New Delhi: The Supreme Court today upheld a Haryana law that bars candidates who don't have toilets at home from panchayat polls, invoking Gandhi and lamenting that the "country had gained notoriety" of lacking such basic facilities despite people having sufficient means.
The court also justified a related provision that seeks to keep those who lack basic education or are insolvent out of the elections.
"It is a notorious fact that the Indian population for a long time had this unhealthy practice of defecating in public. The Father of the Nation wrote copiously on this aspect...it is unfortunate that almost a hundred years after Gandhiji started such a movement, India is still not completely rid of such practice. The reasons are many. Poverty is one of them," a bench of Justices J. Chelameshwar and A.M. Sapre said in a judgment.
Some candidates had challenged the constitutional validity of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015. It stipulates that every contestant must have a functional toilet at his/her house and should be at least a matriculate. In case of SCs and STs, the qualification is Class VIII pass. No candidate should be insolvent or have electricity dues.
Rejecting the petitioners' contentions, the apex court said it was true that every citizen "has a constitutional right to elect and to be elected to either Parliament or the state legislatures" but at the same time the legislature imposing certain restrictions cannot be construed as unconstitutional.
The court agreed with the attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the Haryana government and said that if people in the state did not having functioning toilets at home, it was not because they could not afford it but because they had no intention of having one.
"A salutary provision designed as a step for eliminating the unhealthy practice ought not to be invalidated. However, this practice is not exclusive to the poorer sections of rural India. The state has evolved schemes to provide financial assistance to those economically not in a position to construct a toilet. As rightly pointed by the respondents (Haryana), if people still do not have a toilet it is not because of their poverty but because of their lacking the requisite will," Justice Chelameshwar, writing the main judgment, said.
The judge pointed out that one of the primary duties of any civic body is to maintain sanitation. "Those who aspire to get elected to those civic bodies and administer them must set an example for others. 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, such a policy 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 by the act," Justice Chelameshwar said.
The court also concurred with the state government on minimum qualifications. "The object of such classification is to ensure that those who seek election to panchayats have some basic education. It is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, the prescription of an educational qualification is not irrelevant for better administration of the panchayats."
The bench found nothing wrong either in the bar linked to insolvency or failure to pay power dues and pointed out that similar provisions were in vogue for MPs and MLAs.
"We are also not very sure as to how many of such people who are so deeply indebted would be genuinely interested in contesting elections, whether at panchayat level or otherwise," the bench said.