Rajasthan’s brief experiment with education criteria at panchayats shows a shake-up in political order is often just what’s needed

Sangeeta Pranvendra | Mar 19, 2019 | 9 min read


Please change the spelling to 'zila' in second paragraph.

Observation - Names of all departments / bodies written in upper case - except High Court in para three. 

Upsarpanch Simla Sharma is quoted as having got 14 tanks made in the Panchayat - there is one overhead tank per panchayat. 14 are in the entire block. 

Rest is fine. 

Thank you 

Are you an upstanding citizen and voter wondering if India can get upstanding (read non-criminal and educated) political leaders? It’s still a pipe dream. And it’s Rajasthan that makes that apparent, as India gears up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The northern state’s crumbling Panchayat Raj system got a new lease of life during its 2015 elections. Reason: On December 20, 2014, the Vasundhara Raje government promulgated an ordinance in Cabinet, amending the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, and making education a pre-requisite for contesting panchayat elections — it became mandatory for candidates contesting the zilla parishad polls to have passed at least SSC and those contesting panchayat samiti polls to have cleared at least Std VIII.

Social organisations, however, weren’t pleased and challenged it in high court; after winter vacation delayed the plea’s hearing, they moved the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it as the petition was pending before the HC. By the time the case came up for hearing, HC refused to intervene as the election had been announced.

Fast forward to 2018: the newly-elected Congress government, in its first Cabinet meeting on December 29, did away with the education criterion. On January 17, 2019, it approved amendment of two Bills — Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Rajasthan Municipalities (Amendment) Bill, 2019; these were passed in the assembly on February 14.

The education pre-requisite brought forth some talented first-timers, who were able to trump the old heavyweights; but the jury is, literally, out on whether or not the criterion is the way forward.

Social activists say the criterion doesn’t serve the purpose and shouldn’t be foisted on sarpanchs, especially when MLAs and MPs don’t have to abide by it; however, villagers in Rajasthan attest to the fact that the educated sarpanchs have performed well.

We travelled across the Tonk-Sawai Madhopur constituency to find out if that was true.


An uphill road for people’s favourite

Tonk, the only Muslim “Riyasat” of Rajasthan, is today part of the Tonk-Sawai Madhopur constituency, which is spread over two districts and is barely 80 kilometres from Jaipur.

Rajasthan’s first MBA sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat, who is in her second consecutive term — she had first contested in 2010, when education wasn’t mandatory, and won — has a lot to say on this. “Education is important; that can never be said enough. I’ve had to deal with grassroots-level government officials manipulating records, miscalculating expenses, and withholding information; all this could have delayed crucial projects for another decade. Hence, it is important even for panchayat leaders to know and understand the data and guidelines, especially the documents they sign. That said, it doesn’t mean the illiterate lack wisdom,” she says.

“It is, however, important that electoral reforms, be it education or weeding out those with a criminal background, be implemented at all levels, including for MPs and MLAs.”

Rajawat is people’s favourite, but the constituency doesn’t have much to boast about — Tonk is yet to be connected through railways, even though Sawai Madhopur is; it is also low on literacy, avenues of employment, and water tables, with a large population affected by flourosis.


Turning the tide, with education

There are ample success stories, however — several elected representatives have implemented many state and central government schemes, such as Ujjvala, Rajshree (for girls), ensuring issuance of Bhamashah health cards and ration through POS machines, opening of bank accounts, enhancing skill development, and building homes for the poor.

Hemlata Bairwa, who became the sarpanch in Tonk’s Chainpura Panchayat in 2015, recalls her initial days. “There was no building for a panchayat. I got one made during my tenure.”

Hemlata, who has no political background, ousted the previous sarpanch because the seat was reserved for an educated Dalit woman.

Ask her about her most satisfying achievement so far and she quips, “I know the problems girls face in school. Hence, I made it my priority to get toilets and boundary walls around girls’ schools, built in 2017. I also told the teachers to pay special attention to their studies. All this has been giving good results every year — more girls are enrolling in schools.”

Upsarpanch at the same panchayat Simla Sharma says, “People expected me to be in ghoonghat, but my husband told me to do away with that and perform well. From 2015 to 2017, I have got 14 water tanks built across the panchayat.”

