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An unconventional convention

Friday 16 July 2004, by DREZE*Jean

A convention in Bhopal offers an opportunity to share the experiences of the struggle for the right to food and work, and to explore possibilities of further action.

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At a rally on June 13, the concluding day of the convention. The placard reads: "Freedom from Hunger."

THIS is a preliminary, informal and somewhat personal account of a recent convention on the right to food and work, held in Bhopal on June 11-13, 2004. It is preliminary and informal because the proceedings are not available at the time of writing. It is somewhat personal because, as a member of the "programme committee", my experience of the convention is bound to be quite subjective. Making a virtue out of necessity, I shall try to share, as openly as possible, my perception of the achievements and limitations of this convention.

The convention was facilitated by the support group of the "right nto food campaign", in collaboration with a dozen like-minded networks.1 The decision to call the convention was taken at a meeting held in Mumbai in January 2004, on the sidelines of the World Social Forum and Mumbai Resistance. A common need was felt, at that time, for an opportunity to share the experiences of the struggle for the right to food and work, and to explore possibilities of further action.

As it turned out, the convention was timely, coming as it did in the wake of the 2004 parliamentary elections. With the dramatic rout of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, deeply hostile to democratic rights and responsible for gross violations of the right to food (such as the accumulation of 70 million tonnes of grain in public warehouses at a time of widespread hunger), the air felt cleaner and there was a new sense of possibility. It would be naive to expect sweeping changes in social policy from the new government since the real masters (the corporate sector and other privileged groups) are more or less the same. Nevertheless, there are new opportunities at this time that deserve to be pursued, such as the government’s interest in an "Employment Guarantee Act" (EGA), expressed (in a limited form) in the Common Minimum Programme (CMP).

Initially perceived as a daunting challenge, the organisation of the convention turned out to be a reasonably smooth affair. Two preparatory meetings were held in Delhi (on April 11 and May 16, 2004) to forge a consensus on the basic parameters of the convention. Two committees (a "programme committee" and a "logistics committee") were formed at the first meeting, which went about their tasks from then on. The programme committee invited different persons to coordinate parallel workshops on each of the 12 main themes identified at the preparatory meetings. In Bhopal, a local organising committee (initially convened by the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti) took charge of the logistics. After the nuts and bolts were in place, things unfolded in a fairly orderly fashion. And in spite of the odd skirmish, inevitable in this kind of work, the whole operation was remarkably free of acrimony. This I attribute largely to the shared commitment that united all the participants, in spite of their differences.

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Artists performing the Hindi play ’Khazan’, based on the theme of right to information, during the convention.

Having said this, there was much scope for better preparation. The convention was held at relatively short notice (the date was fixed on April 11, just three months in advance of the event), and time was short on all fronts. Further, despite the pressure of time, many of the participating organisations did not swing into action until late May or even early June. In activist circles, there is a funny habit of doing everything in crisis mode at the last minute. Invitations for a demonstration or meeting are typically circulated a few days before the event, if not the day after. Prior information is scarce and advance preparations are kept to the minimum. To some extent, the convention on the right to food and work fell into this trap, despite individual efforts to get things moving early on. For instance, while early announcements were circulated by e-mail, the written invitation in Hindi was despatched as late as the third week of May. One unfortunate consequence of this delay is that many grassroots organisations outside the e-mail circuit were informed at the last minute, if at all. As a result, these organisations were somewhat under-represented at the convention.

The Bhopal convention was held in Gandhi Bhavan, a fine venue with all the basic facilities: a large hall with a good sound system, plenty of meeting rooms, breezy rooftops, open spaces with natural shade, a typing centre, and more. The managers were good enough to make the premises available for a song. About 500 participants turned up from far and wide, and most of them stayed at Gandhi Bhavan itself. Staying together for three days (stacked like sardines at night, all over the halls and rooftops) was a great experience. The only drawback was an acute shortage of bathrooms, forcing some participants to wake up in the middle of the night for a quick bath, or to settle for a dip in Bhopal’s magnificent lake, just down the road. Fortunately we enjoyed blissfully cool weather (if such a thing is possible in the middle of June) throughout the convention.

