The Supreme Court declined to extend the last date for filing nominations (file photo: AFP)
An ordinance issued by the Rajasthan state government on December 19 makes it mandatory for candidates contesting panchayat elections to have minimum education qualifications for the first time. This has been criticised by activists and by opposition parties, but the Supreme Court said on Monday that it would not interfere with the election schedule a day ahead of the deadline for filing nominations.
The controversial ordinance makes it mandatory for candidates contesting elections to local bodies like zila parishads and panchayat samitis to have passed Class 10 and for those standing for sarpanch seats, to have passed Class 8 in general areas and Class 5 in scheduled areas.
This has drawn protests from NGOs and 11 opposition parties, including the Congress, who questioned why the measure was announced so close to the deadline for nominations.
They said the new educational criteria would exclude 80 per cent of the rural population in Rajasthan from contesting, and that about 1,000 current zila parishad members would stand disqualified.
"The Rajasthan government held no debate or discussion on this. It has quelled the voice of the people," said Sachin Pilot, the state Congress chief.
On Monday the Supreme Court did not make any observations on the merit of the ordinance, but told the petitioners, activist Aruna Roy and an incumbent woman sarpanch, that they should move the Rajasthan high court instead.
The bench headed by Chief Justice H L Dattu said that the high court was well equipped with adjudicating the legal questions involved and that the petitioners should first move the high court.
It however declined the petitioners’ request to extend the last date for filing nominations. The deadline is Tuesday.
The ruling BJP hailed the Supreme Court verdict. “Finally truth prevailed… We appeal to all other political parties not to get confused and misled by Congress leaders, and get ready for contesting in the panchayat polls,” party spokesman Kailash Bhatt told reporters in Jaipur.
He alleged that the reason for the Congress’ protest was a dearth of qualified candidates in the opposition party.
The model code of conduct gas already come into force for the panchayat election which will be held on January 16. Counting will take place on February 5.
But some aspiring candidates are finding it difficult to get hold of their old educational certificates.
According to The Times of India, many have been queuing up at the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education in Ajmer to get their Class 10 pass certificates. But with RBSE having destroyed certificates older than 1970 due to a space crunch, most are returning empty handed.
"This policy of destroying the certificates was adopted way back in 2005 and digitization of certificates is underway," said Rajendra Gupta, RBSE’s public relations officer.
The board directs such candidates to their schools to get a copy of their certificate, but this is a challenge in rural areas.
Shakoor Khati from Tijara in Alwar claimed to have cleared his Class 10 in 1970 from a government school in Kakrali town. "I am a farmer with small landholding. I lost my educational certificates during flooding in 1990. I also contested polls in 2010 but never required it. This is for the first time I felt the need to have it," he told TOI.
Then there is the question of authenticity. The absence of official certificates would make it impossible for the state election commission to confirm the authenticity of certificates that candidates produce.
"Those who are in the position to influence can easily get such certificates. I request the election commission to cross check all academic certificates," said Noor Mohammad, a social activist in Mewat area who believes that the ordinance is leading to a rush for fake school certificates.
"Such problems are unfortunate. Already many eligible candidates are facing the danger of not contesting the polls and secondly the absence of certificates will further evade the chances of many more candidates, " Kamal Tak told TOI.
His party Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan had challenged the ordinance in the Supreme Court.