Thursday, September 01, 2005

A qualified freedom

India Together Editorial

For hundreds of millions of citizens, the pursuit of dignity and happiness remains an unfinished journey. Political parties are still busy interpreting freedom for the people, rather than simply giving it to them. As a result, the appearance of independence is strong, whereas in practice there is much more to be done. The India Together editorial.

01 September 2005 - There are many good things about an Independence day. Like others before it, the 15 August that passed us a fortnight ago brought cheer and national fervour to our citizens, old and young alike, and reminded us of the debt we will always owe to the founding fathers of this large, diverse and complex nation. But for large numbers of less fortunate citizens, who we are sure respect the day equally, it may also include a stark reminder of their lack of independence; their own pursuit of dignity and happiness remains an unfinished journey.
How independent are the majority of our people, really? Looking at some recent developments gives us a sense of where the nation is.

Small victories
Ever since 1947, the poorest citizens have not had the benefit of either a social or employment security system, not even at our meagre minimum wage levels. And since the 90s, we've become perhaps the only independent developing nation that both impoverishes millions of farmers and workers by exposing them to market forces - even developed countries don't do this to their farmers - and yet does not provide a minimum and statutory assurance of income security to cover them when their already low paying jobs are taken away by the same market forces.
But with the Employment Guarantee bill close to becoming law, there is now the possibility that at least one member of every rural home can demand employment at the minimum wage levels for 100 days a year, or unemployment allowance at the same rate if the government cannot provide work. Despite the criticism against instituting any form of guarantee, the EG bill is a first hard-won step forward in reversing this massive imbalance of due entitlements.
Two, government secrecy and corruption are well known, and cries against these are often raised in the public sphere in India. Entire books on the culture of secrecy and corruption have been written, sold, filed and buried. But since the Right to Information movement gained ground in the 90s - incidentally, this has its roots in the rights of workers to be paid their due wages for work - a few states have passed sunshine laws. In some states, citizens pressed ahead in using these laws and even broke new ground. But Central government departments and most State governments simply kept their files inaccessible to the regular public.
This year, that is about to change. A national Right to Information law is now on the statute books, and this time (unlike the 2002 version), the law promises to arm citizens nationwide and somewhat more uniformly. The rule-making process for this law is now on, and already there have been worries of high fees, dodgy enforcement commission appointments, and confusion in some states. The early years will likely see stops and starts in open government becoming a reality, but nothing can take away the fact that come mid-October, the nation will turn a new corner, and a new opportunity for our citizens to independently exercise vigilance over and exorcise secrecy from government will be at hand.
While these two developments augur better for the independence of our people than otherwise, any analyst of a democratising society will tell us it is too early to cry victory. In the meantime, our governments continue to hold out in other matters.

Battles still to be won
It is well accepted now that while television, print and the Internet have become media of choice and outlets for the better off in the country, radio is by far the one media that because of its nature (serves less literate and more literate alike), low cost, and local reach, allows citizens organisations to become independent broadcasters of locally relevant programming. This, in ways that high powered, advertising-dependent commercial stations or centrally managed government broadcasters will never be able to. In a nation with over 15 languages, over 300 dialects, and abundant cultural diversity, independent non-commercial radio may be a key outlet for the millions who voices are never heard in the same proportion in the public sphere that the voices of their better off counterparts are.
And not surprisingly, several non-commercial people's organisations are currently airing community radio programs in limited and paid timeslots on AIR stations - in Gujarat, Jharkhand, and Karnataka, to cite three. But purchasing limited government airitime is very constraining and they could do far better and grow their programming with their own radio licenses, subject as they will be, to the same laws of the land as other media organisations are. Yet, successive central governments have continued to deny them permissions. How this has come to be is a different story, but the fact is many of the independent societies we admire allow their citizens' organisations to run independent radio stations, whereas in India, we have outlawed non-commercial organisations other than educational institutions from radio.
Many of the independent societies we admire allow their citizens' organisations to run independent radio stations, whereas in India, we have outlawed non-commercial organisations other than educational institutions from radio. • RTI : hundred days and counting
• EGA bill in Parliament
Another domain of limited progress is local government in urban areas. It is somewhat well known that citizens' representation in urban municipal governments is very incomplete, and even lower than rural areas. To address this imbalance and to decentralise decision making on local affairs further to districts within cities (called wards), ward committees have been provided for in our law. If ward committees were instituted in the spirit of the Constitution's decentralisation amendments -- deepen their membership to allow citizen participation -- citizens would have a legal space to independently provide input and govern their own affairs, as opposed to otherwise. But governments in many states have not established these committees at all, or where set up they are loaded with preferred political appointees, who are uninterested in public service. That said, in some states, there are new efforts underway to create people's sabhas in polling booth jurisdictions and make ward committees actually work.

Understanding independence differently
These are a few observations; still there is a uniform thread that runs through many of these areas: an increasingly assertive people may choose different expressions of independence, whereas centralised government programs and plans simply offer them one of many expressions they might choose. Our leaders are still interpreting independence for the people, rather than giving it to them. Whoever is 'ruling' in Delhi or the state capitals is assumed to be acting with the people's mandate on all issues, even if the people who elected them only liked some portion of their agendas. This is a well-understood problem with democracies everywhere, but its manifestation is acute in India. Individual government policies that should be up for public debate are instead presented for up-or-down votes in legislative houses or local councils where dissent within parties is already restricted by law.
The appearance of an independent people and democracy is strong in India, but the practice is still woefully incomplete. The struggle for independence rightly focused on making the nation free of external shackles, but once that freedom was obtained the emphasis should have begun shifting in more concrete terms to the citizens, so that they could fully exercise their choices on their own. Some change is taking place, but fifty eight years after 1947 this incomplete evolution remains at the heart of an important distinction between the robust independence witnessed in many other countries, and the party- and personality-led version of independence in our nation.

© India Together


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