Supreme Court upholds Haryana panchayat law

It disqualifies illiterate people from contesting polls.

December 10, 2015 12:19 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST - New Delhi

In what may be a precedent preventing illiterate persons from participating in grass roots democracy, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Haryana State law mandating that only those having “minimum” educational qualifications will be eligible to contest panchayat elections in the State.

The other grounds for disqualification from contesting polls under the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 are failure to pay arrears to any primary agriculture co-operative society or agriculture co-operative banks, failure to pay electricity bill arrears and not having a functional toilet at home.

The “minimum” education required for eligibility to contest in a panchayat election is completion of matriculation in case of general candidates; completion of Class 8 for a woman candidate or a candidate belonging to Scheduled Caste; and completion of Class 5 pass for a Scheduled Caste woman candidate contesting for the post of ‘Panch’.

The law leaves 68 per cent of the Scheduled Caste women and 41 per cent of the Scheduled Caste men in Haryana ineligible to contest panchayat elections. The judgment may become a rallying point for other States also to amend their laws in the same fashion.

The verdict by a Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and Abhay Manohar Sapre agrees that the Haryana law creates “two classes of voters,” that is, “those who are qualified by virtue of their educational accomplishment to contest the elections to the panchayats and those who are not.”

But Justice Chelameswar, who authored the verdict, reasons there is nothing “irrational or illegal or unconnected” if the law prescribes minimum educational qualification for candidates. Simply put, the court feels that basic education would “enable the candidates to effectively discharge duties of the panchayat.”

“It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration ,” Justice Chelameswar reasoned.

The court completely agreed with Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi’s submissions during the hearings that the law was meant to elect “model representatives for local self government for better administrative efficiency.”

The apex court failed to find any merit in the argument of three women candidates, spurned by Haryana’s new poll law and who moved the Supreme Court, that “people do not choose to be illiterate.”

On making insolvency a disqualification, Justice Chelameswar agrees that rural India is reeling under agrarian debts and farmers are committing suicide to escape the debt trap.

But then the judgment points out how Haryana is “more prosperous” compared to other States. The court does not delve into statistics to make its point, saying such an exercise is irrelevant in deciding the constitutionality of making insolvency a cause of disqualification.

Justice Chelameswar then observes that the impoverished and the “indebted” may not be “genuinely interested” in contesting elections. Besides, the verdict points out, “elections at any level in this country are expensive affairs.”

“In such a case the possibility of a deeply indebted person seeking to contest elections should normally be rare as it would be beyond the economic capacity of such persons,” the judgment held.

As far as making default in payment of power bills, the Supreme Court merely says “we do not understand what could be the constitutional infirmity if the legislature declares people who are indebted to cooperative bodies or in arrears of electricity bills to be ineligible to become elected representatives of the people in panchayats.”

Justifying the Haryana’s decision to include functional toilets at home an eligibility criterion, Justice Chelameswar highlighted how open defecation is a “notorious fact” and a rampantly unhealthy practice in India. He narrates how Mahatma Gandhi tried his best to eradicate the practice with his writings and missionary zeal.

The apex court acknowledges that poverty may be one reason for open defecation still continuing in the country, but adds that this practice is not exclusive to the poor.

For example he said how out of 8.5 lakh families, who live below the poverty line in Haryana, 7.2 lakh have constructed toilets at home with financial help from the State government.

The apex court agreed with the Haryana government that now “if people still do not have a toilet it is not because of their poverty but because of their lacking the requisite will.”

The court finally notes how the primary duty of a civic body is sanitation.

“Those who aspire to get elected to those civic bodies and administer them must set an example for others,” the Supreme Court observed, paving the way for panchayat elections in Haryana as per the new law.

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