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Volume XLIV, No.51

Human Rights: No End to Denial of Right to Life

by B. N. Arora

Tuesday 24 April 2007

We observe December 10 as the Human Rights Day every year. Critiques then made highlight violation of human rights across the world. But the focus generally remains on civil and political rights. The foremost human right, the right to life, suffers from inadequate attention. We may recall that Thomas Jefferson, who was largely responsible for the drafting of the US Declaration of Independence, declared that among the inalienable rights are those of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt in his speech to the US Congress on January 6, 1941 asserted that of the four essential human freedoms, one is freedom from want. Here in India apathy towards this most basic human right constitutes a sad commentary on our national consciousness even after almost six decades of independence, when a vast proportion of our population continues to be deprived of this right.

This apathy of our political class is repugnant to Indian tradition itself, which implicitly recognises paramountcy of right to life. Buddhism refers to hunger as the greatest disease. “Give us this day our daily bread” is an oft-quoted Christian prayer. Community kitchen or langars are a hallmark of the Sikh faith. Swami Vivekananda, who had once perorated ‘Bread, Bread’, stated in his famous address to the Parliament of Religions in America on September 20, 1893:

...but it is bread that suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats. They ask us for bread, but we give them stones. It is an insult to a starving man to teach metaphysics.

Then in the course of a conversation with his disciples at the Belur Math in the beginning of 1899, he declared:

Throw aside your scriptures in the Ganga and teach the people first the means of procuring their food and clothing, and then you will find time to read to them the scriptures.

And Shri Ramakrishna Paramhans said: “There cannot be religion with empty stomach.”

Our national leaders stressed the importance of freedom from want. Mahatma Gandhi said, “God must come in the form of bread” to the hungry. Jawaharlal Nehru in his famous “Tryst with Destiny” address referred to the pledge of ending poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. Thereafter, President Rajendra Prasad solemnly promised :
To all we give the assurance that it will be our endeavour to end poverty and squalor and its companions, hunger and disease; to abolish distinction and exploitation and to ensure decent conditions of living. We are embarking on a great task.1

But, painfully, promises made to remove poverty, the main cause of denial of right to life, have not been honoured as the track record of successive governments show. Despite his socialist rhetoric, Nehru was described by Barrington Moore (Moore 1966) as a “gentle betrayer of masses”, a description that applies with equal force to the entire ruling class.2

Surely, as adumbrated above, denial of the right to life is very closely linked to the status of 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 populist slogan of ‘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, their being shades of East Asia in the state-propertied class alliance for growth, as opined by two eminent authors.3

The trinity of globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation (the strategy of the neo-liberals) sucked in by the Indian ruling class with great zeal 15 years ago has further aggravated the plight of the poor and hungry. This has also hastened the process of widening of disparities. In the face of rising protests against the travails of the masses, crocodile tears shed by our Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, saying that globalisation should now have a human face, only betray their hypocrisy. Be that as it may, it is pointed out that forty per cent of the urban population and half of the rural population lives below the poverty level and that 300 million continue to survive on less than $ 1.25 a day.4

A few indicators confirm rampant and increasing poverty. For instance, according to Gian Pietro Bordignon, the World Food Programme Representative and Country Director in India, despite the high growth rate, one in every five Indians suffers from overt or covert hunger and about 214 million people are chronically insecure.5 Moreover, as experts point out, 320 million people go to bed without food and 10,000 die of hunger-related pangs every day.6 The status of malnutrition is also alarming. About 50 per cent of children are under-nourished and stunted, 68 out of every 1000 dying before one year.7 A global report, released by the UN Children Fund on May 3, 2006, says that India accounts for 57 million of the world’s 146 million malnourished children. The UNICEF studies reveal that one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. Thus the poor performance of the ICDS is evident from the latest World Bank Report titled “India’s undernourished Children: A Call for Reform and Action” which points out that India has the largest incidence of under-weight children in the world, nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Malnutrition is estimated to be the cause of half of all child deaths.

