The taming of civil society
  Neera chandhoke

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EVER since the modern state first took shape in Europe at the turn of the 19th century, it has fascinated some people and deterred others, attracted some scholars and put off others, been acclaimed by some political activists and reviled by others. We can detest the state or find it irresistible, or do both either sequentially or simultaneously. We can see the state as the hub of our political aspirations, or see it as condensing all that is dislikeable in the human condition – power, arrogance, and control over people’s lives. What we cannot do is to be indifferent to the state, simply because it exerts an overwhelming influence on our individual and collective lives.

Neither can we, as we have realised with some degree of discomfort, dispense with the state. If at one time anarchists had dreamt that societies can exist without the state, that time has long passed. Our societies are much too horrid, oppressive and exploitative. We need the state to save us from ourselves, much as Thomas Hobbes had theorised in the 17th century. There was also a time when grand revolutionary imaginaries believed that authoritarian states could be smashed. But, ironically, the very moment existing states were smashed, new and equally totalitarian states were born.

The question is not so much whether we need a state to regulate a largely chaotic and even disordered society; the question is what are we to do with the state? How do we ensure that the state secures the well-being of human beings, howsoever ordinary and obscure they may be? How do we assure that the holders of state power, and power shows a remarkable propensity to be self-reinforcing, do not steam roller the lives of human beings in their own interests? The answer given both by history and by political theory to this seemingly endless predicament was that of democracy.

But despite the underlying presumption of popular sovereignty, democratic regimes have not always functioned for the well-being of the people. On the other hand, citizens of authoritarian regimes – take Singapore – happen to enjoy a far better quality of life than citizens of democracies like India. It is also more than possible that a fully functioning political democracy can coexist quite easily and fairly unproblematically with high levels of social and economic inequity and unfreedom.

Consider India which is widely hailed as the world’s largest democracy. Certainly the country holds an enviable record inasmuch as it has held regular elections, institutionalised a competitive party system, established a functioning rule of law, granted legal sanction to political and civil rights, and established a free press. But even as India satisfies all the conditions that permit it to claim the label of formal democracy with some justification, a majority of the people continue to suffer from unimaginable hardship, with the most vulnerable among them – the poor among the scheduled castes and tribes, hill people, forest dwellers, tribals, women, and particularly the girl child – at tremendous risk in matters of both lives and livelihoods.

Since little confidence can be reposed in democratic states to ensure the well-being of their people, the question that continues to worry democrats is: how do we ensure that pressing social issues come onto the political agenda? Or do we engage in a trade-off between democracy and well-being? But since no democrat would agree that democracy be dispensed with in the interest of well-being – for societies can land up with neither – some other solution has to be found to the paradox of democracy. Theorists searching incessantly for ways and means to control the state found in the 1980s one such solution – that of civil society. After all totalitarian states had collapsed like the proverbial house of cards the moment civil societies mobilised in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989. What better way could be found to control recalcitrant state power?



The problem is that when we import a concept from a different historical context, it comes with lots of baggage. Since civil society had mobilised against the state in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 and sparked thereby a ‘velvet revolution’, civil society it was generally felt was necessarily autonomous of the state, even poised against it. In the 1990s scholar after scholar authored tomes, each of which not only hailed the autonomy of civil society, but saw it as counteracting the totalising tendencies of the state. In the process, the state, civil society, and often the market came to be neatly bounded off, even insulated from each other. The problem however is that civil society can hardly be autonomous. For, somewhat ironically, the very state that civil society supposedly positions itself against enables the latter inasmuch as it provides the legal and political setting for the sphere to exist and maintain itself. The shadow of Hegel who had suggested that the state is a precondition for the existence of civil society looms large here.

But there is more, for often enough civil societies operate on the terrain of the state. Or that setting and institutionalising the framework for civil society gives to the state immense power to define which civil society organisation is permissible. Let me put this in stark terms: the discourse of collective action in civil society has to function within certain parameters laid down by the state. Within the frontiers of what is politically permissible, civil society actors can do what they like: exercise eternal vigilance against arbitrary power, demand accountability, and insist that the state delivers what it promises. But groups which transgress these boundaries are likely to be interned to a space beyond the pale of law or civil rights; a space which happens to be dark, damp, and mouldy much like the medieval dungeons in Europe to which the Catholic Church expelled ‘heretics’. Consider the fate of Naxalites or for that matter any individual/group which dares challenge the boundaries of state power. It is not surprising that civil society groups in India increasingly work on the terrain laid out by the state.



