With the passage of the Assam Panchayat (Amendment) Bill, 2018 by the Assam Legislative Assembly last Wednesday, the thrust on education and curb on population growth is apparent. Once the bill becomes an Act, a person with more than two children from a single partner or multiple partners will be barred from contesting panchayat polls. At the same time, a candidate must have cleared the Class VI fil examition.
As for the two-child norm, it is in sync with the population policy formulated and adopted last year that prevents people from being elected or nomited to panchayats and other local bodies or appointed to government jobs for violating the norm. In other words, if one crosses the two-child mark, he cannot become a panchayat member, nor can he aspire for any government job in the State. This is a welcome augury that can prove to be instrumental in checking the unimpeded growth of the State’s population, especially among the immigrant Muslims of East Pakistan/Bangladesh descent, a vast majority of whom have still no qualms about practising polygamy by invoking religious sanction despite the need of the hour for checking population surge and thus for promoting growth in their economic sphere.
It is not that people will now restrict to having not more than two children because they want to contest panchayat polls. Not all are given to politics, even of the self-governce kind at local levels. But ‘government job’ is still a huge lure, given the stereotypes of security while in service and post-retirement, as well as the penchant for earning an easy livelihood without much work or without having to work at all – this is what is seen in government offices, exceptions apart. So when you are not going to get a government job because you have more than two children, the upper bind gets fixed as a result of choice – the choice for just two children and thus a road of hope for a government job.
Then comes the education factor. This is a big issue in a country, let alone Assam, where education and politics never jell, and are never allowed to jell, because the systemic rot of the counter-education regime in politics is so deep that educated people feel discouraged to join politics because they know they will be outnumbered, outwitted and out-shouted by the huge uneducated crowd in lawmaking bodies. It does not matter what your educatiol qualifications are, or whether you are literate at all, but if you can use money power, you emerge triumphant in the poll race. You then become a lawmaker. This is a huge responsibility but it does not matter if you are incompetent even to imagine of any law to govern your people because as a lawmaker, despite being uneducated in the formal system of education, you have been given the mandate by your people to make laws for them. It is such argument that has played spoilsport in the celebration of our hard-earned democracy all along. It is high time this was countered. Hence the significance, to a certain extent, of the new panchayat law in Assam.
But why the criterion of mere Class VI? What is so defining about this? That is, why not Class VIII, at least someone who has crossed middle school education? Or, for that matter, why not matriculation be the education criterion for panchayat candidature? These are questions that Assam Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma would do well to answer.
But Sarma might have a problem. Last Tuesday, he himself admitted in the State Assembly that the State has as many as 2,723 single-teacher schools. This is startling. And how can one forget that he was the State’s education minister in the previous regime too, led by Tarun Gogoi, when, one will recall, he had woven many an education dream for poor and backward children in rural areas? So, when the reality of such an education architecture dawns upon us, it is only too tural that we should not have any education happening at all in several areas of the State so that a child cannot even imagine of crossing Class VI at best, surpassing Class X being too distant a mirage to even chase.
Nonetheless, a beginning must be made. Hence perhaps the apparently progressive move to bring in the Class VI education criterion for panchayat candidature. The idea is good. This will at least prompt people to send their children to schools and also ensure that they do not drop out before passing Class VI. But this idea is bound by a limit. What if a student drops before taking Class X examition or after failing to clear it? No worry, nonetheless. He will not have any problem in contesting panchayat polls in the future because, after all, according to the new law, he is ‘qualified’ to contest.
We are talking of the 21st-century imperatives. These are different from the ones when the idea of the panchayati raj system was floated to be sustained thus far in the same old paradigm of decentralization vision. This system has had its genesis in the Mahatma Gandhi school of political thought. He was totally against centralization of power. He strongly, and uncompromisingly, advocated decentralization and delegation of power top bottom so that the millions of villages, reeling under the cataclysmic impact of chronic poverty and backwardness, could be empowered towards the fructification of democratic ideals in a just-born independent democracy.
But it was then. Now things are different. You will see village youths whiling away their time on Facebook. In Assam, many of them have taken to small tea garden business, and they have become richer than what they had expected when they had ventured out to take the plunge – check this out in eastern Assam (‘upper’ Assam as it is generally called, but there cannot be anything ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ when it comes to two-dimensiol horizontal geography), and you will see their flourish, and of course their gradual empowerment. Many of them have cleared their higher secondary examition, if not undergraduate programmes. In fact, some of them are graduates too, who have chosen to become small tea entrepreneurs because there is good money in the business if you are hard-working, patient, and know the trick of the business. Examples galore.
Therefore, while the Class VI-clearance idea for panchayat candidature is a good idea, and all would welcome it for obvious reasons, raising the bar – say, to Class X clearance at least – could be a better idea. Time will come when people would look for graduates in panchayat bodies, with sound knowledge of political science, sociology and economics, and with innovative ideas on the agriculture front, which is a chief imperative in the countryside. This is 21st century, things are changing rapidly, technology has reached rural areas, people here have a different set of aspirations, and therefore the entire paradigm of panchayati raj must undergo a radical metamorphosis.
That said, the need for educated – apart from honest – lawmakers cannot be overemphasized. Congress MLA Rakibul Hussain was right when on Tuesday, in the State Assembly, he raised the question of putting an educatiol criterion for MLAs too if it had been done for panchayat bodies. He was speaking sense. But since it is in the ambit of the Centre, or Parliament rather, there is a plan to move a resolution in the Assam Assembly and forward it to the Prime Minister and others concerned so that some education bar could be fixed for lawmakers as well. Its time has come. We cannot afford to have under-matriculates sitting in legislatures, both in States and at the Centre, making archaic and meaningless laws, or no laws at all, and failing to come up with new ideas for better laws for better governce and administration.
Whether the education – and examition – system in vogue is both valid and reliable, is a different debate, and I shall take this up some other day in this column. But that educated people will make better laws, cannot be gainsaid.