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Indians fight to exercise new rights

by Rama Lakshmi

The Washington Post

Three years ago, a group of parents in a remote tribal hamlet in India handed local officials a petition demanding a new school. Their children had to walk nearly 3 km through farmland, forest and creeks to reach the closest public school, although, they argued, the country’s new Right to Education law entitled them to something closer.

But while the new law may have stirred the people of Dalki Sahi, Orissa, into action, they still don’t have a new school. And across India, amid questions about whether the government can really deliver, many are asking whether the law was merely a well-intentioned promise dressed up as a legally enforceable fundamental right.

In the past eight years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has enacted a set of laws that give Indians the right to peer through official files and to get schools, rural jobs, forest land and, most recently, food at rock-bottom prices. Some call it India’s silent rights-based revolution.

The laws signal a radical shift in the way the government delivers social services — telling people they have a right to them, and urging Indians to stop waiting passively and instead force the usually apathetic bureaucracy to perform. Advocates of the approach say the laws are slowly altering the inherently feudal, top-down relationship between the government and its citizens.

The government boasted about the new rights in an advertising campaign earlier this year, and members of Singh’s Congress party say they plan to use the laws in vote-catching slogans in the national election scheduled for next year.

Singh’s government, battling a string of corruption allegations and inflation, passed the latest rights-conferring law this month, guaranteeing more than 800 million Indians cheap food grains and adding more than $6 billion to the annual food subsidy bill. The new law has roiled economists because it comes at a time when India’s economic growth has been at its lowest in a decade, the rupee is at a historic low against the dollar and foreign investors are no longer lining up to tap the Indian market.

Critics say that many of the new rights are simply a euphemism for expensive handouts meant to curry favor with voters. Others say that if bureaucratic attitudes and efficiency are not improved, the rights are mere window dressing on a broken social services system.

“In other countries, they actually provide food, jobs and pension. In India, we talk about mere rights to all of them. Who are we fooling?” asked Surjit Bhalla, chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm in New Delhi. “All these so-called rights amount to throwing away money and breeding corruption. These rights are nothing but populism and welfare.”

But activists say the new laws are changing Indians’ relationship with the government and making them more assertive, even if the results aren’t instant.

“People are no longer going with folded hands and groveling in front of officials. They are demanding their rights, not asking the government for charity,” said Ranjan Kumar Mohanty of the People’s Culture Center, a nonprofit group working on community development in Orissa.

“For so long, we just accepted it as our fate that there was no school nearby,” said Phulomani Baskey, a 35-year-old mother of two school-age children in the hamlet of Dalki Sahi. “But when we heard that the government has guaranteed to build one if we demanded, we decided to write letters,” she said, adding the demand of local residents “is stuck in the endless paper-and-pen process of bureaucrats.”

In March, education officials from several state governments, including Orissa’s, wrote to New Delhi saying they did not have enough resources to build new schools or improve existing ones and asking for more time or the easing of some requirements as they try to implement the 3-year-old law.

India’s new push toward entitlements began with the Right to Information Act passed in 2005, which increased government accountability. “The right to information law gave people a solid taste of what a right is,” said Nikhil Dey, an advocate of India’s rights drive and a member of a farm and factory workers’ group. “Now the genie is out of the bottle.”

In the past three years, 14 states have also enacted laws that guarantee citizens a right to timely public services.

Certain Congress party members privately say the new food security law will also be an election game-changer. But some rights advocates are cautious.

“Passing these rights laws is politically attractive,” Dey, the rights advocate, said. “But it is also tricky because it can come back to bite you if you just raise people’s expectations without delivering efficiently.”