The so-called rights revolution in India

As India seeks a greater role in global governance, problems at home only worsen. There are small steps toward the delivery of social goods, but the efforts beg the question: what good is a right if there’s no right to the good? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. हिंदी.

Neera Chandhoke
1 October 2013

There’s something deeply ironic about the rise of BRICS and the emerging powers’ demand for a seat at the high tables of international finance and governance: Even as they seek to correct inequalities in global governance, hunger and injustice reign supreme at home. Will the member countries’ growing influence have any impact at all on the lives of the poor?

A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tells us that though BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have played a major role in surviving the 2008 global economic crisis, income inequalities in these countries are significantly higher than the OECD average. Brazil has reduced inequalities, but China, India, Russia and South Africa have become less equal over time. The 2013 World Bank Report “The State of the Poor: Where are the Poor and Where are the Poorest?” states that one-third of the world’s poor live in India on less than $1.25 (U.S.) per day.

It’s regrettable – tragic, really – that the Indian Constitution codified civil and political rights but not social and economic rights. The leaders of the Indian Freedom Movement understood as early as the 1920s that political freedom is possible only when people are free from want and hunger. They had conceptualised an integrated agenda of political, civil, social, cultural, and economic rights in the 1928 Nehru Constitutional Draft and in subsequent documents. But in the Constituent Assembly, social and economic rights were downgraded to mere guiding principles of the state and were unenforceable. It was precisely this problem that gave birth to contemporary civil society campaigns at the turn of the 21st century. These campaigns inaugurated a new phase of activism in the domain of collective action.

The state has responded to four campaigns for the right to food, employment, information, and elementary education, and has legislated on the issues raised. Yet India is hardly in the middle of a social revolution. The laws fall far short of meeting the needs. And what virtue is there in granting a “right” when ordinary people have no access to the good it promises? For example, Indians have a right to elementary education, but state-run schools are notorious for non-performance; teacher absenteeism; the distraction of teachers by such state-mandated tasks as census-taking, election duty, and preparation of midday meals for the children; the absence of infrastructure such as classrooms, blackboards, toilets, playgrounds, electricity and computers; lack of extra-curricular activities, and general indifference toward teaching or imbuing students with a love of learning. What then is the value of the right to an elementary education?

Much of the rhetoric of the political class amounts to political posturing, and the leadership seeks to glean every drop of political/electoral capital from centrally sponsored schemes in food, employment, and education. Little effort is made to systematically follow up on legislative initiatives or even the enactment of a constitutional right. Nor has a mechanism been established to enforce accountability or to redress grievances. Lack of attention to such details reflects poorly on the way the state has responded to the discourse of rights by civil society.

Significantly, most of the campaigns for the delivery of social goods have either originated from a Supreme Court decision, or succeeded in their objectives when the Court has intervened on their behalf. Though Court interventions have helped campaigns to achieve their goals, the need for the Court to intervene at all illustrates the paradox of civil society mobilisation. In much of the literature it is assumed that civil society groups have the capacity to address the state and oblige it to heed their demands. However, the Indian State has proven more responsive to court injunctions, compelling more and more groups to invoke judicial activism. 

In turn, there is growing concern over judicial activism because the judiciary is non-representative and because it tends to tread on the toes of the executive and legislative branches. Some scholars even dismiss such activism as populism, and a mere attempt to refurbish the Court’s image after it was complicit in the government’s 1975-1977 state of emergency declaration. The Supreme Court has adopted a pro-active stance in part because the agenda of contemporary civil society mobilisation is self-limiting. Social movements that demand a radical restructuring of power relations have just not fetched the required response from the judiciary. Nor has the Court enunciated a comprehensive doctrine of social rights – a la the South African judiciary.

In the late 1990s, a number of civil society organisations perceptibly shifted their strategy – from opposing and critically engaging with the state, to advocating and partnering with the state. The number and influence of groups that have opted for this strategy has increased over time, and many of them advise political parties on electoral agendas. Leaders of some campaigns have been incorporated into the National Advisory Council, headed by Ms. Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party. The NAC has proven instrumental in the passage of several laws, but such legislation from above breeds its own problems. For instance, NAC membership has become a benchmark of the success of civil society organisations. One can hardly expect civil society to take on the state, when all it wants is to become a state-financed member of the club. It’s not surprising that the system remains in place, and that remedies for the symptoms of a deeper malaise do not evolve.

It partnership agreements with the state tend to blunt the edge of civil society activism, their campaign strategies are hardly conducive to transformative social change. Campaigns for the delivery of social goods have not attained the stature of social movements, which speak back to history and mobilise people, make them aware of their rights, and enable them to develop agency by participating in struggles to realise what is their due. Leaders are normally middle-class intellectuals, many of whom are active in the World Social Forum. They have been involved in setting up non-governmental organizations and have access to sources of major funding. NGOs prefer to network with other organizations, call upon like-minded individuals to sign petitions, reach out to the state and society through the media, persuade government officials, and draft legislation. This hardly helps people to speak for themselves.

Finally, unlike social movements based on large-scale mobilisation, civil society campaigns typically do not address the source of powerlessness and helplessness, as evidenced by skewed income patterns. In contrast to movements that demand a shake-up of power relations, campaigns for the delivery of social goods concentrate on specific issues and leave the big story untouched – the huge inequalities of resources, for instance.  Though they have managed to highlight issues of impoverishment, ill health and illiteracy, none of these efforts has really addressed resource inequality. These campaigns do not pursue the large and expansive dreams of generations of social activists: Rework the existing power structures and forge new and equitable structures of social relations so that citizens can participate in the political process as equals. They concentrate instead on the necessities of everyday life. The outcome is predictable. The vocabulary that emanates from the corridors of power is that of inclusion and governance, not that of releasing the energy of the people through the exercise of rights, and of achieving equality rather than mere sufficiency.

These campaigns would rather ensure that the state delivers on what it has promised in theory: that policy be implemented effectively, that local authorities be made accountable, that the functioning of the government be made public and transparent, that midday meals be provided to children in primary schools, that the poor get jobs for at least 100 days a year, and that children are brought into school. The quality of life for the ordinary Indian just may improve somewhat, but none of this ensures a transition to freedom.

While India and other BRICS members seek a more powerful place on the world stage, they cannot afford to neglect their problems at home. For now it seems the issue of inequality will continue to dodge collective life in India.


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