this backward district cannot go to school even though their parents would like them to. Poverty and migration ruin their chances. Karumannah's young ones are different. They are the sarpanch's children. They have access and could well be sitting in the classrooms where they belong. Only their father — and the law he's dodging — stand in their way.

... the wedding was conducted by a traditional dalit woman priest, or dasari (extreme right).

It's a situation Andhra Pradesh, among other States, has been asking for. A.P. went further than most in putting forth the two-child norm. It set out a mind-boggling list of disincentives for those not falling in line. In a perceptive piece in Frontline magazine late last year, Prof. Mohan Rao of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) suggested that bizarre outcomes were built into these policies.

He pointed out that they were tied to just about everything. "Educational concessions, subsidies and promotions in, as well as recruitment to, government jobs are to be restricted to those who accept the small family norm." Rao listed a number of other such ideas of the A.P. Government, too. All aimed at foisting the two-child norm with scant regard for possible consequences. An outcome can be seen in Kondapur today.

Others, too, had foreseen absurd outcomes. Some as early as six years ago — perhaps just before Karumannah stopped sending his children to school. As early as 1997, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) saw the way the law was working. In one case that AIDWA found that in Haryana, the elected panchayat member was a woman with two daughters. Her husband wanted a male heir. "She was faced with this choice: Either resign, or be thrown out of the house if she refused to agree to a third child which could be a son." In another case in the same State, a panchayat member had a third child after getting elected. He was disqualified. He challenged this, as AIDWA pointed out, by saying "that the child was not his and that his wife was having an illicit relationship."

The law in any case had little to do with panchayats. It was aimed more at coercive population control. The protests against this even reached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). In 2002, it sent notices to five State governments on their population policies — to which these laws are linked. Yet, they are still in force.

While we can debate a law that was a bad idea in the first place, three young children — perfectly capable of going to school are not doing so. And this, in a district which is at the bottom of the heap in education and literacy in Andhra Pradesh.

P.Sainath is an award winning writer who looks at development issues.

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