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Business News/ Opinion / Activists and their battle for legitimacy

Activists and their battle for legitimacy

The battle is not just to secure more rights for citizens, but to also strengthen our institutions to regulate, adjudicate and implement more effectively

A file photo of Medha Patkar. Photo: HTPremium
A file photo of Medha Patkar. Photo: HT

In what can only be described as quite a stinging attack, a recent Mint column took on the intelligence and the motivations of activists in India. Accusing the likes of Medha Patkar of misguided activism that has created a “mess (that) will take some time to be sorted out", the column criticizes broadly, the “rights" that the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had seemingly championed. Part of the assumption seems to be that the current dispensation in Delhi will in due course, “sort out" the mess.

I am not personally acquainted with Ms. Patkar and am not looking to mount a defence on her behalf. However, the space for constructive activism in India is one that I care about and one that is close to my area of work. I will, therefore, attempt to present a contrarian argument, advocating for greater space for activism in India.

It is still fashionable to present growth and development as a dichotomy, in spite of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s many speeches and acronyms that suggest otherwise. This is at a time when income inequality qualifies as possibly the biggest threat to our future as a country. An aspiring global super power, we have the unenviable burden of hiding its poor every time we organize an international event or an important dignitary visits us. Many of those who are left out of the growth story also simultaneously suffer from disadvantageous social status and lack basic capabilities, due to an inability to access quality education, healthcare and the like. It should be clear to anyone that cares that in the current situation, neither the state not the market on its own can empower citizens to exercise “individual preferences" that will pull them out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

In this scenario, a heterogeneous and vibrant civil society provides a platform to the disadvantaged to engage with both the state and the market from a position of collective strength. Activists are an important part of civil society, as they focus on challenging policies (whether of the state or the market) that disregard the interests of the poor. This challenge sometimes takes the form of disparate protests against dams or industrial projects and at other times, as part of a sustained battle for essential citizen rights.

Activists often do not fight and win elections, but using that argument to question the legitimacy of activism is a myopic view of democracy. The space for activists, as well as the larger set of civil society actors is integral to the checks and balances that contribute to good governance through enhancing citizen engagement beyond the act of just casting votes. While the Mint column does not refer directly to the National Advisory Council (NAC) of the previous UPA government, it repeats the criticism of the NAC being an extra-constitutional body that dictated government policymaking. The undue influence of the NAC, stemming from the fact that Sonia Gandhi chaired it, is indeed slippery ground for activists—not because a nominated expert committee advised an elected government, but because activists run the risk of being co-opted by the system and thereby, lose their teeth along with their independence. Ultimately, the Parliament has the sovereign right to legislate and no activist can hijack that privilege.

Many of the causes advocated by activists are dismissed as regressive, wasteful and anti-growth. Critics continue to carp against the land acquisition Bill, happily disregarding evidence that shows that 45% of the land held by state-level industrial development corporations have not been allotted for any industrial activity. Those who term the National Food Security Bill as a wasteful scheme disregard the evidence of tonnes of grains rotting in our public warehouses. Opponents of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MGNREGA) don’t bother with inconvenient evidence that shows that there have been a series of improvements that have reduced leakages or that the scheme is highly inclusive where implemented properly.

Finally, on to the question of implementation. Activists would be the first in acknowledging the serious administrative capacity constraints in the system. Ultimately, the losers are the same citizens in whose names these schemes are rolled out. Trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and deprivation, dependent on leaky government implementation machinery, they continue to be fed the same promises year after year.

The battle therefore, is not just to secure more rights for citizens, but to also simultaneously, strengthen our institutions to regulate, adjudicate and implement more effectively. Activists see a role for themselves where the state is either incapable or unwilling to protect the interests of its citizens. It is evident what the state really stands for when activists are lathi-charged and arrested while industrialists are wooed while being advised to be responsible corporate citizens.

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Published: 04 Dec 2014, 12:40 PM IST
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