In his speech at the Central Hall of Parliament on May 20, then Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi promised that his government would be one that thinks about the poor, listens to the poor, and which exists to fulfil the aspirations of villagers, farmers, Dalits and the oppressed. The speech was a follow-up to the election manifesto by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which promises that its governance model will be people-centric, policy driven, and time-bound.
On social development issues, the BJP’s manifesto promises that eradication of extreme poverty and malnutrition will be considered at all levels of national priority; that the government will strengthen the delivery of poverty alleviation programmes; identify 100 most backward districts of the country to bring them on par with other districts; employ rural poor in agriculture and other allied activities; and facilitate partnerships across all levels of government, civil society, academic and financial institutions in this national mission of poverty alleviation. On food security the Manifesto promises to review the Public Distribution System (PDS) model and related laws and schemes in consultation with the States to ensure corruption-free and efficient implementation of food security.
The Manifesto also commits to the eradication of untouchability, gives priority to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and other weaker sections, and promises to ensure that housing, health, education and skills development for the weaker sections are given priority. On minorities, the Manifesto promises “a peaceful and secure environment, where there is no place for either the perpetrators or the exploiters of fear.”
For close to three months – from March 7, when the BJP’s Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar , (This time around, a Modi government) advertising blitz was launched, to May 22, the last day of campaigning – a series of advertisements focussed on inflation, corruption, women’s safety, unemployment and inflation. However, rather than spell out details about what a BJP-government would deliver on these issues, the ads and the campaign that followed merely commented on the poor record of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the past 10 years.
Among the various schemes, programmes and laws that have been enacted to meet development targets set by the Government of India, some of the most progressive legislation enacted by the outgoing UPA government were the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Right to Food Act and the Right to Education Act (RTE). The passage of these laws redefined India’s social policy-making discourse from viewing the state as a paternalistic and benevolent master, to a rights-based one, with new laws and policies framed based on the rights and entitlements of citizens.
Yet, despite the framing of these laws, implementation of these programmes on the ground continues to be a problem and people are systematically excluded from receiving their entitlements. Problems of poor governance, ineffective delivery of public services, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability at various levels of governance, poor implementation, and inadequate infrastructure and resources continue to beset the administration.
Since the 1990s when economic liberalisation took place, although the country’s income levels have improved and poverty levels declined, there are significant disparities in levels of income and standards of living across States, social groups, gender, and between rural and urban areas of the country. As a result, many sections of the population are left without access to basic services such as quality education, water and sanitation, and adequate healthcare, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and hunger. Among those marginalised for various reasons, women and children from socially backward communities and religious minorities are the worst off.
The people’s demands
In order to bring key development issues to the attention of political leaders and parties, civil society networks have been systematically engaging with policy makers at the State and national levels. The RTI Act has been an exceptional tool in this regard.
Leading up to the Lok Sabha elections, Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (Don’t-Break-the-Promise Movement), a governance accountability campaign consisting of a membership of over 4,000 civil society organisations around the country, developed the All India People’s Manifesto. The People’s Manifesto process was a proactive engagement by people to give a voice to the aspirations, hopes and demands for good governance and equitable development across all parliamentary constituencies of the country. In this process, civil society groups at local, State and national levels conducted local hearings in 210 parliamentary constituencies across 24 States. Village-, panchayat-, block-, constituency-, State- and national-level hearings and consultations were held, which led to the development of State- and national-level manifestoes, which were shared with the relevant sitting Member of Parliament and other political representatives expected to contest the Lok Sabha elections from that constituency.
Politically important constituencies such as Amethi, Varanasi and Rae Barelli in Uttar Pradesh were included, as well as constituencies with poor development indicators such as Kalahandi in Orissa and various constituencies where Dalits and Adivasis formed a majority.
Key demands raised were with regard to the lack of basic services such as health and education and lack of livelihood opportunities for marginalised and special groups, and with regard to improving governance. A large network of women’s groups, civil society organisations, trade unions, student groups, Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, youth, women, transgenders and children were a part of the local hearings to ensure that the demands of all these groups were heard.
More than 6,00,000 people participated in the consultations nationally and over 10,00,000 signatures were collected as part of a social media campaign in support of the All India People’s Manifesto. Local charters of demands were developed through public meetings held at villages, panchayats, and town halls and handed over to party leaders at constituency and at State levels by local representatives. In addition, a civil society delegation met representatives of national parties such as the Indian National Congress, the BJP, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as well as with candidates for the Lok Sabha elections and members of the drafting committees of the party manifestoes.
Recognising systemic exclusion
One of the key issues that emerged from the consultations was that social exclusion and discrimination based on caste, ethnicity, gender, religion and region, has resulted in a systematic denial of rights and basic services to people by the state. This has been recognised by the Planning Commission, the UNDP, and various civil society organisations over the years. Despite constitutional provisions and laws that ban such caste discrimination and untouchability, and promise equality, equity and social justice, the issue of non-implementation of schemes and programmes as a result of discrimination has resulted in systemic human rights violations and developmental inequalities. The main cause of such inequality is rooted in the historic deprivation of assets and employment as a result of exclusion from healthcare, education and employment.
Finding local solutions
The experiences of a number of campaigns and movements in this country have shown that where local policy makers and political leaders have shown political will, changes have been made on the ground to tackle inequality and make a real difference to the lives of marginalised communities.