New groups in the country have mobilised for social and economic justice since the onset of independence: the peasants’ movement, the movement for land rights, the women’s movement, the anti-caste movement, the environmental movement, the movement against displacement on account of large projects, and the radical Naxalite movement. Whereas the struggle of Naxalite groups is grounded in a strong redistributive ethos, the feminist movement demands a restructuring of patriarchal power. Whereas the anti-caste movement demands that the balance of power that has consistently favoured the upper castes for centuries be reversed in favour of those who have been consistently marginalised from history, the environmental movement and the movement against big development projects argues that local communities have the first right over resources that have traditionally been exploited by and for the rest of society. In sum, most of these movements challenge power as conceptualised by the state and by civil society.

Since the late 1990s a qualitatively different series of campaigns have appeared on the political scene. These campaigns, focusing on upgrading of the provisions of chapter four of the Constitution to chapter three, aim to put the provisioning of social goods onto the policy agenda. Rather than raise issues which are related to either redistribution of power or of resources, these campaigns address public policy, expose lacks and lags in conceptualisation of policy, accentuate flaws in the making of policy, and emphasise the major problems that are attached to the implementation of social policy. Let us take a quick look at some of the major campaigns that are active in India’s civil society today.



The Right to Food: In August 2004 newspaper reports on 15 starvation deaths in Baran district of Rajasthan served once again to illustrate the paradox of the Indian political system. Since the beginning of this century, the country’s stocks of food grains amounting to 58 million tonnes in 2001, and 48.2 million tonnes in 2002-03, are far in excess of the normal buffer norms of food security – 25 million tonnes. It has been estimated that the Government of India is spending huge amounts of money in stocking surplus food grains. And yet in the same period, reports of starvation deaths, hunger, and generalised malnutrition have regularly made an appearance on the front pages of newspapers. Nearly half of the children in the rural areas continue to be malnourished, and the extent of malnourishment among adults, particularly pregnant women and lactating mothers, is no better. The government prefers that its overflowing food stocks rot in the storage bins, and are nibbled at by rodents, even as chronic food insecurity relentlessly stalks millions of people in the country.



In 2001 the Rajasthan based Akal Sangharsh Samiti – an all state network of 60 grassroots organisations – began a dharna in Jaipur because the state government refused to redress unfavourable conditions caused by severe drought in the state. The state government on the plea of lack of funds vacillated on the issue of continuing relief works beyond the minimum period violating in the process its own 1962 famine code; on picking up the full quota of food grains that had been allotted to it from the central pool; and on expanding the constituency for PDS. On 16 April 2001, the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties Rajasthan submitted a writ petition to the Supreme Court of India, citing the Government of India, the Food Corporation of India, and six state governments as respondents. The list of respondents was enlarged in time to cover the governments of all states and union territories, and the issues raised by the writ petition – the provision of relief works during drought and the utilisation of surplus food stocks to feed starving people – were expanded to that of chronic hunger.

The writ petition raised a number of issues, both specific and generic. First, given the rising prices of food grains in the 1990s, the poorer sections were unable to buy food. Therefore, institutional arrangements to deliver food to BPL families and destitute people needed to be strengthened, the implementation of various schemes monitored, and the administration of the schemes made accountable. Second, the purchasing power of the people needed to be expanded through the institutionalisation of various income-generating schemes, so that in time people could achieve some level of self-sufficiency and be emancipated from the stranglehold of absolute deprivation as well as from dependence on the state. Third, the state had a large role to play in not only designing but also implementing, strengthening and monitoring various schemes that relate to the provision of food. Fourth, the writ petition strongly argued that the right to food supervenes upon the right to life guaranteed by the Indian Constitution vide article 21.



These issues were serious enough to warrant a pro-active and an interventionist stance by the Supreme Court of India. The court in a series of rulings directed the central and state governments to strengthen eight nutrition related programmes, streamline the public distribution system, identify BPL families, and implement midday meal programmes in schools. The public hearings held by the court bred seven consequences: First, they gave rise to the campaign for the right to food, an informal alliance of organisations and individuals committed to the right to be free from hunger and from under-nourishment. Second, the prime minister announced that his government would initiate a massive programme of employment generation via the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana.

Third, several state governments conforming to the orders of the Supreme Court introduced midday meals in primary schools, and updated and improved other food related programmes. Fourth, in September 2004, the Planning Commission allotted an additional Rs 1,232 crore to the midday meal programme. The programme has been transferred to state governments which will be given an annual grant to keep the programme running. Fifth, the Supreme Court has set in place mechanisms that monitor the implementation of various food and nutrition related schemes of the Government of India by establishing food commissioners who are responsible to the court. On numerous occasions the court has pulled up state governments and the central government for failure to discharge their obligations. This has been buttressed by the holding of public hearings, which have served to highlight corruption and mismanagement in matters relating to food security.

Sixth, the court by repeatedly stating that the right to food directly emanates from article 21 of the Constitution and from article 47 of the Directive Principles of State Policy has accorded legal backing to the right to food. Seventh, the campaign for food rights has secured the implementation of the food-for-work programmes. In September 2004, the Planning Commission approved the launching of a Rs 2,020 crore food-for-work programme in 150 districts that have been affected adversely by hunger.



The Right to Work: The demand for the right has not raised a new entitlement onto the agenda. Employment generating schemes have existed in one form or another in the country for long. After one of the worst droughts in the state in 1972, Maharashtra introduced the Employment Guarantee Scheme for rural areas and C class municipal councils vide an Act in 1977. It is this model that is sought to be generalised by the proposed employment guarantee act . On 8 May 2002, the Supreme Court during the public hearing on the writ petition filed by PUCL Rajasthan had ruled that village self-government bodies shall frame employment generation proposals in accordance with the Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana.

Employment, ruled the court, should be provided on public works such as soil and water conservation, afforestation, building of roads, rainwater harvesting, irrigation, treatment of catchment areas, in short for the generation of useful community assets. The scheme should be targeted to agricultural wage-earners, non-agricultural unskilled wage-earners, marginal farmers, persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and women. The proposed National Employment Act stipulates that work shall be provided to one able-bodied member of every rural household for a hundred days each year on asset creating public works, and that each worker will be given minimum wages.

The Planning Commission in the Approach Paper to the Mid-Term Appraisal of the Tenth Five Year Plan has, however, expressed doubts about the feasibility of the proposed scheme because preliminary estimates place the likely annual cost of introducing an employment guarantee in rural areas between Rs 21,000 crore and Rs 40,000 crore. Therefore, stated the Planning Commission, the feasibility of embarking on such a commitment will have to be examined on the basis of the overall picture of available resources and demands of other sectors. The Union Finance Ministry has further declared the scheme as not ‘viable’. Therefore, even if the act is passed by Parliament, it may not be accompanied by the necessary outlays.



The Right to Health: In June and July 2004, 11 children in the age group of 0-5 died in the Dongiriguda adivasi settlement located in the Jharigaon block of Nawrangpur district in Orissa. Other children living in the block were being treated for similar symptoms, and reports stated that the understaffed and ill-equipped community health centre at Jharigaon was admitting about 40 ailing children per day. The proximate cause of the death of these children was diarrhoea, acute respiratory infection, and fever. The generic cause for these deaths was malnutrition, which has been identified as the biggest cause of infant mortality in this district, as high as 97 deaths per 1000 live births. The general neglect of preventive health care in the country, the extremely low investment in health, and the increasing push towards the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of health services, highlights a dramatic lessening of public commitment to health initially conceptualised by the Bhore Committee.

The 1990s witnessed the development of a high technology private sector promoting with great vigour the phenomenon of health tourism, coexisting with a minimum clinical package provided by the government. It is in this context that the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, a national level platform of social organisations working on health issues, has suggested that the issue of health care be approached from the vantage point of human rights, particularly the right to life. Employing a variety of strategies from public hearings, lobbying the National Human Rights Commission, to meeting and lobbying parliamentarians, the JSA has initiated a nationwide ‘Health for All’ campaign. Till now the demand has, however, not fetched any result.



The Right to Education: In 1993 the Supreme Court had ruled in the case of Unnikrishna J.P versus State of Andhra Pradesh that the right to education is implicit in and flows from right to life guaranteed under article 21. The initiative taken by the court was enormously significant, since the goal of universal education which is stipulated by article 45 of Directive Principles of State Policy, and which was supposed to be achieved by 1960, has yet to be realised. Child labour is still rampant in the country, social biases work against educating the girl child who is often compelled to drop out of school in order look after her siblings while her parents go to work, and the presence of deep rooted poverty particularly among the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and hill and forest communities, precludes education.

Accordingly, when the United Front government introduced the 83rd Amendment Act in the Rajya Sabha in 1997, this sparked off a vibrant debate on the merits and the demerits of the Bill. It also flashed off several initiatives across the country to discuss the proposed legislation and 200 organizations came together in The National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education. Further mobilisation took place when the Constitution 86th Amendment Act was passed by Parliament in 2002. The act has been found wanting on many counts, and the objective of the alliance is to prevent the dilution of vital rights related to free and compulsory education as defined by the Constitution and as interpreted by the Supreme Court.



The Right to Information: The campaign for the right to information had a modest beginning in April 1996 when activists participated in a dharna in Rajasthan’s Beawar town on the issue. The slogan that was coined by the dharna which continued for 40 days is that ‘the right to know is the right to live’. The participants invoked the ruling of the Supreme Court, which had declared in 1981 that citizens of a democracy ought to know what their government is doing. The lead organiser of the campaign, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, based in the Rajsamand district of central Rajasthan, was formally constituted in 1990 and has since 1994 waged a relentless struggle on the right of citizens to demand information from the government.



In Delhi, Parivartan, consisting of a group of social activists launched a similar campaign in poor neighbourhoods to cull information on the money that has ostensibly been spent on public works. The immediate provocation for the campaign has by this stage of the argument become tediously familiar: the failure of state governments to enforce minimum wage regulations on drought relief works, mismanagement in the functioning of the PDS, massive corruption in public works in the form of inflated estimates, use of poor quality material, jacked up bills, fictitious muster rolls, and often fabricated development works.

By zeroing in on the right of people to know what the government has allotted to them, and what has happened to various programmes and schemes that are meant for their well-being, the campaign has managed to foreground the core issue of democracy, that of accountability. More importantly, the campaign for the right to information has managed to establish and institutionalise an institution that lies close to the heart of deliberative democrats – jan sunwais. As a result of the campaign, nine state governments have enacted the right to information beginning with Goa in 1997. In 2002, Parliament passed The Freedom of Information Act which was notified in January 2003. The draft rules for the implementation of the bill, however, are still being finalised.

It is time to take stock of contemporary civil society mobilisations in India in light of these five campaigns. First, all five campaigns draw upon the language of rights coded in chapter three of the Constitution, and not upon the language of obligation of the state coded in chapter four of the Constitution. Yet, despite the many avatars of rights on offer, the Supreme Court has incorporated all into an expanded notion of the right to life. Second, agendas of specific campaigns are interdependent inasmuch as they overlap not only with each other, but also with the agendas of groups who work for the realisation of civil rights. Third, in practically every case mentioned above, the demands of campaigns have been translated into policy only when the Supreme Court has intervened and directed the state to enact or implement policy. The court in effect mediates between civil society groups and the state. Fourth, all campaigns address the state and thereby place it at the centre of their political strategy.



In sum, civil society groups have succeeded in expanding the domain of policy-making and implementation. This, however, does not imply that the country is witnessing a social or even a political revolution. Many of these campaigns are localised affairs, some of the activist groups prefer to lobby policy-makers rather than politicise civil society, divisions often crop up among the leadership of the campaign, and leaderships of these campaigns have exhibited a somewhat unfortunate readiness to be incorporated into political society.

More importantly, most of the campaigns concentrate on either one or a cluster of immediate issues, leaving the big issues untouched – the huge inequalities of resources in the country for instance. And where there is inequality there must be unfreedom. Nor do these campaigns touch the source of powerlessness and helplessness, in skewed land and income patterns for instance. These campaigns just do not dream the large and expansive dreams that were dreamt of by earlier generations of social activists – restructuring existing structures of power and forging new and equitable structures of social relations. But that is the nature of civil society intervention.



Eschewing grand dreams of social transformation, civil society would rather concentrate on the affairs of everyday life: ensure that the state delivers what it has promised, that the state enlarge its agenda to cover issues that have been implied in earlier promises, that local authorities be made accountable, that the functioning of the government be made public and transparent, that midday meals be provided to children in primary schools, that the poor get jobs for at least 100 days a year, and that children outside the school system are brought into school.

Neither do these campaigns, which are often loose alliances of NGOs and social activists, concentrate on building a mass base. Therefore, they have not quite been able to attain the status of people’s movements. Perhaps this is due to the fact that campaigns for the efficient delivery of social goods belong to a post-ideological era, an era where the state is no longer seen as the object of political contestation but as the provider of social goods. Has politics, we are compelled to ask, come to be subordinated to public policy? Has the rights bearing citizen been reduced to being the consumer of goods and services? And does civil society, rather than being autonomous, actually function within the terrain charted out by the state? Does the state, therefore, continue to stand squarely at the centre of things?