Dear 2011, will you bring justice?
It’s been a frenetic year, closing a volatile decade in which the rapidity of economic and social change in some areas has been almost as remarkable as the continuing stagnation and decline in others. So how do we interpret this and what can we wish for in future?
Right now there is a resurgence of economic triumphalism among Indian elites. On the face of it, the Indian economy has withstood the global crisis to maintain respectable rates of output growth. Consumer demand is buoyant, especially for goods and services consumed by the burgeoning middle class. So most private investors, both local and foreign, are incredibly bullish about future prospects.
But there are no significant improvements in the indicators that matter for most people, like stable employment, better livelihoods, reduced hunger and more basic human development. Rather, changes in finance and other economic deregulation led to large capital inflows and sparked a retail credit boom. These combined with fiscal concessions to spur consumption among the richer sections of the population. Meanwhile, large parts of the country continued to languish in dreadful conditions.
This is not a particularly stable economic trajectory since credit bubbles have to burst some time and growth episodes based on volatile capital inflows have usually ended in tears. In fact, agriculture and balance of payments, as well as social and political instability, are already re-emerging as potential constraints to this pattern of growth. The problems in agriculture continue to fester: the latest figures suggest more farmers’ suicides in 2009 than in any previous year, even as the numbers shrink of those who call themselves farmers.
Because economic growth has not generated enough productive jobs, the bulk of the work force is in very fragile and precarious forms of self-employment. Wages have barely risen as profits have exploded, and people have been displaced for projects that bring no improvement to their own lives. All this leads to a growing number of disaffected youth whose frustrations make them more prone to violent or socially undesirable behaviour.
So it’s not surprising that there is increased receptivity of local people in depressed areas to “extremist activity” designed to overthrow an economic system that is seen to be completely unjust.
So the first big item on my policy wish list is for a major shift in the direction of economic policy: away from seeing gross domestic product (GDP) expansion as an end in itself whatever the costs and welfare outcomes, and towards wage-led growth based on improved conditions for the ordinary citizen. This means more public spending on the basic goods and services that should be obvious features of civilised society: producing and distributing enough food for everyone; ensuring universal access to good quality health, sanitation and education services; fairly obvious features like all-weather roads to all habitations and electricity for every home. A fairly modest ambition, you might think, until you are told by our policymakers that our country cannot afford it, despite its pretensions to global power status.
Of course there are many other features of economic justice that we could think of, but it turns out that now we have to worry even about basic legal justice. The year 2010 has been full of assaults on India’s democracy and on its very impressive Constitution. Ironically, most of these assaults have come not from external enemies of the country but from within, and indeed from the very quarters that should be expected to uphold the Constitution.
This is only partly about abuse of power and privilege in the corridors (and anterooms) of power and the growing evidence of corrupt behaviour even at the highest levels. The year ended with the most dispiriting news from judiciary as well, when a court in Chhattisgarh found a well-known and highly respected doctor and human rights activist guilty of sedition, on the basis of the most flimsy and dubious circumstantial evidence, and sentenced him to rigorous life imprisonment.
The case against Dr Binayak Sen, who had already been held in prison for two years until the Supreme Court intervened, is highly questionable at best. But the judgment of the lower court is appalling not just because it appears to bend to the problematic political pressures of the state government and its police force, which apparently wishes to intimidate any dissenters. Even if its argument about the extent of Dr Sen’s involvement (carrying letters and so on) with “extremist elements” were to be accepted, this judgment actually flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s own stated position on what constitutes sedition.
In a famous judgment of 1962 (Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar) the Supreme Court held that the offence of “sedition” in the Indian Penal Code must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the fundamental freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
Spreading “disaffection against the state” is not enough: there must be direct incitement to violence or actions that will lead to serious public disorder, and any speech or deed milder than this should not be considered seditious.
Instead, this extreme and underserved punishment is meted out to someone who in a more enlightened society would be celebrated as a positive role model because of his concern for the poor and downtrodden, while actual criminals roam about unfettered. On what basis can we now argue with those who believe that violent protest is justified because the administrative and judicial systems are so skewed and biased that it is impossible to expect genuine justice? And should we be surprised if such judgments actually add to the extremist activity that is seen as such a threat to the established order?
So my second wish is for a judicial system that works quickly and effectively to uphold the Constitution, to ensure the rights of all citizens and to deliver genuine justice even to those without access to wealth and power.
Is it scary that these two simple wishes seem to be so wildly optimistic and even improbable in India at the turn of the decade?