RIGHTLY or wrongly, the convention started on a relatively high-profile note, with an opening plenary starring Nusrat Bano Ruhi (local organising committee), Kavita Srivastava (PUCL), Colin Gonsalvez (HRLN), Paul Divakar (NCDHR), Brinda Karat (AIDWA), M.P. Parameswaran (BGVS), Aruna Roy (MKSS) and Kuar Bhai of Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan. The speakers’ brief was mainly to introduce the thematic workshops. For instance, Colin Gonsalvez spoke on the legal aspects of the right to food, Paul Divakar on Dalit perspectives as well as land rights, and Aruna Roy on the connections between the right to food, the right to work and the right to information. It is impossible to summarise the speeches in a few lines, especially Brinda Karat’s masala-packed appeal to link the campaign with the larger struggle against sensex-driven economic policies. Beyond the details, what I retain from them is a strong sense of the interlinked nature of different aspects of the right to food, and of the willingness of activists from diverse backgrounds to join forces on this issue, in spite of their differences on specific points.

Dalit activists and organisations were quite well represented and their active participation greatly enriched the whole event. Indeed, Dalit perspectives often differ from other activist perspectives on crucial issues, and I believe that there is a need for much greater sensitivity to Dalit voices in India’s social movements. In this case, Dalit activists helped to put land rights issues on the agenda of the right to food campaign. Also, there was an interesting note of dissent from NACDOR on the question of "universalisation" of food entitlements (initially with reference to the public distribution system).

The concern, as I understand it, is that universalisation is sometimes a threat to the special entitlements of Dalits and other marginalised groups. Personally, I believe that this concern does not undermine the case for universalisation, since universalisation does not mean uniformity (that is, universal coverage can be combined with special facilities for disadvantaged groups). However, this note of dissent was quite helpful in drawing attention to the need for a deeper and more critical understanding of the case for universalisation of basic entitlements.

The programme of the convention was built around 12 thematic workshops, held in three sessions of four parallel workshops (with cultural and other activities in between). The themes were:

(1) the right to work and livelihood;

(2) the public distribution system;

(3) agriculture and trade;

(4) land rights and food sovereignty;

(5) children’s right to food;

(6) Dalit perspectives;

(7) perspectives of indigenous communities;

(8) drought and survival;

(9) women’s perspectives;

(10) legal action for the right to food and work;

(11) marginalised people and state responsibility; and

(12) right to food and right to information.

Since I attended only three workshops (one in each session), and since the proceedings of other workshops are not available at the time of writing, it is not possible to present a full-fledged account of the discussions in this article. However, a brief account of the three workshops I did attend may help to convey the flavour of these discussions.

AS a starter, I attended the workshop on "the right to work and livelihood", coordinated by Shiraz of Kashtkari Sangathan. The bulk of the discussions actually focussed on the prospects for a national EGA. Clearly, employment guarantee is only one aspect of the right to work, and the right to livelihood can be seen as an even larger notion. Aside from employment guarantee, typically offered in the form of wage labour, the right to work also encompasses other issues such as minimum wages, the need for employment-oriented economic policies and the rights of self-employed workers. The right to livelihood, for its part, is concerned not just with labour rights but also with the dignified survival of those who are unable to work, such as elderly widows and the chronically ill. There was broad agreement at the workshop that bringing about an EGA was a burning issue at this time, but also that a sound campaign for the right to work and livelihood needs to go beyond this particular demand. Further, an EGA itself should encompass, as far as possible, some of the larger livelihood issues; for instance, the rights of unorganised workers and migrants labourers.

As far as the EGA issue itself was concerned, the discussions began with presentations of Maharashtra’s experience in this respect. Maharashtra passed an Employment Guarantee Act in 1977, which laid the basis of its well-known "employment guarantee scheme" (EGS). During the 1970s and 1980s, the scheme did relatively well, with about half a million persons (mainly women) employed on an average day, and much larger numbers during periods of drought. In the 1990s, however, employment generation under the EGS declined sharply and the principle of guaranteed employment seems to have been quietly buried. Meanwhile, enormous amounts of money (more than Rs.9,000 crores at the time of writing) have accumulated in Maharashtra’s "employment guarantee fund", which is meant to be earmarked for EGS. The unused funds are effectively diverted for other purposes, ostensibly as a "loan" but with no assurance that they will ever be returned and utilised for the purpose of employment generation. This gradual undermining of the Act fits in a general pattern of dismantling of many social services in recent years.

