As far as Assam is concerned, the first blow has been struck towards ensuring minimum educatiol qualification and fulfilment of some essential social norms by elected representatives. Passed by the Assembly on Wednesday, the Assam Panchayat (Amendment) Bill, 2018 stipulates that a panchayat member must be class VI passed, a panchayat president class X passed and a zilla parishad member class XII passed (with relaxations for reserved category candidates). This apart, a candidate cannot have more than two living children from a single or multiple partners, and will need to have a toilet in his/her home. A section of opposition lawmakers tried to stonewall the legislation, arguing that when no minimum educatiol qualifications have been prescribed for MLAs, MPs and ministers, surely no such bar ought to be set for panchayat representatives. Reform has to start from the top, so the House should set an example by first passing a resolution to fix minimum educatiol qualifications for Members of Assemblies and Parliament, they argued. Speaking on behalf of the State government, Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma pointed out that the panchayat member norms have been fixed in accordance with the State Population Policy accepted by the Assembly, but doing the same for MLAs and MPs is beyond the competence of the House. He, however, assured that the House will pass a resolution in around a couple of days seeking minimum norms for MLAs/MPs, and thereafter an all-party delegation will move the President, the Prime Minister and the Lok Sabha Speaker to institute such an arrangement for the country as a whole. If this promise is kept and lawmakers from Assam make such a push, it will be indeed welcome. The Harya government has already written to the Centre seeking minimum qualifications for those contesting elections to Assemblies and Parliament, as revealed by Harya CM Manohar Lal Khattar last December. He had strongly defended his government’s decision to fix minimum qualification for panchayat members, along with mandatory norms including a toilet at home and no crimil conviction and pending electricity bills. A similar move had been made by the Rajasthan government too, leading to an outcry that such ‘discrimitory’ moves will shut the door to political representation for deprived communities. But with literacy levels rising across the country and massive thrust towards digitalisation, a beginning has to be made somewhere. We have come far from the days when large parts of the country’s interiors were off limits to education, when it was considered anti-democratic to ignore the tive wisdom of the electorate and seek educatiol qualifications of their elected representatives. Articles 84 and 173 of the Constitution simply fixed the two essential qualifications of MPs/MLAs as citizen of India and not less than 25 years of age — while leaving any other qualification to be prescribed by Parliament. While upholding the Harya government’s decision on panchayat representatives, the Supreme Court had observed that only education gives a human being “the power to discrimite between right and wrong, good and bad”. However, the apex court dismissed a petition in July last year that had sought minimum qualifications for becoming an MP or MLA, leaving it to Parliament to decide on the issue as per the Constitution (it had earlier put the onus on the ‘watchful eye of the people’). Around 13 per cent of Members of the present 16th Lok Sabha are under-matriculates, as revealed in a TV survey soon after it was constituted in June 2014. It is high time for an initiative by States or the Centre to fix minimum educatiol levels for MLAs and MPs, what with public matters becoming highly complex and multi-discipliry. Legislating on such matters is getting to be tougher, requiring good grasp of the finer points of law. As it is, the Legislature is already delegating significant authority to the Executive to make subordite legislation. But even in setting broad policy outline for legislations, Members of Parliament and the Assemblies are having to depend increasingly on batteries of experts. Elected representatives risk ceding the ground in lawmaking further unless they are properly equipped.
Mind over Matter
With Stephen Hawking’s passing, the debate has begun in earnest over his scientific legacy. His semil work on black holes, quantum gravity and space-time structure will doubtless be revisited in the coming days. Holder of the Lucasian chair of tural philosophy in Cambridge and recipient of many awards and honours, he was a larger-than-life figure with, among else, a biopic made on him in 2014 (The Theory of Everything) that figured prominently in the Oscars. For millions, he was the embodiment of triumph of mind over matter, having been cruelly struck down when aged just 21 by the dreaded degenerative disease ALS. Muscles atrophied, paralysed head down, bereft of speech and confined to a wheelchair, he still beat doctors’ prediction of having only two years left to live by achieving great things for 55 more years. Did he pull off this medically ‘impossible’ feat by sheer willpower alone? In later life, Hawking would reveal that he beat depression because he took up the largest questions he could ask as a cosmologist, seeking “a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all”. He spoke about why it is necessary to be curious and to wonder, as well as to “keep talking”. So with computerized speech and willing helpers, he embarked on an inspiratiol journey of communicating science to the layman, beginning with his humongous bestseller A Brief History of Time in 1988. Other scientists like Roger Penrose, Leord Susskind, Michio Kaku, Brian Greene and Paul Davies followed his lead. Thanks to their efforts, popularizing science for the common man is no longer something boffins in their ivory towers can now sneer at. In this respect, as in hard research, Stephen Hawking was a trailblazer. The larger society can now talk about doing science with a social outcome, bridging the science-society gap, reaching the unreached through science and fostering inclusive development. And for countless individuals who find life difficult to negotiate, Hawking’s words will continue to give hope: “There is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”