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When Everything Becomes a Right

Nicholas Robinson
October 22, 2012

When it comes to social policy in India, everywhere one turns these days you seem to find a right. The Indian Supreme Court has declared a right to food, a right to a clean environment, a right to shelter, and even a right to sleep. The Indian Parliament has passed acts that guarantee a right to education, a right to information, a right to rural employment, and is currently considering sweeping legislation that would provide rights concerning food security. State assemblies in India, responding to the complaints of weary citizens, have recently started enacting right to public service acts that guarantee that designated government services – like driver’s licenses or residence certificates – must be processed within set time frames or the responsible officials will be fined. 

The emergence of all these rights on the Indian policy scene has been dramatic. If one were to travel back in time to India in the 1980s, there were plenty of large-scale schemes to uplift the poor, but almost no such rights. Some have criticized the rise of all these rights as simply being empty promises. Others have pointed out that most countries around the world that have successfully implemented social welfare programs have done so without such extensive or explicit use of rights. So what explains this blizzard of rights in India and is a fixation on them becoming more distractive than constructive?

Certainly there has been a global trend – often promoted by international organizations – to adopt a human rights framework, including social and economic rights, to foster development. Economic liberalization in India also arguably moved the policy focus from top-down planning to individual empowerment, for which the language of rights is perhaps a more natural fit. But it would be wrong to label the shift towards rights in Indian social policy as merely a product of outside or economic forces, since these same forces have been at work in other countries too. A larger confluence of factors is at work.

To understand this larger movement, one should differentiate between rights being articulated by the Supreme Court and those by the political branches of government. From the 1980s onward, a more populist Supreme Court has monitored and actively intervened in government social welfare policies. The Court has been able to do so in part because the judges have been widely seen as correcting a government that has abdicated many of its governing responsibilities. However, the Supreme Court has limited tools to intervene. Luckily for the Court, the right to life in the Constitution (Article 21) can be read to provide a wide constitutional basis for its orders, and it has invoked this right often. For example, the Court directed the government to provide a free mid-day meal for children in all public schools because it found doing so constituted an element of a right to food, which it pronounced to be part of the right to life.

Yet, the social and economic rights the Supreme Court has articulated have generally involved the Court more broadly supervising government activities, rather than creating an individual right of action against the government. For example, if one’s child does not receive a mid-day meal in a public school, the Court has created no specific mechanism by which one can claim compensation or penalize the responsible government official. Instead, one can complain to a court-appointed right-to-food commissioner, who may then report the violation and others like it to the Supreme Court, and the Court may then ask a government minister to remedy the broader problem. In other words, the social and economic rights the Court has articulated have usually been curiously disembodied, focusing more on general policy setting or scolding the government for inaction, rather than developing individualized remedies that may be claimed by specific citizens.

Rights created by the legislature have tended to be different, even if not uniform, in their architecture. If one does not receive requested information under the Right to Information Act, one can approach a right-to-information commissioner who, if he or she finds it appropriate, may penalize an errant official for non-compliance with the Act. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) works a bit differently. If an individual is not provided work within a set number of days, they are automatically entitled to unemployment compensation. In both cases, the focus is on the entitlement of a specific individual and the consequences in case of non-compliance by the government.

The first wave of these rights-based acts was generally pushed by civil society campaigners, such as the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information or the Right to Food Campaign. Advocates in these groups generally distrusted the motivation of government officials to implement these acts and saw a rights-based approach as a way to legalize the specific actions a bureaucrat needed to take in order to implement legislation. This same concern about the trustworthiness of officials on the ground has also been shared by many top-level politicians and administrators. Right to service acts, for example, were generally pushed through by proactive chief ministers, and not civil society campaigns. These chief ministers did so in part because these acts were seen to be politically popular with voters, but also because it gave them an added tool to control the lower bureaucracy. Citizens would help identify non-complying officials through their complaints, and the acts also gave top level officials new tools to penalize lower bureaucrats, who are notoriously insulated from punishment for poor performance. In other words, a turn towards rights-based acts derived in large part from historically poor implementation of government programs and a widespread distrust of the bureaucracy.

In practice, whether rights have been articulated by courts or legislatures, their effectiveness has been spotty at improving implementation of government policy. It is easy to say that just because a right has been created that a problem is now solved, or is on the way to being solved, when the underlying structural reasons for poor implementation – whether it is insufficient funds, the low capacity of officials, poor policy design, or the need for civil service reform – are left unaddressed. Furthermore, rights are absolutist in their claims, and are generally poor vehicles for balancing the competing interests made on the state’s time and resources. For example, some lower officials have remarked that right to service acts do influence their behavior, such as making them prioritize processing an income certificate more quickly to avoid a fine, but then their other – often equally meritorious – work suffers as a result. Finally, an expectation that often highly impoverished individuals will be able to successfully navigate the bureaucracy and the courts to claim rights when they are denied them has generally proved unrealistic. 

This is not to say a rights-based strategy for implementing social welfare programs is the wrong path. Rights can certainly be part of a broader strategy to address implementation challenges. After all, in a society like India’s where social divisions are often stark, rights can give those who have traditionally been disempowered needed confidence and legitimacy to make claims on the government for basic social goods. These benefits of a rights-based strategy should be appreciated, but also so should the strategy’s limits and costs. Rights will not solve the country’s long-standing and engrained implementation challenges, only concerted policy and bureaucratic reform can do that.  

Nicholas Robinson is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He is a CASI Fall 2012 Visiting Scholar. He can be reached at .

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

© 2012 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.