Debating India

INDE

Keeping a watch on our institutions

JAYATI GHOSH

Saturday 21 June 2003, by GHOSH*Jayati

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 13, June 21 - July 04, 2003.

A recent report brought out by two independent agencies assesses the contribution of some major democratic institutions to promoting social and economic development.

"GOVERNANCE" is a term to which many people nowadays have developed an allergy. This is often with good reason, because it tends to be ill-defined, and becomes a catch-all phrase for all sorts of issues and processes. Also, all too often, it is used (especially by the multilateral economic institutions and others) as a way of diverting attention from the real questions of political economy, which determine government policies and their effects.

However, a new "Citizen’s Report on Governance and Development", entitled "Social Watch India, 2003", seeks to break out of this pattern by being much more specific and concrete in terms of what it means by governance. It focuses on particular institutions and policies, and assesses how much they actually perform in terms of promoting social and economic development.

The report was recently released by the Centre for Youth and Social Development and the National Centre for Advocacy Studies. It deals with four major areas - three institutional (Parliament, the Supreme Court and panchayati raj institutions) and one relating to policies.

Overall, the assessment in the report is a balanced one, certainly not apologetic for these major institutions but not completely negative either. But it does reveal important gaps and flaws in the functioning of some of our most important institutions, which obviously need to be dealt with, if there is to be any meaningful progress towards the stated goals of true democracy and development.

The section entitled "Parliament Watch" is fascinating, because it reveals many aspects of parliamentary functioning which many of us may have only guessed at or had very general notions about.

The Lok Sabha is apparently much more representative of the Indian population today than it was 50 years ago. In the First Lok Sabha, lawyers made up one-third of its members, while lawyers, doctors, journalists and writers together accounted for more than half of the representatives. All these categories have declined substantially in share, and, by contrast, agriculturalists account for 49 per cent of the current Lok Sabha. Similarly, although there is no data on caste composition, it is evident that there is growing assertiveness of Dalits and intermediate castes within the Lok Sabha.

However, while Parliament itself may have become more democratic, it is not clear that it is doing more for democracy. A number of purely factual issues give rise to concern. First, the number of sittings a year has come down quite sharply, from an average of 138 days in the first two decades, to only around 80 sittings a year now. It is 14 years since the number of sittings crossed 100 a year. If the disruptions and forced adjournments are taken into account, the actual time spent is even less. Obviously, this means less time devoted to discussing and debating matters of public concern.

Even these limited sittings suffer from an embarrassing lack of attendance on the part of members. The problem is now so severe that presiding officers of both Houses of Parliament do not take suo motu cognisance of a lack of quorum. In 2002, while there was typically poor attendance for debates relating to matters of pressing public concern, such as the Annual Budget, the Gujarat riots, and so on, attendance was high on November 27 - not for any discussion, but for taking the group photograph of M.Ps.

The problem is so severe that Parliament has even constituted a Committee on Absence of Members from the House. This committee had only one sitting in 2002, at which, ironically, two-thirds of its members were absent!

There is generally poor attendance at the various parliamentary committees, with the committees that deal with the social sector and developmental issues reporting the lowest percentage of attendance.

When they are in the House, our representatives appear to spend much less time discussing issues of national importance than before. For example, between 1952 and 1979, the Lok Sabha typically devoted 23 per cent of its time to discuss the Annual Budget, but this has now declined to only 10 per cent. A lot of the questions that were asked in question hour were repetitive; MPs asked for information that was already published, or allowed the government to get away with shoddy replies.

While the report suggests that some business was indeed transacted "conscientiously" in Parliament, it makes it equally clear that a lot more needs to be done to make the functioning of the institution more responsive to the issues that matter to the majority of the Indian people.

THE section entitled "Policy Watch" considers some of the major initiatives taken by the Central government in 2002, which were directed towards improving social and economic equity. In the health sector, there were three new initiatives: the National Health Policy 2002, the Drug (Pharmaceutical) Policy 2002 and the Patents (Amendment) Bill 2002, in addition to certain budgetary measures aimed at promoting the privatisation of the sector.

