Ajmer: Norti Bai, 65, has a roster of accomplishments so impressive that many, she says, are surprised when she reveals they are not backed by the weight of any sort of education.
She plans to run, in a few weeks, for re-election as the sarpanch of her village in Ajmer.
Her attempt for a second term comes after five feisty years during which she successfully fought the local land mafia to get a hospital constructed, ensured computer classes for girls in the local school, and had more than 3,000 trees planted by locals who were hired and paid for by the rural employment MNREGA scheme.
Those deliverable may compose a picture of efficient, even exemplary, leadership, but Norti Bai may find herself ineligible for another term.
The Rajasthan government has used an executive order or ordinance to introduce new prerequisites – a sarpanch like Norti Bai needs to have studied till Class 8 in school; another two years of education are needed for a member of a panchayat samiti, which governs a group of villages.
The qualifications will rule out half of rural Rajasthan from holding office in what was designed to be a fundamental form of grassroots democracy, and will hit women sarpanches especially hard. In Rajasthan, women’s literacy, especially in rural areas is just about 45%.
“I have done that kind of work in 50 years that people who are educated could never do, after all you have to live in people’s hearts. Those who are poor themselves they understand the plight of the poor and they can work for the downtrodden. The government should think before they exclude people like me from panchayat elections,” says Norti Bai.
Gulab Chand Katariya, the state’s Panchayati Raj Minister, defended the decision to NDTV by suggesting that because each panchayat gets a crore to spend every year, the government prefers for those who are handling the money to have some sort of minimal education.
Critics point out that if the law had been introduced last year, more than 75 per cent of the panchayat samiti members would have been disqualified or ineligible for office.
Between January 16 and 30, rural Rajasthan will elect nearly one lakh panchayats or village councils. The executive order has to be cleared by the state legislature within 6 months of its next session, which starts in March.
“This will exclude the excluded even more. This move is anti-poor and anti-Dalit. If you were not able to go to school in your childhood but you wanted to, the government is ensuring that you are being punished for it now. It’s unconstitutional. It takes away every one’s fundamental rights to stand for elections,” said Nikhil Dey, a famous social activist.
Opponents also point out that neither national nor state law-makers are bound by these educational requirements. In Rajasthan, of the 200 state legislators, there are 23 who have not cleared Class 10.