A Right for all Wrongs

That seems to be the logic behind the rain of Rights, Right to Education, Right to Food...


BV Rao | June 21, 2010

All of us have a Right to Livelihood. Millions of us are without one.

We have a Right to Education. About half the country is illiterate.

Tribals have a Right to Forest Land. Acres of forests are disappearing.

We really don’t know the right figures but anywhere between 27 percent to 77 percent of the country is poor, craving for food. About 46 percent of our children are malnourished. So the government is giving them the Right to Food, hoping perhaps that food itself will follow as a natural corollary, in due course, as they say in bureaucratic Delhi.

Millions in this country don’t have access to primary health care. So the clamour for a Right to Health Act is growing.

Yes, it is raining rights in India.

Ordinarily, a citizenry drowning in rights is a good thing. It points to a caring state and a vigilant and vibrant civil society. But confronted with too much parliamentary good not translating into any tangible benefits on the ground, you would be prompted to look the gift horse in the mouth. And ask if this is a grand design of the state to cover its failures in noble sounding rights. Why else would we have a right for practically every failure of the governments over the decades? If we can’t give them education, let’s give them the Right to Education; if we can’t give them food, let’s give them the Right to Food; if we can’t ensure their livelihood, let’s give them the Right to Livelihood, and so on.

It does not matter that the delivery of all these rights will rest on the same crumbling, corrupt infrastructure which nobody has the will to change. It is easier to give Rights than remedy the wrongs. It costs governments nothing and makes them look noble. It is this befooling of the population that we are questioning in the string of reports that made it as the cover story of our print version (May 16-31, pages 31 to 43).

All the conceivable rights that a citizen needs to lead a dignified life are already guaranteed in the constitution. Except, of course, the one right we desperately need, the Right to Good Governance!  If something needs changing, change the law to ensure that the corrupt triumvirate of politicians, bureaucrats and hoarders faces hell’s fury for defrauding the poor. Like a minimum sentence of 14 years to a maximum of a life term in jail for any proven fraud in the PDS. After all, stealing the meal of the poorest of the poor not only proves the depravity of the criminal mind but is nothing short of attempted mass murder. Obviously, there’s no appetite for that.


The rights route to amelioration of poverty is thus a waste without a concomitant overthrow of the existing structures of delivery. In the years that Ethiopia made headlines for starvation, a tasteless joke used to do the rounds: “What did the Ethiopian do when he found a pea? He threw a party.” Right to Food without new ideas or new solutions to old problems is like giving Sonu (picture above), the boy from a poor Aligarh family now living in a slum in New Delhi, a pea and asking him to throw a party.



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