The matter of educational qualifications of our elected representatives has always been debated without any redeeming results, largely because of the diverse nature of our society, the difficult-to-bridge divide between rural and urban India, as well as the opportunities (or lack of them) to impart education at all levels. Despite being in the 66th year of our independence, no concrete solution is forthcoming.
It has been frequently said that reforms should first start from rural India, where most of our leaders have their roots. Most of the CMs and urban development and housing ministers of the state have been from rural areas. They began their careers as heads of respective villages or municipal councils.
Last Wednesday, the weekly meeting of the state cabinet witnessed a lengthy and fiery debate on a proposal introduced by the rural development department. It was about whether or not to determine a minimum educational qualification to contest the post of sarpanch (gram pradhan), member of panchayat samiti and zilla parishad in the state.
The proposal was that office-bearers heading and representing rural bodies should have minimum qualification between 8th and 10th standard. This was shot down by Home Minister R R Patil and a few other members of the state cabinet. Patil, who headed the rural development department from 1999 to 2003, and his NCP colleague and incumbent Jayant Patil hail from Sangli district, recognised as a politically sensitive district.
According to Jayant Patil, the minimum qualification was necessary considering the flow of huge funds to villages from the Centre and the state government. The cheques issued for development works at village-level bear signatures of the sarpanch as per the rules. So he should possess a certain level of education, was the contention of the rural development minister.
Making his point, RR Patil argued that if such a criterion was to be laid down, it should be applicable to all — including members of Parliament, legislators and ministers — and not just the sarpanch. He also said former CM Vasantdada Patil was educated up to fourth standard, but he ruled the state with élan. Many sarpanches, who are barely literate, are heading their village panchayats competently. Hence it would be wrong to prescribe such a condition, which would prove unjust to many, was the home minister’s contention.
What RR Patil has forgotten is that the late Vasantdada Patil, despite his poor educational background, was quite active in his social life and gained rich experience as a freedom fighter and by working for the people. The same is not the case with the current crop of elected representatives at the village level, as many women leaders (50 per cent seats from local bodies are reserved for them) who were previously homemakers were asked to fight elections.
The proposal could not be approved despite strong backing by influential members of the cabinet such as Ajit Pawar. Jayant Patil strongly argued that a sarpanch must know rules and legislations while running a village panchayat as he plays a crucial role in the operation of the village administration. Also, the new rule was to be made applicable from 2017, a good five years later.
But, the rejection of the plan raises several issues. Today, funds worth approximately Rs 30,000 crore are being spent through various projects such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) to enhance literacy levels and the Right to Education Act covers almost every strata of society. So, citizens can certainly ask that when important positions can be held without any educational qualification, what’s wrong in not attending schools? Why is the state government spending on adult literacy, ‘each one teach one’ and other such programmes?
It can also not be ignored that the literacy level in the state is 82.91 per cent, the second best in the country. The state has over a lakh schools and the dropout rate is just 2.2 per cent. So, barely a handful is away from schooling. The rural development department proposal had specifically mentioned that remote and hilly areas would be kept in focus while applying the new norms of educational background for local bodies. This again amplifies the point that when it comes to setting an example, our politicians never want to go first.
— The writer is Political Editor, MiD DAY