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Civil Society Awakes

16 Feb


Former director-general of police S P S Rathore’s encounter with the unfortunate Ruchika Girhotra may translate into years in prison. However neither the law nor its enforcers are responsible for Rathore’s fall. Both administered only the most feeble of wrist-slaps on the ex-DGP. The law ambled on for nearly two decades before finally delivering a short jail sentence, immediately nullified by bail. Had the matter been left to the law and the elephantine system that administers it, Rathore would have looked forward to more decades spent on appeal, with the case’s final disposal taking place around the time he celebrates a century of life. What tripped him was an alert media, assisted by a civil society finally beginning to awaken to its power.

Despite its many layers, the legal system failed to secure justice for Ruchika and her family. It is obvious action needs to be taken against abuse of power by officials and politicians. However, if this be attempted in the form of new laws further increasing the power of the authorities over the people, a new Rathore will not be stopped from inflicting pain on another family. Many individuals are expert in manipulating the law and procedures to their advantage, as indeed Rathore seemed to be before he came to the attention of television.

What is needed is not legislation even more draconian than many laws already on the statute books. Votaries of such a course need to visit the US, which has the distinction of the largest number of prisoners in the world. Since the 1970s, the US has eliminated discretion in sentencing from large swathes of the criminal code. As a result of mandatory sentencing, a flood of individuals have become prison inmates. In the US, as elsewhere, the jail is a university for securing mastery of crime. Experiences and knowledge gained from even a short stay are such as to remove from individuals any feeling of responsibility towards society, and to instill in them reflexes belonging more to a jungle than human civilisation. This may be why New Orleans was wracked by lawlessness during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, while much more populous Mumbai was tranquil during rains that vied with Katrina in destructive intensity.

True, the US has seen the end of certain categories of crimes. African-Americans are no longer lynched or beaten up. Harassment against women in homes and workplaces has gone down. But little of this is because of harsh US laws. Rather, they are the direct consequence of social movements led by individuals opposed to draconian legislation.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, neither legalisation of torture nor numerous other curbs on civil liberties prevented fresh cohorts of suicide bombers from emerging and seeking out victims worldwide. Instead, such measures have resulted in millions more becoming sympathetic to those seeking to snuff out the lives of Coalition troops. An example of knee-jerk legislation is the change made in visa policy as a result of David Headley’s capture by the FBI. Does it matter to a terrorist if he has to wait 15 days or 15 months before coming back to India? Can handlers not arrange a substitute passport, perhaps even an Indian one? Visa changes made by the ministry of external affairs would be as little able to prevent a terrorist act as the placing of tags on bank transactions above Rs 10,000 at each ATM. That measure did not seem to halt the accumulation of wealth by a Madhu Koda, or indeed by numerous other former chief ministers.

The past few years have seen a steady dilution of citizens’ powers vis-a-vis the official establishment. Consider the extraordinary discretion given to the income tax department. Today, even education is sought to be state-controlled, with private players having their institutions closed down after “inspections” lasting a few minutes, though their facilities are usually far better than those of state-owned education outlets.

It is a colonial reflex to believe that the government knows better than the citizen as to how best to improve his life. India is the home of Sanatan Dharma, a belief system that gave enormous freedom to each individual in the manner in which he practised his faith. If Indians do far better in the US than they do in India, the reason is that there they function in an environment that sees them as adults, not children in need of constant supervision. Laws are only as good as those implementing them, and even the most conformist statist would hesitate to call governance in India transparent and clean.

If there has been some improvement, this has been the consequence of liberalising laws, not making them harsher. As also of a much more active civil society no longer content with excuses, and which has an ally in television media. India needs less governmental supervision and more public oversight, so that institutions of governance cannot ride herd over individual rights by use of laws that were meant for a subject people but were still allowed to continue almost unchanged even after India became free in 1947.

The writer is a political commentator.


Voluntary service

18 Dec


Very little is known generally about operational NGOs that work closely with people on a daily basis.

WHILE a good many people in the country know that the Central and State governments have a number of plans and projects to bring about development – not all of them either well-conceived or well administered – they are much less aware of the part played in the overall development process by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). That part includes sensitisation, which usually means advocacy, or “activism” as it is more commonly called, and the actu al carrying out of development projects – providing housing, rural roads, sanitation, schools, health facilities and other services. The World Bank recognises this and divides the NGOs into two categories: those involved in advocacy and those involved in operations.

