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Are Some Rights More Sacred Than Others?

18/03/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - JANUARY 26: A street child selling Indian flag at India Gate after the ceremony of 66th Republic Day of India, on January 26, 2015 in New Delhi, India. President of United States of America (USA) Barack Obama is the chief guest for this Republic Day. Rain failed to dampen spirits at India's Republic Day parade January 26 as US President Barack Obama became the first US president to attend the spectacular military and cultural display in a mark of the nations' growing closeness. Colourful images of India's cultural heritage, manoeuvres by fighter aircraft, military prowess and march past by armed forces were on majestic display. The main attractions of the parade were scintillating show of air power, fascinating tableaus depicting the diverse culture and dance performances by colourfully dressed schoolchildren. Around 25,000 security personnel were deployed across the city while the commandos of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Delhi Police kept vigil at important locations. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Are some rights in India 'holier' than others?

Rights have always been a contentious subject, more so in today's India, where their boundaries are getting skewed, being pushed and pulled in all possible directions. As contested as they may be, certain rights have always enjoyed a place of privilege at the cost of other rights.

Here I do not refer to the priority accorded to civil and political rights as opposed to social and economic rights by the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution. I refer to our collective conscience, which is outraged selectively and in the same order as mentioned above. If the reactions of politicians, intellectuals and media persons, as reflected in the mainstream media is anything to go by, we feel more enraged by encroachments on our freedom of expression than by agricultural distress gripping large parts of the country. Another such instance could be identity politics which dwarfs questions of malnutrition, farmer suicides and poverty, to name only a few. Our collective conscience is not so easily stirred by the latter. Similarly, being disturbed by the abysmal state of our public health infrastructure is not intellectually fashionable enough.

[B]eing disturbed by the abysmal state of our public health infrastructure is not intellectually fashionable enough.

This is not to say that violations of civil and political rights are any less condemnable. Neither is it a denial that these issues often conflate and coalesce to present an intertwined picture. It only makes one lament that the indivisibility of rights is a mere academic belief. India, it seems, suffers from a syndrome characterised by selective outrage and convenient apathy.

As Harsh Mander remarked, we look at inequality with such indifference, that we treat the poor as no different from the "forests and hills"...

In such a milieu, those who have selflessly crusaded for recognition of social and economic rights require due acknowledgement. In recent times, people like them can be identified with the likes of Aruna Roy and Jean Drèze and many others. We may disagree with the manifestations that these demands have taken, but their primacy cannot be denied. Delving into the innumerable lacunae in the implementation of the various rights-based legislations, one cannot help but feel disillusioned with them. But should that take away from the basic premise of these legislations? Is it too much to expect from the government to ensure basic employment, education and food to its citizenry?

india woman bricks

Advocates of rights have mocked the u-turn made by Modi over MGNREGA, the welfare scheme that guarantees 100 days of employment for every rural household. He had earlier dubbed it as "a monument of Congress's failure". Contrarily, on the occasion of MGNREGA's tenth anniversary, his government proclaimed it as the nation's "pride". However, the rationale for the former comment was conveniently underplayed. He had lamented that even after 60 years of rule, the Congress-led government was still making people "dig holes". It is most certainly a commentary on us for failing to provide even mere sustenance to the majority of the rural population, which is thrown into distress whenever the rain gods are less benevolent. None of us who have reaped benefits from the pockets of public spending that have created the flourishing middle class in India, can be exonerated. As Harsh Mander remarked, we look at inequality with such indifference, that we treat the poor as no different from the "forests and hills", all a part of our natural surroundings. Rarely are we moved by the plight of street urchins or child labourers.

The implementation of rights-based legislations such as MGNREGA are riddled with leakages and corruption.

The implementation of rights-based legislations such as MGNREGA are riddled with leakages and corruption. The Right to Education (RTE) Act is mired with flaws in the policy design. As to Right to Information (RTI), the Central Information Commission (which is the grievance redressal authority for the law) had to be without a Chief Information Commissioner for nine months. It is no secret that the delivery of these rights has been deeply problematic. However, it is worth remembering that these rights had been fought for simply because the constitutional promises were not compelling enough to motivate the state machinery to deliver. Given the far from satisfactory implementation of these legislations as well, one wonders what else it will take for the government to do what is necessary, to have the 'come what may' kind of commitment to ensure basic needs. Political leaders at the helm of affairs are not the only ones culpable. It goes down right to the lowest denominator in the government hierarchy who have routinely indulged in dereliction of their duties.

[W]hen the government can squander obscene amounts of money in bad loans to bad companies, surely it can do more to meet its most basic mandate.

An interesting contrast may be drawn with the public services guarantee legislations that have been enacted by 20 states of India within a span of just five years. These legislations guarantee certain public services that have been chosen by the state governments within a specified time period. What has inspired such alacrity? These legislations have been met with somewhat more gusto from the bureaucracy than legislations such as RTI and RTE. Are these legislations so much more comprehensive in their policy framework than the aforementioned rights-based legislations? The fact that they have been drafted by the government with the bureaucracy being part and parcel of the process, as opposed to the other laws where civil society played a predominant role, may hold the answer. It is the construed schism between the bureaucracy and the civil society which may be at fault. The former tends to take an overly pragmatic stance keeping implementability in focus, in the process limiting the scope of the law. The latter, although it envisions transformative change, tends to overlook the challenging labyrinth of the state apparatus that breeds corruption and leakages. What is required is a middle path, a synthesis of the two approaches.

The present dispensation has demonstrated some semblance of willingness to change...

The common retort against rights advocacy is the lack of resources. However, when the government can squander obscene amounts of money in bad loans to bad companies, surely it can do more to meet its most basic mandate. The present dispensation has demonstrated some semblance of willingness to change through new measures such as accepting the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission in the Budget of 2015 to increase the share of states in Union taxes. This year's Budget announced the end of the distinction between plan and non-plan expenditure and the decision to streamline centrally sponsored schemes into 30 schemes. Most importantly, it decided to introduce a sunset clause and to undertake outcome review. The revival of MGNREGA in the past financial year, although driven by the widespread conditions of drought, does inspire confidence. However, welfare schemes such as MGNREGA can only be interim solutions. They cannot supplant long term measures to protect agriculture from vagaries of the weather and the unavoidable task of employment generation in rural areas. Nevertheless, these developments are indicative of the fact that dynamism can be injected into the social sector. One can only hope that the optimism is not short lived.

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