Last Thursday, on 10 December 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed a batch of petitions that challenged the constitutional validity of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015. Taking a cue from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, the Haryana government had passed an act that prescribed minimum educational qualifications as one of the essential requirements for contesting panchayati polls. The apex court acknowledged that the minimum education criteria may disqualify a significant section of the population from contesting, but defended the decision, stating that only education can give a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad.
On Saturday, 12 December, I visited Jhunjhunu, which falls on the eastern edge of Rajasthan that touches Haryana, to observe the effects of a similar ordinance passed a year ago—the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act—since the last civic body elections. With a literacy rate of 74 percent, Jhunjhunu is one of the most literate districts in Rajasthan, and one where, I thought, that the impact of the ordinance would be most visible.
The village of Kakoda is like most others in the Jhunjhunu district: flat and brown. Men sit at roundabouts, in the shade of old trees; playing cards, smoking bidis, reading newspapers and lounging on string cots. The educational requirements of the ordinance had barred the unlettered wife of Satbeer Singh, the erstwhile sarpanch of the village, from contesting, and aided the victory of Mamta Daila—a Master of Arts graduate. Daila is also the first woman to be elected sarpanch of the village.
In this flat landscape, the instructions to reach Daila’s house were easy to follow: “cross the [mobile] tower, and her house is the one after the speed-breaker.” I reached the house to find a woman stooped over a pile of laundry on the porch. “Is this the house of Mamta Daila?” I inquired, tentatively. “I am Mamta,” the woman said, picking a scarf from the pile to cover her head.
She removed the rest of the pile from a plastic chair, to offer it to me, and got herself another from inside. Before sitting down, she asked if I wanted her to call her father-in-law, Satbeer Daila, who I would learn was the de facto sarpanch. Satbeer had never gone to school, but he still goes to the panchayat. People I later met in the village identified him as the sarpanch, conceding, “the name in the papers though is his daughter-in-law’s.” I assured Daila that it was her that I wanted to speak with. Still hesitant to sit down, she asked if I wanted tea. I refused, and she finally sat down to talk to me.