New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an amendment to the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act providing for educational qualifications and other eligibility criteria for those aspiring to contest rural local body elections, saying that they were neither irrational nor illegal.
A bench of Justice J. Chelameswar and Justice Abhay Manohar Sapre in their judgment said the “object sought to be achieved cannot be said to be irrational or illegal or unconnected with the scheme and purpose” of empowering the rural people through local self-government.
Speaking for the bench, Justice Chelameswar said: “It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats.”
The classification, the court said, “in our view, cannot be said either based on no intelligible difference, unreasonable or without a reasonable nexus with the object sought to be achieved”.
Holding it was the legislative wisdom to decide as to what should be the minimum qualifications, Justice Sapre, in a concurring but separate judgment, said: “No one can dispute that education is must for both men and women as both together make a healthy and educated society. It is an essential tool for a bright future and plays an important role in the development and progress of the country.”
The court’s views came while rejecting the challenge to the validity of the amendment which said that besides educational qualification, those disqualified from contesting elections would be those against whom charges have been framed for criminal offences entailing at least 10 years jail; those failing to pay arrears of a cooperative society or a cooperative bank or electricity bill; or don’t have a functional toilet at their residence.
Initially an ordinance prescribing the eligibility criteria was issued on August 14, and the enacted by the Haryana assembly on September 7
Addressing the challenge to the validity of the educational qualification provision as it would result in a disqualification of more than 50 percent of the people, the court said: “Every person who is entitled to vote is not automatically entitled to contest for every office under the constitution.”
The “constitution itself imposes limitations on the right to contest depending upon the office” and also authorises imposing “further disqualifications/qualification with respect to the right to contest”.
“If it is constitutionally permissible to debar certain classes of people from seeking to occupy the constitutional offices, numerical dimension of such classes, in our opinion should make no difference for determining whether prescription of such disqualification is constitutionally permissible,” the court said.
Any criteria could be questioned only if it is of a nature that could result in a situation where holding of elections to these various bodies becomes completely impossible, it said.
On debarring defaulters, the court said: “If the constitution makers considered that people who are insolvent are not eligible to seek various elected public offices, we do not understand what could be the constitutional infirmity if the legislature declares people who are indebted to cooperative bodies or in arrears of electricity bills to be ineligible to become elected representatives of the people in panchayats.”
Upholding the criteria of mandatory functional toilets, it said: “If the legislature stipulates that those who are not following basic norms of hygiene are ineligible to become administrators of the civic body and disqualifies them as a class from seeking election to the civic body, such a policy, in our view, can neither be said to create a class based on unintelligible criteria nor can such classification be said to be unconnected with the object sought to be achieved.”
Describing defecation in open as an unhealthy practice, the judgment said: “It is a notorious fact that the Indian population for a long time had this unhealthy practice of defecating in public – (and) this unhealthy practice is not exclusive to poorer sections of rural India.”
Justice Sapre, in his concurring judgment, said: “This provision (for toilet) in my view is enacted essentially in the larger public interest and is indeed the need of the hour to ensure its application all over the country and not confining it to a particular state.
“Moreover, the state having provided adequate financial assistance to those who do not have toilet facility for construction of toilet, there arise no ground to challenge this provision as being unreasonable in any manner.”