We are aware of the advocacy groups, the social activists, because at least some of them attract the attention of the media by their actions such as dharnas, rallies, fasts and demonstrations. Their work needs to be recognised as being of considerable importance in two ways. One is by making marginalised and neglected groups such as the tribal people and the poor aware of their rights and entitlements and of the manner in which they are, in far too many cases, exploited by middlemen and minor state functionaries. The other is by bringing instances of injustice and this kind of exploitation to the notice of the authorities using the media.

Legal remedies are now available, chief among them being the public interest litigation (PIL) and the petition that can be filed under the right to information laws (RTI application). Specific legal remedies are also available under a host of laws such as the Minimum Wages Act. More such laws are being enacted with the express purpose of giving legal protection and redress to the deprived and the exploited. Many activist NGOs have come into existence and more come up regularly to assist those who cannot otherwise take recourse to the law.

However, very few know about the second category of NGOs, those that actually deliver services. There is some knowledge about the big ones among them, a number of which are part of international NGOs such as ActionAid, Helpage and the Red Cross. But smaller NGOs, some of which work in just one State, or have small projects in different States, are virtually unknown. I know, for instance, of Urmul and Charkha only because they were founded or mentored by close relatives. The first one is working in Rajasthan and the second in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. I might have known of Urmul because some of its handicrafts are sold at an annual mela in Delhi, but I would not have known of Charkha’s work, which has taken up projects in the States that I have mentioned.

This is not because they do not publicise their work; they regularly bring out information material on their work and send it to the media. It is because the media consider news as something different. Even if they do carry some information on what NGOs are doing, it is about the activist NGOs, not about those in the field of development, the operational NGOs. There are, one has to admit, some stories about the development work some NGOs have done, for example, the work done by NGOs in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu to rehabilitate victims of the tsunami that hit the area in December 2004. There are some stories on the work done by some NGOs in different fields. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, the situation is not likely to change in the near future. Success stories do not sell, hard-boiled journalists will tell you. In part, it is because a single story about, say, a hospital doing excellent work in a remote rural region will not alter the general perception that medical services are very scarce in villages or non-existent in large tracts of the country. And that has to do with the general perception of the relatively affluent, those who read newspapers and journals, listen to radio news bulletins or watch television news channels.

Simply put, they see poverty, lack of health facilities, illiteracy and scarcity of schools in the abstract and as issues to be addressed by the state. This class does not look at issues as something that affects individuals unless those individuals are personally known – servants, workers who build one’s house or even poor relatives. My handling of a servant wanting a higher wage has nothing to do with my genuine concern about the slow progress being made by the state in its efforts to eliminate or lessen poverty.

The operational NGOs have made the transition that we as a class have not yet made. They do not see poverty in the abstract; they deal with poor individuals with names and identities. People who are ill in rural regions or urban slums are not “the sick and needy”; they are, again, individuals, Bibhuti Sarkar of Bhunia village in Birbhum district suffering from a tumour in the stomach, or Shantiammal in Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu who has cervical cancer, or Anees Khan of Seelampuri in Delhi who needs a cataract operation.

They make it their task to get them the help they need, as Babar Ali, a 10-year-old, has made it his business to teach the younger children in his village after he himself comes out of his classes; he runs a regular school.

It is the operational NGOs that actually get close to particular people and see the problem not so much in a global context as in terms of getting Salim Ali to a doctor as quickly as possible. It is in one sense, we might think, limiting, but in another sense it is the real and substantial action that is needed. Sadly, it is precisely for this reason that the efforts of operational NGOs do not get the kind of media attention that they deserve. One Salim Ali cured because of timely help or one Shantiammal taken to a cancer specialist and successfully operated upon does not make for a story. The agitation for a proper hospital in a specific region, on the other hand, does. We know of the deprivation of the tribal people because of the naxalite violence. Do we know any tribal people; do we know their names, their families? It is with the individuals unknown to most that the operational NGOs work.

That is their story, the story of the Urmuls, Charkhas, Prathams and Pradans. It is a story that needs to be told, and if we value the process of building our country, it needs to be told over and over again, not by the state or by the NGOs themselves but by journalists as committed to the eradication of deprivation and poverty as some are to the environment.

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