Communities need to be important stakeholders in planning, monitoring and implementing development interventions and these interventions must be planned taking into consideration local realities. Organisations such as the Dhan Foundation and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Tamil Nadu, as well as Arghyam in Karnataka are among thousands of organisations around the country that are working closely on people-centred and participatory approaches to ensure equitable access to and quality in services.
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The Dhan Foundation, for example, has worked closely with the Tamil Nadu government to implement a programme to improve the condition of the ooranis (traditional water bodies) in 25 selected villages of Ramanathapuram district. Reclaiming ooranis has revived their storage potential and guaranteed a source of safe drinking water at a low investment and with no environmental damage. Unlike other sources such as desalination plants, overhead tanks and hand pumps, there is no maintenance and management cost involved. Water distribution from restored ooranis is being managed easily by the local people, and over 1,20,000 people have gained access to drinking water by renovation of Ooranis . Earlier, women had to walk 1-2 km to fetch water, but revival of the ooranis saved 45 working days for the women. After ooranis were restored, the incidence of diseases, especially gastrointestinal disorders related to water shortage and water-borne diseases, was reduced. Locally available and managed water source meant a reduced dependency on centralised water supply systems.
The lack of community participation and ownership in schemes that are being developed by the government has been identified as one of the reasons for the failure of these schemes and programmes. In Tamil Nadu, for example, UNICEF has been working closely with the State government and local community-based organisations on participatory rural appraisals in Krishnagiri district, where the community is involved in identifying the reasons for ill health in the village and working with the local administration to develop local solutions using locally available funds.
Behaviour Change Communication strategies and adequate expenditure by the government on communication campaigns are essential to help the communities identify and avail of the entitlements available to them and can also play a crucial role in sensitising the community on issues such as gender equality, violence against women and against social discrimination.
Members of Parliament too have a crucial role to play in working closely with the community and listening to the needs of the constituency while planning development work. Under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS), Rs. 5 crore is available to each MP to work with the District Collector to take up development work in his or her constituency, but so far this has been a lost opportunity in creating assets of value for the community. In his book Public Money Private Agenda on the use and abuse of MPLAD funds, A. Surya Prakash writes about the large scale corruption and misuse of these funds by MPs, from violations in the guidelines to diversion of funds for private gain, and missing assets allegedly created by the funds. There is an urgent need for the government to set up an administrative infrastructure to monitor the scheme at district level and ensure accountability and transparency on the part of the MP as well as the district administration in the way in which this public money is being spent. Citizens too must take on the responsibility of monitoring the usage of such funds with tools that are available to them such as the RTI, to ensure accountability from publically elected representatives.
There is also an opportunity for the government to leverage the corporate sector in development work. While the Public-Private-Partnership model has come in for its fair share of criticism, the government is in a position to purchase the technology and resources that the private sector has to offer without giving up on its responsibilities for undertaking the work and claiming ownership for it.
In addition, the corporate sector is in a unique position to contribute to significant development-related activity, with the passing of the Companies Act, 2013, which mandates that all companies, whether private or public limited, with a net worth of Rs. 500 crore or a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore or net profit of Rs 5 crore, must spend at least two per cent of average net profit for the immediately preceding three financial years on corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. The activities that can be undertaken by a company to fulfil its CSR obligations include eradicating hunger, poverty and malnutrition, promoting preventive healthcare, education and gender equality, measures for reducing inequalities faced by socially and economically backward groups, contribution to any fund set up by the central government for socio-economic development and relief and welfare of SC, ST, OBCs, minorities and women and rural development projects.
Attention must also be paid to improving government spending and ensuring that funds are not under-utilised and left unspent by the state. The government’s inadequate spending on water and sanitation is a case in point. According to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, of the total outlay of Rs. 22,672.36 crore under the Total Sanitation Campaign, Central, State and beneficiary shares of the projects are Rs. 14,888.92 crore, Rs. 5,549.19 crore and Rs. 2,234.24 crore respectively. While Rs. 8,181.36 crore has already been released by the Government of India for implementation of these projects, only Rs. 6,899.70 crore has been utilised as reported by the States until March, 2012. Expenditure against the Centre’s release of funds is below the national average in Punjab, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Odisha, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Karnataka, Assam, West Bengal and Puducherry. Organisations such as Arghyam have worked with communities to prevail upon the gram panchayats (village-level self-governing bodies that constitute the lowest tier of administration in India) to monitor water quality and to utilise, as per the law, at least 25 per cent of the allocated funds for drinking water supply to the habitations dominated by SCs and at least 10 per cent for the ST dominated habitations. This situation is prevalent in most government departments, with funds been left unutilised or returned unspent.
Mechanisms must also be found to foster institutional learning between States and from other countries in order to learn from successful innovations, policies and programmes that can be implemented and scaled up nationally.
By all accounts, India has the technological skills, resources and skilled manpower to find solutions to some of its most pressing challenges, but lack of political will has slowed progress on all these fronts. The new government must keep its promise to “listen to the poor”, by working closely with civil society movements and organisations, which have an important role to play in identifying socially excluded groups, to unravel various layers of exclusion and support the communities to plan, implement and monitor programmes along with the government mechanism.
Now that Narendra Modi has assumed office as Prime Minister, the manner in which he meets the expectations of multiple constituencies holds the key to his success. In a country swamped by inequalities, Prime Minister Modi’s approach to resolving social inequalities will be an important factor that determines the outcomes of his government’s policies.