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Mainstream Vol XLVI, No 51

Denial of Right to Life

Friday 12 December 2008, by B N Arora

Even After Sixtyone Years of Independence, the Vast Indian Humanity Remains Sunk in the Quagmire of Poverty and Hunger

Considerable rhetoric about violation of human rights is being heard all around us. But the negation of the most basic human right, namely, the right to life, fails to get the attention it deserves. In his historic speech in the Constituent Assembly at midnight of August 14-15, 1947, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, inter alia, that the pledge that we shall take today is “that the service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and desease and inequality of opportunity.” In real terms, this meant a pledge to ensure the right to life to the teeming millions. But alas, the Congress party, which ruled the country for most of the years after independence, either on its own or in a coalition set-up, forgot over the years this solemn covenant. The ruling establishments have pursued economic policies which made the rich richer and the poor poorer, rendering a vast majority of our population bereft of the right to life. No wonder that despite his socialist rhetoric, Nehru was described by Barrington Moore (Moore 1966) as a “gentle betrayer of masses”, a description that applies with greater force to the entire ruling class.

In this connection, it may first be recalled that the fundamentality of the right to life was clearly recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 [Article 25(1)] and in the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article II). Since this is also a fundamental right as enshrined in the Constitution, the State is mandated to secure it for its citizenry. To sustain this thesis, the Apex Court has in umpteen cases, such as (1) Francis Coralie versus the Union Territory of Delhi, (2) Kehar Singh versus the Union of India, (3) the State of HP versus Umed Ram, (4) Olga Tellis versus the Bombay Corporation and (5) the Delhi Transport Corporation versus the DTC Mazdoor Congress, held the right to life in all its complements as a basic human right.

The denial of the right to life is very closely linked to poverty. However, high-sounding announcements for poverty alleviation/removal made from time to time have turned from illusions to delusions only. For example, what happened to the hype of the popular slogan ‘Garibi Hatao’ raised by Indira Gandhi? Her era in effect saw the emergence of a largely capitalist economy, the state intervening massively to support the property-owning elite.

The result has been that the gap between the rich and poor has been widening immensely. The status of poverty is illuminatingly provided by the latest report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (a government affiliated body) which states that the total number of people in India belonging to the poor and vulnerable groups, having a daily per capita consumption of less than Rs 20, was 836 million, that is, about 77 per cent of the population in 2005. Moreover, the World Bank has estimated that 80 per cent of the Indian population live under the global poverty line of two dollars a day. Also one in every five Indians suffers from overt or covert hunger and about 320 million go to bed without food and 10,000 die of hunger related pangs every day. The eminent sociologist, Ashis Nandy, was constrained to say: “I do not want to live in a society where one-third of the people go to bed hungry.”

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Increasing malnutrition is a symptom of rampant poverty and as such negation of the right to life. The Vice-President, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, has rightly said that infant morality directly related to poverty “is a violation of the right to life as guaranteed in Article 21”. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-3 data, based on American standards, shows that 46 per cent Indian kids were malnourished, two per cent higher than the children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Proper health care is basic to the sustenance of life. Here again, the Vice-President has said that the lack of access to health care amounted to denial of the right to life. Yet even after six decades of our independence, with public expenditure on health dismally struck at around one per cent of the GDP, as against the promise to raise it to three per cent, large sections of our population continue to suffer because of poor medical access. It was estimated that one in 18 children dies within the first year of birth and more than one in 13 die before the age of five, ostensibly due to lack of medical care. In the absence of a credible public health care system, the majority of even the poor people have to turn to the costly private sector, another reason for high indebtedness.

The economic policies of the government since the early 1990s, governed by the so-called Washington Consensus and forced through the US-controlled IMF and the World Bank, have exacerbated the situation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram saying that globalisation should have a human face is like sheding only crocodile tears.

Almost two-thirds of our population live in villages. The greatest tragedy is that a vast majority of rural India is afflicted with the scourge of poverty. The call given during the freedom movement, namely, “land to the tiller”, was almost forgotten. Exceept for a few States like West Bengal, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir land reforms, so essential to break the age-old exploitative feudal, order were never pursued seriously. In a forthright analysis, the Planning Commission Task Force, headed by P.S. Appu, described, among others, the “lack of political will, lukewarm and often apathetic attitude of the bureaucracy, absence of the land records, and legal hurdles in the way of implementation of the land reforms” as the reasons for poor performance in this respect. In this context, while delivering a lecture on “Science and Practical Reason” at the 93rd Indian Science Congress on January 3, 2006, the Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, stressed the need for completing land reforms. Hinting at gaping disparities, he pointed out that “our vision of India cannot be one that is half California and half Sub-Saharan Africa”.

The most despicable feature has been the suicides by farmers on a very large scale. More than two years ago, the Government of India itself admitted to a figure of more than 112,000 farm suicides in the past decade. The worst instance was that of Vidarbha where the much-hyped package of Rs 3750 crores to that region did not help to stem the tide of farmers’ suicides.

When the disease is at an advanced stage, radical remedial measures are needed to redeem the pathetic situation. The huge and prolonged disparity between the rich and the poor, when the number of billionaires is increasing (at present perhaps the second largest number of them in the world), is totally unacceptable. First and foremost, the programme of land reforms has to be taken up with full commitment to alleviate the plight of poor farmers and farm labourers, together with effective credit facilities at much cheaper rates to wipe out rural indebtedness and provide for remunerative price for farmers’ produce. Moreover to remove the raging poverty (or shall we say to remove the riches as such) and thereby secure the right to life for all, the state must intervene massively by shoring up resources and infrastructure to boost social sectors like health, education, employment and housing. Since empowerment of the poor implies enhancing their capacity to influence decision-making in the state institutions that affect their lives, they have to be mobilised to force the state to become more accountable to the poor.

The author is a former Under Secretary (now retired) of the Union Public Service Commission

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