From the right to education to the right to food, solving our development problems by clothing India’s citizens with new rights seems to be the flavor of our times. What should we make of this rise of rights? Skeptics have argued (and with some conviction) that this expansion of rights serves merely to raise expectations of delivery from a state that has proved conclusively that its greatest characteristic is its inefficiency. And so these new rights amount to nothing but political rhetoric. In a recent article on the subject the Economist suggests just this: ‘Perhaps its only indisputable achievement is political - as potential vote-winners, rights-based schemes are often attractive to politicians, no matter how effective they are’. And perhaps because of their political salience, another set of criticisms is that they serve as a diversion from the real challenge of creating an accountable and responsive state. While it could be argued that creating rights might in fact do just this, in reality – in a system where grievance redressal mechanisms are barely functional and the courts are no different to other arms of the Indian state (and should judges really be making decisions on areas where they have no competency?) – these new rights can never be made justiciable and thus have little credibility. (See these two links on the subject:
So do we dismiss this expansion of rights as nothing but new labels on old bottles that will dilute their own credibility, as mere political rhetoric that will divert from the real challenge at hand? I think not. To understand the potential of these new rights, it is important to think of them in the context of the power dynamics that shape state-citizen relationships in India. It is now a commonplace observation that in much of India citizen- state relationships exist more in the realm of patronage - the paternalistic, mai-baap sarkar that distributes state largess – than in the realm of rights and responsibilities. In this sense Indian democracy has fallen short of its ideal –honoring the standing of citizens and free and equal persons. The invocation of the language of rights in citizen’s everyday dealings with the state offers the opportunity to re –frame modes of citizen engagement from that of being passive recipients to becoming active agents that ‘demand’ services as their right. And this is critical to accountability. In a panel discussion we organized a few months ago, Nikhil Dey made the interesting point that ‘accountability from, the citizen’s point of view, is inextricably tied to basic entitlements. Who can I hold accountable if I don’t have an entitlement?’
Consider the movement for the right to information – arguably the first (and perhaps most successful) effort in India to expand the notion of fundamental rights to the domain of social and economic rights. The movement pushed the frontiers of the notion of access to information to offer a radical interpretation of access to information as a ‘right’ that is fundamental to citizen’s right to participate in government and hold it accountable. This interpretation was premised on the notion that the provision of a ‘right’ fundamentally alters power asymmetries between citizens and the state by giving citizens an entitlement which they have a ‘right’ to demand. Two of Accountability Initiative’s researchers have recently completed a study of the effects of a citizen’s organization in Delhi – the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) – that has been working with slum dwellers (mostly women) to invoke the right to information as a means to access basic services – ration cards, widow’s pensions from the state. SNS has also been running information campaigns to build resident capacity to engage with the formal government system. A language of rights and entitlements is integral to SNS’s information campaigns. The study finds that making citizens aware of their rights and entitlements and pushing them to invoke these rights to access services has had an empowering influence on slum dwellers who are have increasingly more confidence in making demands directly to officials and politicians. In fact the study finds that awareness of rights and entitlements and the invocation of these rights in dealings with officials– particularly the right to information has had considerable success in enabling citizens to access basic services.
But in all of this one needs to acknowledge that the aspirations of rights approaches will only be met if one addresses the hard challenge of ensuring that entitlements are realized. We need to think long and hard about creating effective grievance redressal; about undertaking much needed administrative reforms and at the very minimum about ensuring that people are made adequately aware of their rights and what this means for accessing services from the state. The rhetoric of rights adopted by the current political dispensation offers an opportunity to do this. But this will require concerted civil society action. Can civil society rise to the challenge? And will civil society pressure be enough?
In sum, rights approaches could be the starting point of re-articulation of citizen state relationships – one that could fundamentally alter the nature of the Indian state. Or they could end up proving critics right and end up as yet another moment in Indian democracy that never took off.
Yamini Aiyar is the Director, Accountability Initiative.