It is a matter of national shame that poverty and hunger force people to take their lives. The Government of India itself admits to a figure of more than 112,000 farm suicides in the past decade.8 Moreover, figures compiled by the Home Ministry reveal that pushed to the brink of mounting debts, nearly a lakh of farmers and their family members committed suicide between 1998 and 2003.9 In recent times escalating suicides by farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra have been covered by a small but sensitive part of the media. Rising debt, soaring input costs, plummeting output prices and credit crunch are the main causes of this gory episode. Call for timely remedies by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) were ignored. Shaken (or awakened) by reports of large scale suicides in Vidarbha, the Prime Minister announced on July 1, 2006 a package of Rs 3750 crores for the farmers there. But even this palliative has not helped to stem the tide of farmers’ suicides as 454 killed themselves after the PM’s visit to Vidarbha—on an average over 100 deaths per month which was 50 before his visit.

Cotton farmers of the Vidarbha region have been in great distress particularly owing to indebtedness. They were also not getting remunerative price for their produce. While 30 lakh odd cotton cultivators spent Rs 3000 per quintal they got only Rs 1750. Import of cheap US cotton added to their agony because the US subsidy programme runs on an annual bill of $ 4.7 million (Rs 20,874 crores) which, according to the UN Human Development Report for 2005, works out to be Rs 84 lakhs per farmer. It was in this context that the NCF Chairman, M.S. Swaminathan, “argued for ensuring a remunerative price—at least 50 per cent more than the farmers’ cost of production”. He added: “Why cannot India launch a protective tariff cover for farmers?” The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Practices Chairman Prof T. Haq agreed that the price received by the farmers did not cover the cost, especially in Vidarbha. However, the apathy of the government is evident also from what the former Prime Minister, V.P.Singh, told a rally in New Delhi on March 21, 2006:

The government purchased wheat from Australian farmers at a staggering rate of Rs 950 per quintal, against Rs 650 purchased from our farmers. Why?10

One will be really aghast at the extreme distress of our farmers when one faces the most appalling fact, namely, debt-ridden farmers announcing sale of their villages and kidneys. “Kidney Sale Centre”, proclaimed a banner sprawling across a ramshackle bamboo tent at Singhnapur village in Amravati district. 11

What is the remedy of all this? Deep-seated problems need radical measures. But is the present government ready for this? It would be naïve to expect anything of this nature from the existing ruling class. We know the state has abdicated its responsibility towards the poor. This is most evident in the field of land reforms, which affect the lives of three-fourths of our people. With a few exceptions (West Bengal, Kerala and J&K), this basic measure has been ignored. 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 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, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen stressed the need for completion of 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”.16 Incidentally (most probably as a populist rhetoric), Sonia Gandhi, in her speech at the Congress Chief Ministers’ Conclave at Chandigarh on October 7, 2005, had inter alia said that the issue of land and land right is critical.

To sum up, to remove 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 state institutions that affect their lives, they have to be mobilised to force the state to become more accountable to the poor.13 However, given the current ideological stance of the ruling class, prospects of radical steps to end poverty seem bleak.


1. Mainstream, June 20, 2002, p. 7.
2. States, Markets and Just Growth, ed. Atul Kohli, Chungin-Moon and George Vovensen (UN University Press, Tokyo, Paris), Rawat Publications, New Delhi, p. 199.
3. Ibid., p. 209.
4. Mainstream, November 4, 2006.
5. The Hindu, October 24, 2006.
6. Tehelka, January 14, 2006.
7. The Hindu, October 24, 2006.
8. The Hindu, November 6, 2006.
9. Hindustan Times, May 19, 2006.
10. Hindustan Times, November 11, 2006.
11. Frontline, March 24, 2006.
12. The Hindu, January 4, 2006.
13. Second Generation Reforms in India, ed. Ruddar Datt, Deep & Deep Publications, Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2003, p. 13.

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