Fifty Shades of Saffron

On December 11, 2014, when the U.N. General Assembly adopted June 21 as the International Day of Yoga, as recommended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India rejoiced. Never mind that the day before was the first Human Rights Day under his watch; this crept by unnoticed.

At the SAARC Summit, Mr. Modi declaimed, “As we seek to build bridges to prosperity, we must not lose sight of our responsibility to the millions living without hope.” He was, as always, matchless as a kathakar, an artiste whose fabulous retelling of fables reinforces them in the minds of the faithful as fact. But while his performances have zero defects, on the lives of the multitudes hanging on to his words, believing in them and daring to hope, they have had zero effect so far, because the responsibility of which the Prime Minister spoke is usually ignored.

In 1990, the U.N. launched the Human Development Report based on the challenging predicate that “people are the real wealth of a nation.” How wealthy are we really? After two decades of rapid GDP growth, we bestride SAARC like a colossus doing the splits, one foot splayed eastward to keep China out, the other westward to keep Pakistan down. We loom like a giant among midgets, but on every parameter that measures equity in development, there is little to choose between us and our neighbors.

The Human Development Index (HDI) for 2014 ranks us at 135 among 187 countries; Sri Lanka at 73 did way better than us, and we were shadowed by Bhutan at 136, Bangladesh at 142, Nepal at 145 and Pakistan at 146. The fact that India was a stable democracy, as the others were not, that our economy had galloped along, as theirs had not, had made very little difference to the lives of our citizens.

Within the HDI, the Gender Inequality Index which measures three critical parameters – reproductive health, women’s empowerment and their participation in the labor market – is particularly important because it shows how a society treats its more vulnerable half. Sri Lanka at 75 is well ahead of us, but so is Nepal at 98, Bhutan at 102 and Bangladesh at 115. India is in lock-step with Pakistan, both ranked at 127. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, which brought in far-reaching measures to protect women, is now almost two years old; sadly, it has made little difference.

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Depth of deprivation

My five years on the National Human Rights Commission were a humbling experience. In 2009, we had 82,000 complaints, in 2013, a lakh. A five-member Commission could not possibly do justice to more than a fraction of these. We dismissed 60 per cent of complaints in limine, or at the outset, 11 per cent with directions to officials to act (but never had the time to check if they did) and transferred 6 per cent to the State Human Rights Commissions, which were mostly ramshackle.

Our investigative visits to rural India were dives into the darkness that contained the mass of the iceberg of which the complaints coming to us were only the tip. In a country still largely illiterate, a terrible violation of human rights in itself, very few knew the NHRC existed. Those who did wondered if it would be able to help; many thought it would not. For every complaint that came to us, a hundred did not, but since so many were on systemic problems affecting entire communities, they brought home to us the range, depth and persistence of discrimination and deprivation in India. The two are often linked, and that is the real cause of worry with our new dispensation. The poorest and the most vulnerable – women, Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Muslims – suffer because the social bias against them is rooted in Hindu belief and practice, and still so strong that the laws meant to protect them are impotent. Even under a secular government, public servants would plead with the NHRC that there would be law and order problems if they tried to implement these. The danger now is that under a government so overtly Hindu, these practices will flourish even more. The hate speeches of Cabinet members signal where this could lead us.

“Discrimination and deprivation are often linked to one another, and that is the real cause of worry with our new dispensation”

Mr. Modi wants his party to be careful with their words, but there are fifty shades of saffron around, most of it strident. He wants civil servants to be sensitive, but they always are, to the wishes of the powers that be. He wants the police to be SMART, but they already are, reporting to the National Crime Records Bureau that in 2013 there were only two incidents of human rights violations by their personnel. The same year, 33,753 complaints to the NHRC, a third of the total received, were against the police, detailing how they preyed on those they should protect.

In Mr. Modi’s defense, these are national problems he has inherited, not created, but Gujarat is the template he holds up to the rest of India, and there are a range of impartial reports that show how cavalier it has been about the lives of the State’s people. A 2013 Lancet study found that among the 11 rich States, Gujarat had done the worst in bringing down the mortality rate of children under five, one of the Millennium Development Goals. The Census established that the sex ratio in Gujarat has declined from 934 in 1991 to 920 in 2001 to 918 in 2011. Not surprisingly, the NCRB data shows a high incidence of crimes against women. So too, the data shows, are crimes against Scheduled Castes, at levels higher than in the other developed States: Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu. The ASER/Pratham Reports on Education show low percentages of students in Standard V who could read a Standard II text, and could do divisions. That is not a model to copy.

Dreadful cost

Despite what he said in Kathmandu, Mr. Modi’s record as Gujarat Chief Minister shows that his sights are set on prosperity, not on “the millions living without hope.” ‘Make in India’ is his priority, and there the signs are ominous. A few weeks back, ASSOCHAM issued an advertisement which announced, “Repeal of archaic laws is the need of modern times…ASSOCHAM has identified 105 laws for review, which can promote a better regulatory framework for successfully actualizing Mr. Modi’s vision of ‘Make in India’.” These include 43 laws that protect human rights and safeguard labor welfare, including the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act, Protection of Forest Rights Act, Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, and the Minimum Wages Act. If these are the voices he listens to, development will come at a dreadful cost.

India’s governments have so far pursued development with a human face. Vast social welfare programs protect those whom the market forces savage, but these are riddled with huge problems. For instance, hardly any materials go into the rural employment guarantee projects, but each year material costs claimed are well over 20 per cent of its budget. A survey done for the NHRC showed that 60 per cent of the allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services was being stolen. The list goes on. The answer does not lie in jettisoning these programs, but in making them work better. Without them, rural India will empty out.

Our Prime Minister’s many admirers believe that Sardar Patel’s mantle has descended on him. Vallabhbhai Patel made India, Narendra Modi can unmake it. But with his extraordinary talents, integrity and ability, our Prime Minister can also be the making of India, and make India, all of India, proud. That should be his tribute to his idol, not the monstrous statue of the Sardar now rising in Gujarat like a prelapsarian Ozymandias.

By Satyabrata Pal

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