Earlier, hand pumps were used to pump groundwater into tanks and distributed among locals through a paid scheme. That, however, failed as people didn’t pay the bills. Simla and her team, in association with PHED (the water department) pushed for a tank in every panchayat. They also got public water collection points made and ensure bills are paid on time.

Meanwhile, Beena Bairwa, the sarpanch from Lalwadi Panchayat in Tonk, deserves credit for getting roads, drains, and water tanks constructed. And where she differs from her predecessors is ensuring regular repair and maintenance of the same.


The happy accidents

There are several more uplifting stories from other parts of the state. Sapna Sharma, the sarpanch from Lapsya in Rajsamand district, along with other women visits every home where a girl child is born; they all play the dhol and distribute sweets to encourage the new mother and stress the importance of a girl child.  

Meanwhile, at Raipur panchayat in Sirohi district, sarpanch Geeta Devi Rao ensures that a tree is planted for every girl child born. She herself enrolled for Std X exams to boost the confidence of parents unwilling to send their daughters to school. 

These maverick women are grateful to the education criterion, as that helped them to win and make a difference. What makes them happy accidents is that none of them has a political background. Pure ability and sensitivity is behind their stellar performance.


When politicians jumped in the playground

But all this did not stop the Congress from nipping it in the bud. It had announced that it would reverse the criterion when it came to power. And that’s what it did.

While the Congress maintained that the rule should not be forced on panchayats when it was not applicable for those contesting assembly and parliamentary polls, political experts believe that the party’s stand was guided by politics of rural votes.

Rural areas are believed to be Congress strongholds, while BJP has an urban base. The education criterion had left many hopefuls out in the cold. It had shaken the established leadership — politically-strong families at the local level lacking education became ineligible — and posed the threat of creating a new voter base for BJP.

BJP leaders, to justify the stand, say the money from MNREGA and other schemes that the Centre sent to panchayats went directly to the sarpanchs. This, they add, led to thousands of cases of embezzlement against elected representatives, whose standard reply allegedly was “I am illiterate and put my thumb impression on the papers put before me”.

The BJP maintains that the education criterion will check embezzlement of funds and lead to increased literacy and is a bottom-upwards approach — cultivating educated sarpanchs will, over time, cultivate educated MPs and MLAs.

Social activists, however, are not convinced. Virendra Shrimali of the Hunger Project says, “Such rules cannot be implemented out of the blue. It is unfair to foist it on the sarpanchs alone. We have been training women electives to perform and deliver for over a decade and even uneducated elected women representatives have performed.”

Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan says, “People cannot be punished for not being educated. The disadvantaged sections don’t go to schools and the education system itself needs to be improved to get them in. Also, the skills needed to be a sarpanch go beyond handling paperwork. It is about leadership and values. Why not implement changes that percolate from the top to bottom? This rule should first be applied to MPs.”

But BJP stands by its move. “Every political change takes time to be accepted and become successful. While one cannot deny that even uneducated people have political and leadership capabilities, we have to begin somewhere,” says Jyoti Kiran, BJP leader and former chairperson of Finance Commission, Rajasthan.

However, this scenario, where despite all efforts education has not reached the entire population, puts a question mark on the education system itself, which has huge sums of money pumped into it every year.


What the way forward looks like

Removing the education pre-requisite won’t be an election issue in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur. The seat is vital for both BJP and Congress. The population largely comprises Meena, Gurjars and Muslims. Jats and SCs, too, are decisive voters. And caste is the biggest factor that will affect votes. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched his LS poll campaign in Rajasthan from this seat; that speaks of its importance for BJP. Sitting MP Jaunapuria is the strongest contender, but Diya Kumari’s name also is doing the rounds. As for Congress, it’s considering Ashok Gehlot’s son Vaibhav and former Union minister Namo Narain Meena. The party could also place its bets on a high-profile Muslim candidate. 

History and caste equations hint that the seat could go either way — in the 16 elections held there since 1952, Congress has won it six times, BJP seven times, and the Swatantra Party thrice.

Meanwhile, Tonk benefits, as do all other districts, from the new breed of ‘accidental’ grassroot public representatives. Many want to contest again; it remains to be seen if they will be able to.

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