On a more positive note, the CMP of the new government includes a commitment to "immediately enact a National Employment Guarantee Act". The proposed guarantee is limited to 100 days of employment, for one person per household, and in this respect it falls far short of the right to work in the full sense of the term. Nevertheless, there was a strong sense that a concerted effort should be made to hold the government accountable to this promise. Following on this, the participants shared ideas of possible ways to step up the campaign for an EGA.

THE second workshop on my list focussed on "children’s right to food". Few participants were expected, as children’s issues often take the back seat in public debates (with the consequences that we know). However, the workshop turned out to be jam-packed, to the extent that focussed discussion became quite difficult as most of the 100-odd participants had one point or another to make. The workshop took off from M.P. Parameswaran’s crystal-clear assertion (in the opening plenary of the convention) that "every child has a right to a full life", and his observation that "this right cannot be enforced by children themselves". Following on this, Shantha Sinha made a very enlightening presentation on children’s right to food, with special reference to children under six - the most important and most neglected age group. Drawing on many years of experience on the ground, she described how prevailing social policies constantly overlook and undermine children’s health and nutrition rights. She argued that the best way to protect these rights was to ensure that every child under six attended an active anganwadi. Shantha Sinha also explained how taking children’s rights seriously paved the way for far-reaching political change, as those working for children’s rights were inevitably led to challenge the system in all sorts of ways.

This opening presentation led to a flood of interventions as the participants shared their own experiences of working for children’s right to food in different parts of the country. There was also much discussion of recent Supreme Court orders, calling inter alia for the provision of cooked mid-day meals in primary schools, and also for the universalisation of Integrated Child Development Services (that is, extending it to all children under six and other eligible groups). While some progress has been made with mid-day meals, with prospects of further expansion and improvement of mid-day meal programmes in the near future, the Supreme Court order on the ICDS has been blissfully ignored by the government. The main reason for this contrast seems to be that court orders on mid-day meals were supplemented with active public pressure, while the ICDS remained out of focus. There was wide agreement on the need for a joint campaign on the universalisation of the ICDS. The discussions also helped to identify a wide range of other issues on which effective advocacy is possible.

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Kavita Srivastava, Aruna Roy, M.P. Parameswaran, Nusrat Bano Ruhi, Brinda Karat and Paul Divaker at a session.

The third workshop I attended was concerned with "marginalised people and state responsibility". This one unfolded in a different mode: it consisted mainly of testimonies of affected persons, including destitute widows, street children, members of so-called "primitive tribes", persons with disabilities and victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. It was quite moving to feel the spirit of solidarity that ran through the audience, in spite of the widely divergent social backgrounds of the participants. The testimonies were a telling reminder of the fact that the right to food is nowhere near being realised in India, in spite of a fair amount of agitation on this issue in recent years. Even the most basic directions of the Supreme Court are routinely violated. Destitute widows, for instance, told us how they are made to run from pillar to post when they apply for pensions or Antyodaya cards, in spite of being entitled to public support as a matter of right. There were also some signs of hope, such as the mobilisation of Pahari Korwas (a so-called "primitive tribe") in Surguja district in Chhattisgarh district on food security issues, leading not only to the distribution of Antyodaya cards to all members of this community but also to a new sense of confidence.

Brief reports from the workshops were presented at plenary sessions on June 12. Some workshops were mainly of an "educational" nature, but many ended with some sort of agenda for action, or at least with a list of issues that could be taken up by the participating organisations. For instance, the workshop on "agriculture and trade" articulated specific positions on key issues such as World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations and genetically modified crops. Similarly, the workshop on "drought and survival" recommended that the so-called Famine Codes (also known as Relief Codes in some States) should be radically revised and made legally binding. Detailed suggestions for revision were made and, if all goes well, this agenda will be taken forward by the participants in the near future.

THE main recommendations were consolidated at the concluding plenary on June 13, with a special focus on joint activities involving broad coalitions of the participating organisations. For instance, there was unanimous agreement on the need to launch a broad-based campaign for a national EGA. As a first step, a decision was taken to organise a "day of action for the right to work" on October 16, (World Food Day). In advance of this event, a draft EGA will be prepared and discussions will be held with representatives of the new government as well as with the left parties. Similarly, the participating organisations agreed to join forces for a week to assert children’s right to food, with a special emphasis on the universalisation of ICDS. This week of action is due to start on November 14 (Children’s Day in India), and to culminate on November 20 (Universal Children’s Day). A proposal was also made that kala jathas on the right to work and children’s right to food should be held across the country during the period separating these two activities - from October 16 to November 20.

