Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Tonk: Rajasthan's crumbling panchayati raj system had got a new lease of life during the 2015 elections to rural local bodies in the state. Reason: On 20 December, 2014, the Vasundhara Raje government promulgated an ordinance amending the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act, 1994, and making education a pre-requisite for contesting panchayat elections. It became mandatory for candidates contesting the zila parishad polls to have passed at least SSC and those contesting panchayat samiti polls to have cleared at least the eighth standard.
Social organisations, however, weren’t pleased and challenged it in the high court. By the time the case came up for hearing, the high court refused to intervene, as the election had been announced. Fast forward to 2018: The newly-elected Congress government, in its first Cabinet meeting on 29 December, did away with the education criterion. On 17 January, 2019, it approved the amendment of two Bills — Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and the Rajasthan Municipalities (Amendment) Bill, 2019; these were passed in the Assembly on 14 February.
The pre-requisite of the educational qualification brought forth some talented first-timers who were able to trump the old heavyweights, but the jury is 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.
In Tonk district, Rajasthan's first MBA sarpanch Chhavi Rajawat says, "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 people who are illiterate lack wisdom.”
She adds, “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.”
A panchayat hall in Rajasthan's Tonk. Sangeeta Pranvendra/101Reporters
Rajawat is in her second consecutive term — she had first contested and won in 2010, when education wasn’t mandatory.
Turning the tide, with education
Several elected representatives have implemented many state and central government schemes, such as Ujjwala, Rajshree (for girls), ensuring issuance of Bhamashah health cards and ration cards. They have also made efforts to open bank accounts, enhance skill development, and build homes for the poor. Hemlata Bairwa, who became the sarpanch in Tonk’s Chainpura panchayat in 2015, recalls the initial days of her tenure. “There was no building for a panchayat. I got one made during my tenure.”
Bairwa, 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 says, “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.”
Simla Sharma, up-sarpanch at the same panchayat, says, “People expected me to be in a ghoonghat (veil), but my husband told me to do away with it and perform well. From 2015 to 2017, I have got 14 water tanks built across the block.” 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. Sharma and her team, in association with PHED (the government department which takes care of water supply) pushed for a tank in every panchayat. They also got public water collection points made and ensured bills are paid on time.
While Bairwa has studied up to Class 12, Sharma has studied up to Class 6.
Beena Bairwa, the sarpanch from Lalwadi panchayat in Tonk, got several roads, drains, and water tanks constructed in her constituency. An aspect where she differs from her predecessors is ensuring regular repair and maintenance of the same. She has studied till Class 10.
There are several other 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 women are grateful for criterion of the educational qualification, as it helped them to win and make a difference.
When politicians jumped in the playground
However, this did not stop the Congress from nipping the initiative in the bud. It had announced that it would reverse the criterion when it came to power. And that’s exactly what it did.
BJP leaders, to justify the party's 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-up approach. The party argues that 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 elected representatives 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.
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 Meenas, Gurjars and Muslims. Jats and SCs, too, are communities which can have a decisive say in the verdict.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched his Lok Sabha poll campaign in Rajasthan from this seat, which gives an indication of its importance for the BJP. History suggests 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 has reaped benefits from the new breed of educated grassroots public representatives. While many want to contest again, it remains to be seen if they will be able to do so.
The author is a Jaipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters