Almost a quarter century has passed since India embarked on the world’s largest experiment in decentralization. The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution established more than 200,000 rural local councils (Gram Panchayats), devolved responsibility for an array of services, and reserved seats for women and Scheduled Castes and Tribes – historically disadvantaged communities. Many, though, see the panchayats as paper tigers plagued by democratic and bureaucratic deficits, and thus expect citizens to eschew these local bodies.
Society & Culture
In mid-April, when the historian Ramachandra Guha delivered the annual HY Sharada Prasad Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, his talk was titled “The Art and Craft of Historical Biography.” Guha dwelled at length upon the value of such writing, and upon the characteristics of a good biography. But he also raised a question that has appeared in his own writing frequently, notably in a chapter of The Last Liberal and Other Essays. Why has India, with all its fascinating complexity and its plethora of personalities, always been under-served by historical biographers?
India is jostling for space in the global marketplace with other rising powers and needs a robust energy supply to compete effectively. Implementing new power projects to harness its domestic natural resources is one of the ways this can be achieved. However, in India, large-scale infrastructure projects have been hard to undertake due to their perceived adverse social and environmental effects— controversial dam projects on the Narmada and Teesta Rivers being key examples.
The use of electoral quotas, such as reserved seats in parliaments or candidate quotas, has become increasingly common, and is usually defended on the basis of various assumed positive long-term effects. However, in most countries, it has been hard to identify such effects, partly because the policies have not been in place long enough.
Across the world, and most certainly in India, the expansion of Internet-enabled media has sparked new hopes of political participation, and new arenas for public debate and political action. Recent estimates reveal as many as 350 million Internet users in India, alongside only China and the US in reach and volume.
February 2016 marks a decade since India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (NREGA) came into force. NREGA is both revolutionary and modest; it promises every rural household one hundred days of employment annually on public-works projects, but the labor is taxing and pays minimum wage, at best.
Last week, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, commented on the need to reconsider India’s extensive system of caste-based reservations. Citing Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the noted Dalit jurist and social reformer, she said, “Ambedkarji had said, ‘Give reservations for ten years and after ten years, do a rethink. Bring them to that stage.’ We have done nothing.” She went on to note that, despite over fifty years of affirmative action for India’s most marginalized communities, caste-based inequality and discrimination persist in India.
In mid-October, the Supreme Court of India raised questions against the practice of commercial surrogacy. Later that month, the Central government responded with a ban on allowing foreign couples from hiring surrogates in India, permitting only altruistic surrogacy for infertile Indian couples. Although these changes are not surprising given the recent ban on commercial surrogacy in neighboring countries such as Thailand and Nepal, the justification of such a move needs greater scrutiny.
In an assessment of the quality of India’s implementation of anti-poverty programs in 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously said: “For every rupee spent by the government for the welfare of the common man, only seventeen paise reached him.” That state of affairs was one of the motivations for the 1993 passage of the 73rd amendment, which decentralized the implementation of government anti-poverty programs to local governments.
In India, legally established Protected Areas have historically been the most important means adopted for biodiversity conservation. Protected Areas (PAs) primarily include National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, and more recently, Community Reserves and Conservation Reserves. Today, there are as many as 703 PAs all across India, covering almost 5 percent of its land area. With burgeoning demands on land and water, and a high population density of 382 people/square km, the area commitment to PAs shows the national importance placed on biodiversity.