Land rights is another issue on which a strong need was felt for coordinated action. Various proposals were made at the workshop on "land rights and food sovereignty" and concrete decisions on this are likely to be taken quite soon at follow-up gatherings.

The concluding plenary also took up some crucial organisational matters, particularly the decision-making structures of the campaign in the months ahead. These matters had been discussed in some detail at two preparatory meetings held on June 11 and 12, respectively. Unfortunately, wider discussion was relegated to the end of the closing plenary and by then little time was left for this important topic. Briefly, the plenary endorsed a proposal to constitute a provisional "steering group" for a period of one year or so (until the next convention). The basic role of this steering group is not to "lead" the campaign, or even to get directly involved in organising activities, but rather to facilitate the process of mutual support among the participating organisations. Specifically, the proposed responsibilities of the group are:

(1) to facilitate the next convention;

(2) to ensure the smooth flow of information within the network;

(3) to initiate a process of wider discussion of the organisational aspects of the campaign, and prepare a proposal on this for the next convention; and possibly

(4) advocacy with the Central government. For the rest, the campaign is expected to continue in the informal, decentralised mode in which it has operated so far - at least for now.

No doubt, the organisational aspects of the campaign would have benefited from further discussion. A sound organisational base is essential for the sustainability and long-term effectiveness of the whole effort.

The achievements of a convention of this kind are best assessed in the light of the various roles it is expected to play. At least four roles can be envisaged. First, a convention is an opportunity for the participants to educate themselves, as they share their insights and experiences. Second, a convention can act as a springboard for further action, particularly collaborative action involving a wide range of like-minded organisations that are otherwise very loosely connected if at all. Third, this convention was an opportunity to review and consolidate the organisational basis of the right to food campaign. Last but not least, a convention has an important social dimension: it fosters personal interaction between people who share a strong commitment to particular issues, in this case the right to food and work.

In my view, the convention was most successful in its educational and social roles. The depth of the discussions was impressive, at least in the sessions I attended. And the level of motivation of most participants was very high. Further, the convention created (or strengthened) many personal bonds. Aside from their intrinsic value, these personal bonds are perhaps the greatest strength of the campaign.

The convention was also reasonably effective as a springboard for further action. I was hoping for more in this respect, and left Bhopal with a sharp awareness of our timidity in seizing the opportunities in front of us. Nevertheless, some solid groundwork was done, and there are good prospects of lively activity in the months ahead. Much depends on the initiative and imagination of the participating individuals and organisations.

Finally, the convention did not go very far in terms of clarifying the organisational aspects of the campaign for the right to food and work. The campaign’s informal and decentralised mode of functioning is both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, it fosters initiative and enables diverse individuals and organisations to work together on the basis of voluntary association and shared concerns, with few institutional shackles. On the other side, the present approach is not always conducive to coordinated action. Further, the process of voluntary association requires some basic safeguards against arbitrariness and abuses of power, if it is to remain participatory and democratic.

Let me try to explain why I consider this a very important issue. If one looks around at India’s "social movements", and specifically at their organisational aspects, three problems stand out. One is that there is a lot of quarrelling and factionalism within these movements, with devastating effects on their ability to have a real impact. The second is that they are largely personality-based. Indeed, leadership (formal or informal) is typically the means through which infighting is resolved or suppressed. The third issue is that the "leaders" almost invariably come from a privileged social background. However sensitive they may be to the viewpoint of the underprivileged, they cannot but carry a certain baggage associated with their own position. The bottom line is that, with few exceptions, social movements in India (or for that matter elsewhere) are far from democratic. This lack of internal democracy jars with the values we claim to stand for, and creates a deep inconsistency between means and ends.

The central organisational challenge for the right to food campaign is to develop ways of working together that are both effective and consistent with our basic values - including democracy, equality and transparency.

I would like to think that this is possible, but it requires an explicit and collective engagement with this challenge. Hopefully, the next convention will be an opportunity to take up this unfinished agenda.

See online : Frontline


1. These include the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the National Campaign Committee for Rural Workers (NCCRW), the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). About 120 organisations participated in the convention.

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