The section highlights the already privatised and poor state of the health infrastructure in India. While the country still has very high rates of mortality and morbidity, health infrastructure is woefully inadequate, curative care facilities are almost non-existent in most rural areas and the spread of infectious diseases indicates that preventive care is also insufficient, at the same time we have the most privatised healthcare system in the world.

Public health expenditure (at only 1 per cent of gross domestic product) accounts for only 17 per cent of total health expenditure in India, compared to more than 45 per cent in most developed countries and Sri Lanka, and 25 per cent in China. Nevertheless, 43 per cent of the poor depend upon only the public system for healthcare. The report shows how the recent policy moves will only worsen existing conditions, accentuate the trend towards privatisation, and increase disparities in access to healthcare.

In the sphere of education, Parliament passed the 86th Constitution Amendment Act 2002, to make elementary education a fundamental right. Nevertheless, inadequate budget allocation, a dismal school infrastructure in rural and poor urban areas, high dropout rates, and caste, community and gender biases remain the characteristics of our education system. The report emphasises that "mandating an act is obviously no guarantee that it will be translated into action in the absence of appropriate infrastructure, requisite investments, etc." Here the government has been much less energetic. The report also casts serious doubts on the functioning of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, which aims to universalise elementary education, given the huge shortfalls that have already emerged and the lack of a systematic strategy to ensure that the ambitious goals will be achieved. The report also points to a number of ambiguities and problems with the 86th Constitution Amendment Act.

This section also deals with policies that affect poverty and the lives of vulnerable groups, including an assessment of conditions of food security, the National Water Policy (which encourages the privatisation of water services), and so on. It points out that although the government has committed itself (through constitutional and international declarations) to ensuring access to basic needs for all its citizens, its current policy moves do not inspire confidence even in terms of the direction of change. In addition, redistribution of assets (including land) and income are no longer discussed, the displacement of the poor and the continuous violation of their human rights continue apace, often in the name of development.

THE third section deals with access to justice, in terms of assessing the functioning of the Supreme Court. In 2002, the Supreme Court delivered a number of landmark judgments, including those relating to disclosure of assets by electoral candidates, asking for compliance reports from the government, reiterating the independence of the Election Commission, and allowing non-Brahmins to perform puja in Hindu temples, among others. There was also a lot of "judicial activism", especially in the area of environmental protection.

However, while the Supreme Court emphasised that the right to a speedy trial is part of Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution, the functioning of the courts tell a different story. The Supreme Court has reduced its backlog of pending cases from 1,04,936 in 1991 to 23,012 in 2002; the lower courts over which it has jurisdiction are much worse. In 2002, more than 36 lakh cases were pending in High Courts all over the country, and more than 20 million estimated to be pending in lower courts. There seems to be little concern to address this issue.

These delays are related to failure to fill up vacancies in the judiciary, low judge-to-population ratios, poor rates of disposal of cases, and failure to adopt information technology in courts. Although this report does not cover more recent cases of alleged criminality and corruption among the judiciary, it is likely to emerge as an important issue of accountability.

Finally, the report covers the various panchayati raj institutions, although this section is perhaps the least developed and researched part of the document. The issue of devolution of resources is only covered cursorily, and the other important areas, such as administrative decentralisation, are dealt with in a very general manner and without sufficient concern as to the wide variations across States.

In all, however, this report is an important breakthrough in terms of contributing to the public life of the country. This kind of periodic assessment is absolutely crucial for democracy to function. A vibrant democracy clearly requires a lot of work on the part of citizens; not just much more dissemination of knowledge, but constant vigilance in terms of monitoring policies and activities of both governments and private agents, and subsequently mobilisation and organisation to prevent detrimental tendencies, and to campaign for more socially desirable processes and outcomes.

In all this, the first requirement is information and analysis, and this is where reports such as this one have a critical role to play. It is already mentioned that future Social Watch reports will take up other institutions such as the media, and look at the performance of the States. But the success of this first report suggests that the entire process deserves to be lauded and strengthened through more dissemination and discussion.

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