Proxy candidature, minimum educational qualifications still holding back candidates at grassroots level
A 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayat elections in Haryana will alleviate the condition of women in the state with proper representation, according to those contesting the polls. But many fear that disqualifying illiterate women is holding back worthy candidates at the grassroots level, where the maximum attention is required.
The first phase of Panchayat elections in Haryana for nine districts began November 2, 2022. Down To Earth visited Rohtak and Jhajjar and spoke to the women candidates contesting the polls. Rohtak will go to polls in the second phase on November 9.
Haryana historically had one of the lowest sex ratios in the country — 833 girls for 1,000 boys at birth in 2011, according to the government’s Civil Registration System data. In rural areas, the literacy rate for males and females stood at 81.55 per cent and 51.96 per cent.
Read more: Mewat Makeover: Will Haryana’s election laws be a catalyst for female education
The average literacy rate in Haryana for rural areas was 71.42 per cent. Considered one of the most backward states in the country, it has high maternal mortality rates. It sees 71-100 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Female infanticide is still commonplace.
“The condition of women in this state has a long way to go and reservation will help pave a better path for us,” said Sunita (37), an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker to contest the Sarpanch elections from Kishangarh village in Rohtak.
Lower literacy rates in women and patriarchal barriers that confine them to their homes are some of the major issues that have prevented more participation in local politics. Reservation might be the much needed boost to change that.
But representation alone is not enough, said Kamlesh — a two-time local body poll contestant who will fight the elections for a district council post.
The practice of proxy candidature of women to their male family members is the status quo in the state, said poll contestant Kamlesh. Photo: Vikas Choudhary
Rohtak-based Savita Berwal, the state president of Janwadi Mahila Samiti — an organisation that had challenged the minimum education qualification for PRI candidates law enacted by the Haryana government in court — agreed with Kamlesh.
“According to our assessment, education as a compulsory criterion for poll candidates will deprive 67 per cent of Dalit women candidates — the most vulnerable in the rural society,” said Berwal.
However, the participation of more women in local politics might change the social fabric of the state. More and more women are contesting elections around the country. Higher turnout among women voters was also reported by daily Hindustan Times.
Reservations might be the only way to push women forward in grassroots politics, according to Roshni Devi from Kothal Khurd village in Mahendragarh district. “Reservation is a necessity in low literacy and backward areas,” said the two-time poll contestant.
Read more: Mewat Makeover: Female education now a prerequisite for marriage in Nuh
In a December 2015 order, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of a law enacted by the Haryana government to bar the illiterate from contesting panchayat polls in the state.
In its ruling, the court had said, “It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad.”
Haryana’s laws mandate matriculation for a general male candidate, education till Class 8 for a general female candidate, and Class 5 pass for a scheduled caste woman candidate for contesting panchayat elections.
Literacy or education is not a mandatory litmus test for understanding rural society or a woman’s journey of being able to inspire women or society, argued farmers’ union leader Preet Singh in Bhambheva village in Jhajjar, Haryana.
As many as four women candidates from Bhambheva contested the Sarpanch elections on general seats November 2.
Read more: 75 years of people’s power: How this Haryana Gram Panchayat managed its grey water through ponds
“Let’s also not overlook that the practice of proxy candidature of women to their male family members is the status quo in the state,” Kamlesh told DTE during a visit to her native village Lahli in Rohtak. Kamlesh is a scheduled caste woman who is contesting from a reserved seat.
Kamlesh feels she is very fortunate as she studied till Class 10, which helped her navigate the labyrinthine barriers and conditions for filing poll nominations.
“I was asked to produce the identifications of several male family members. Thankfully, I found it easier to handle as I have many years of experience in local body politics. Many others may not be as lucky,” she pointed out.
Meena Kumari, another poll contestant from Bhambheva, Jhajjar, on the other hand, felt education should remain a compulsory criterion for contesting the PRI election. “But the same disqualifications must apply to members of the legislative assembly of Haryana, too,” she said.
Haryana’s PRI elections were delayed by more than a year due to a lack of data on reserved seats, among other reasons.
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