MEWAT, HARYANA: : He was the chief of the Singaar village council in Mewat district of Haryana for years. But, when elections were held in January this time, Mohammed Hanif could no longer eligible to contest for the panchayat. With the seat reserved for a woman, he found an unusual, if convenient, way out. He married someone who could contest the elections.
“My wife was illiterate and wasn’t eligible either. So I found a girl who has completed her class 10 and she stood for elections. I only got married so I could get to contest the elections (via her),” he told NDTV.
Mr Hanif sees nothing wrong with his decision. He says he did it to save his family’s honour.
“My wife felt that her honour was at stake. For five years, I had served the village and now if we couldn’t fight this election, it would be a big insult. I’m not the only one who has re-married. In Neemka village, Asgar’s son was married off. In Akhlimpur, one person got his brother-in-law married a second time,” he said.
Even though Mr Hanif’s second wife, Sajida, was contesting the election, the campaign was all about him. It did not have the desired impact on voters because Sajida lost the election by over 500 votes.
In the neighbouring village of Neemkheda, 55- year-old Ashubi Khan was the village head or sarpanch for 10 years. She became ineligible to contest this time after the government’s decision to set a minimum educational qualification for candidates contesting the polls.
She is upset. “Our right has been snatched from us,” she says angrily. “For 10 years, we put in all the hard work. We got motors installed, pucca houses built, school built, powerhouses set up. I’m not against education, but the government should have at least given us an education before implementing the law. Make the announcement and then give people 5 years, 10 years to work towards it. This was announced and implemented overnight,” she said.
The mandatory educational qualification became a major stumbling block for women who wanted to be a part of the political process but got left out. Nearly half of those who wanted to contest had to drop out.
A member in Ms Khan’s all women panchayat or village body, Sakuran asks, “Now that only the so-called educated are allowed to contest, what does the government expect this 60-year-old to do? Go to school?”
The anger is not misplaced. Analysts say what is missing is the government’s focus on the state of education in the backward districts of Haryana.
General Secretary of AIDWA, Jagmati Sangwan, explains, “The literacy rate of Haryana is higher (than that of many states). It is about 77 per cent. But if we go into the details, the real picture emerges. The literacy rate for women is about 65 per cent. In the rural areas it drops to 55 per cent and for Dalits it comes down to 33 per cent.”
According to Ms Sangwan, in a region like Mewat, the literacy rate for rural women is around just 18 per cent. “More than two lakh posts of teachers are lying vacant,” she says.
According to the census of 2011, the Mewat district has the worst literacy rate in all of Haryana. At the secondary school in Neemkheda, some of the classrooms have no roofs and students were studying out in the open on straw mats.
Out of a total number of 62 students on the rolls, only one was a girl. Besides, there was only one teacher to teach classes 9-12 where the total sanctioned strength was of seven lecturers.
But the government says this was an election of many firsts. “It’s the first time that 41 per cent women candidates have been elected when there is a 33 per cent reservation for women in these elections.” It’s a statistic the government is proud of. In addition, more than half of all candidates were elected unopposed.
“Panchayat elections would divide villages earlier. Now they are the uniting factor. Villages are arriving at a consensus and we have actually incentivized the process,” said O P Dhankar, Panchayat Raj minister in the Haryana government. “We have no criminal elements at all among those elected.”
As the government plans training sessions for the newly elected members for these grassroots posts, there are close to 2000 panchayat posts that are still vacant, including those of sarpanches, since not a single eligible candidate was found.