The National Food Security Act and MGNREGA were drafted by people's movements
People’s movements have been losing their voice
IN many countries around the world democracy is being gradually reduced to an electoral vote, with the majority party assuming almost all legitimacy. Many lawful concerns and advocacy for “people” are being reduced to the margins. Discussions are not representative and majoritarian interpretations of democracy dominate.
In India, what is now being witnessed is a reversal of the efforts made by people’s movements to access rights and formulate rights-based legislation.
These movements were in answer to the first 50 years after India’s freedom when development and basic rights remained inaccessible because of the structural corruption of the delivery system.
Since the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), movements sought to define the rights of people to participate in designing policy. The understanding of citizens’ rights led to questioning the role of political representatives, shifting the discourse towards demanding participatory democracy.
The relevance of rights-based legislation was understood by people. The independent campaigns for these laws became the democratic demand of people at the grassroots. There was the Right to Information, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), National Food Security, Right to Education, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, Street Vendors Act, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, Amendments to the Disability Act of 1995, the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 and the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2011.
And these are just some of the many significant people's movements. One seeks a collective pardon for leaving out others for want of space. The civil society narrative of 20 years is complex and huge.
As we stepped into the 21st century we carried with us the momentum of the growing democratic confidence that citizens could fashion national policy and legislation.
The seminal issues of transparency and accountability were defined by a group of peasants and workers from central Rajasthan. Their struggle for wages traced the paper trail between the fudged muster roll, unpaid wages, government opacity, outlining their demand to the right to live with dignity. Transparency and accountability were perceived as critical for rights, livelihood and for development.
Grassroots struggles were located in the socio-economic realities of inequality. Justice was inaccessible because of corruption, the arbitrary use of power, and a complicit local government. The poor were permanently on the fringes, defined as criminals. The system reacted to this questioning with violence and viciousness.
PUSHBACK BY THE STATE
The system reacted with the imposition of criminal cases — including bizarre accusations of conspiring against the State. People were persecuted for claiming the right to decide on their own development, like the location of an atomic plant in a tsunami-affected area in Kudankulam or protests against mining in tribal areas. It became clear to village India that welfare promises had to be transformed into rights for access to basic services, and to establish the legal validity of their claims.
Even the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS)’s Right to Information (RTI) campaign began with the demand for minimum wages for government works. It was interesting to follow the paper trail — from the muster roll, to the BDO (Block Development Officer) office. The muster rolls had dead people’s names and bills were made out to fictitious individuals, which enraged middle-class villagers, upset with how corruption resulted in divesting the rural village economy of simple but important assets. Asking for information about the expenditure on public works brought the village together despite differences across caste, class and religion. Corruption, nepotism and the arbitrary use of power affect individual lives. They also make a mockery of development promises and constitutional rights. Public hearings exposed the farce of governance in government hospitals, schools and other systems of delivery of welfare.
The response of the political system was largely one of anxiety because the rights-based laws legitimized the right to question their impunity, and they often reacted with violence. More than 100 RTI users have lost their lives for questioning authority.
Post-2014, there have been greater restrictive orders, removing spaces of protest. Activism has become a pejorative word and is stoked by hate speeches and derision through such hate speech. Words like ‘urban Naxals’ have become labels to delegitimize and stigmatize urban support and amplification of the voices of tribals and other vulnerable groups. The Bhima Koregaon incarcerations are actually of people who amplified Dalit and tribal voices for the delivery of constitutional promises.
The rights-based campaigns questioned the conventional notion of governance and power. The demand for engagement with democratic processes was a demand for constitutional equality.
An early attempt at creating platforms for such engagement was the National Advisory Council (NAC) formed by the UPA governments — I and II. It functioned as a pre-legislative platform to engage with people. This engagement largely formalized the obligation of power to consult, deliberate and evolve policy participatively. Though the legal context of the NAC in the structure of parliamentary governance remained unclear, it did manage to engage with a democratic, participatory process. It opened up channels for engagement with the system. Civil servants and policymakers had to listen to people and their points of view.
NO DEBATE ON LAWS
The NAC in its second phase was persuaded to debate on the need for a pre-legislative policy, but ended as an office order. This tradition has been set aside by the Central government. It is unbelievable that a spate of laws has gone through Parliament with little or no debate, often bypassing reference to Select and Standing Committees, created for larger participation and involvement of people in decision-making. Urban civil society has remained largely silent on these issues.
After the 2014 elections, there was a systematic attempt to weaken the rights-based laws. Prime Minister Modi said in Parliament in 2014 that MGNREGA “was a living memorial to the Congress government’s failures. After so many years in power, all the then government in power was able to deliver was for a poor man to dig ditches a few days a month”.
But the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and MGNREGA were the only support to rural people during the Covid-19 pandemic induced counter migration. RTI, however weakened, still plays a role in legitimizing questions and speaking truth to power.
The right to question and freedom of expression are the nerve centres of a democracy. Mass movements which systematically spoke truth to power were strong ethical forces influencing a range of people’s concerns. Derisive labels for social movement leaders as andolan jeevis have been coined to present them as a disvalue to society.
These two decades also saw brutal attacks on people like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, Gauri Lankesh and M.M. Kalburgi, who questioned and spoke of rationality, exposed superstition, bigotry, fundamentalism and the emerging political culture of communal politics. It also saw the systematic and engineered attempt to put down student agitation and movements. The attack within Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the incarceration of student activists, the fundamentalism on campuses, disallowing entry into colleges and universities were all part of this pattern. There has been a strong clampdown on student articulation. Unable to protest, they continue to live with injustice. As a result, there have been suicides. Rohith Vemula’s untimely suicide is a case in point.
MeToo and Not In My Name caught the imagination of young people in search of justice. The spontaneous movement in response to the Nirbhaya case brought women together to demand a powerful rape law, which was framed with public consultation.
EROSION OF RIGHTS
The Constitution has been cunningly corroded by the passage of laws which undermine fundamental rights and guarantees. The hazy apprehension in 2014 that the Modi government would impose restrictions on free speech and expression and promote inequality based on religion, has become reality. In 2019, any voice raised in protest and even acts of charity for the victims of communal conflict in Delhi became subjects of government scrutiny, and many have been jailed without logic.
The spontaneous protest on the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was not just by minority communities. Large numbers of democratic citizens came together to fight inequality. It was ruthlessly put down. The huge farmer agitation, when thousands of farmers began protesting, demanding the repeal of three farm laws passed as ordinances, challenged the ruling party.
There was no deliberation in Parliament and no democratic space for protest. It implicitly argued for pre-legislative consultation as a right when laws affecting thousands of people are passed in camera. It redefined the dimension, scale and possibilities of struggles for rights in India. The ordinances were set aside after a struggle which lasted a year and four months.
The NGO sector has been at the receiving end of numerous irrational changes in the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). As a result its ability to contribute in critical sectors — climate change, education, malnutrition or human rights — has declined.
Places for protest have shrunk by intent. Using the National Green Tribunal’s decision on noise pollution, Jantar Mantar was shut down for many months. It became active only after litigation in the Supreme Court. The new rules and conditions of protest, post the judgment, have also changed the contours of people’s mobilization.
The control of political power through centralization of technology so clearly visualized in the two dystopias — Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 — has become frighteningly real.
But the human voice cannot be silenced and, we hope, continues to protest, create, live. To quote Bertolt Brecht: In the dark times / will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. / About the dark times.
Aruna Roy is a member of the MKSS.