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Educational Criteria For Public Representatives

A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice J Chelameswar has given a landmark ruling in upholding the Haryana government’s amendment to the Panchayati Raj Act mandating educational qualifications among other eligibility criteria for candidates aspiring to contest panchayat elections. The Haryana government issued an ordinance prescribing the eligibility criteria on August 14, 2015. The Haryana Assembly passed the amendments on September 7, 2015 and very next day the State Election Commission announced panchayat elections. A petition was filed challenging the amendments, which was rejected by the Supreme Court. 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’. This is a groundbreaking verdict as there is no provision in the Constitution for anyone seeking public office through elections to have a minimum educational qualification. The country has been debating the issue since Independence but no proposal has been moved for amending the Constitution to provide for a minimum qualification for candidates in elections to local self-government institutions or state legislatures or Parliament.
It is indeed strange to find political parties and leaders still uninterested in introducing a minimum educational qualification for candidates in elections. The political leaders of India’s freedom struggle and the founding fathers of the Constitution were all highly educated. They did not consider it right to lay down a minimum education criterion for candidates, because literacy in India at the time of Independence was only 14 per cent. How to exclude 86 per cent of population from the right to represent the people? But today the situation has changed tremendously. According to the 2011 census, the literacy rate in India was 74 per cent. It must have gone up by a few percentage points in the five years since the 2011 census. The literacy rate in Kerala was 93.91 per cent, in Mizoram 91.58 per cent, in Goa 88.70 per cent and in Tripura 87.75 per cent. Even in Bihar, UP and MP where the indices were the lowest, literacy rate was higher than 60 per cent. Today, the majority of the population is literate. Democracy is the rule of the majority. Why should panchayats and legislatures be denied to impose educational criteria in order to truly reflect the quality of the majority? Why shouldn’t they reflect the comprehensive, cognitive and analytical levels of the majority of the population?
The divide between the educated and the uneducated is no more snobbish or elitist. Even the poorest of the poor day labourers and housemaids are investing in their children’s education. It is hard not to agree with the Supreme Court bench when it observes that “No one can dispute that education is must for both men and women as both together make a healthy and educated society. It is an essential tool for a bright future and plays an important role in the development and progress of the country.” It is only education, says the bench, which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and therefore, prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats.
The minimum educational qualification required under the Haryana amendment reflects the rising level of literacy in Haryana. Between 2001 and 2011 censuses, the literacy rate in the state rose from 67.9 per cent to 76.64 per cent. The most remarkable increase – from the point of view of the panchayat amendment – was in the percentage of literacy rate in the rural areas of Haryana from 63.19 per cent to 72.74 per cent. Now, in rural Haryana, where more than 7 out of 10 persons are literate, does it sound reasonable to lay down no minimum education criterion for someone who aspires to represent such a vast literate population?
Let us hope the nation picks up the cue from the Haryana government and the Justice Chelameswar bench and starts actively considering laying down educational criteria for aspiring legislators and parliamentarians. The minimum qualification for MLAs and MPs should also be laid down. Actually, if you look at the data, 75 per cent of the MPs elected in the 2014 general elections have at least a graduate degree. This is slightly lesser than the 15th Lok Sabha in which 79 per cent of MPs held at least a graduate degree. It is quite clear that even though the Constitution does not have a provision for a minimum educational qualification for aspiring representatives of the people, the voters have been gradually imposing the criterion by their choice. And there is nothing incompatible here. A nation where the majority is literate can only trust those who have the basic tool to understand things, communicate, take decisions and guide others.

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