1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Governance (2000 - 2009), Social Policy and Development (2000 - 2009)

Democracy and Well Being in India (Draft)



What, the author asks at the outset, is the relationship between democracy and well being? Is the relationship an essential one? Or is it random and contingent? Is the institutionalisation of democracy a necessary prerequisite for ensuring the well being of people? Will the enactment and implementation of social policy inevitably accompany the establishment of democracy? There are perhaps no clear answers to these questions and if there was ever a time when theorists assumed that democracy essentially exists for the well being of the people; that time seems to have long passed. After all authoritarian regimes, which deny to their people civil and political rights, have managed to assure the same people social and economic well being. This is a reality that theorists in the business of conceptualising democracy have had to confront with some degree of discomfort. It is even more discomforting to find that a fully functioning political democracy can co-exist quite easily with high levels of social and economic inequality and unfreedom.

Take India; the country holds an enviable record in institutionalising democracy in the form of Constitutionalism, a competitive party system, regular elections, rule of law, codification of political and civil rights, and guarantees of free press and a vibrant civil society. But even as India satisfies conditions that permit it to claim the label of democracy with some justification; a majority of the people continue to suffer from unimagined hardship, with the most vulnerable among them-the poor among the scheduled castes and tribes, hill people, forest dwellers, tribals, and women particularly the girl child-at tremendous risk in matters of both lives and livelihoods.

It is true that the decade of the 1990s, which heralded the onset of economic reforms, also brought a decline in poverty figures. In 1973-74, 55 percent of India’s population fell below the poverty line; this was reduced to 36 percent in 1993-94, to further fall to 26 percent of a one billion population in 1999-2000. In absolute terms the number of poor declined from 323 million in 1983 to 260 million in 1999-2000 (National Human Development Report 2002: pg 38) Scholars, however, disagree sharply on the methodology of estimating poverty. See the special issue on poverty reduction in Economic and Political Weekly, January 2004. The fall in poverty figures has been accompanied by a great deal of improvement in the basic parameters of human development. According to the 2003-2004 Report of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, infant mortality has declined significantly from 110 deaths per 1000 live births in 1981 to 66 deaths per 1000 live births in 2001. Correspondingly, life expectancy has increased from 54 years in 1981 to 64.6 years in 2000 (Annual Report 2003-04: 13). According to the 2001 Census, the literacy rate for the population above the age of seven stands at 65.4 percent, compared to 52.21 percent in 1991 [www.censusindia.net].

Four factors need to be noted in this connection. Firstly, poverty is unevenly spread across regions with Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, and Orissa accounting for 69 percent of the poor in 1999-2000 (Tenth Five Year Plan 2002:293). Equally striking are rural urban disparities: 75 percent of the 260 million poor live in rural areas with no access to land, productive resources or employment. Secondly, different states have differing records of human development. Whereas Kerala has a literacy rate of 92 percent, which is comparable to that of Vietnam; Bihar, a backward state, continues to have a literacy rate of only 47.5 percent. Equally, whereas the literacy rate in urban areas is 80.30 percent, the corresponding literacy rate for rural areas is only 59.40 percent. Thirdly, human development has little to do with economic development. Although the sex ratio according to the 2001 Census has improved slightly for the country in the decade of the 1990s, and is now 933 women per 1000 men compared to 927 women per 1000 men in the 1991 census, the situation has actually worsened in Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, and Delhi which rank high on the scale of economic development. Fourthly we find a contradiction between human development indicators within a state. Take Himachal Pradesh, at the very time the state has witnessed a dramatic expansion of literacy levels; the sex ratio in the state has declined from 976 females per 1000 males in 1991, to 970 per 1000 males in 2001, problematising thereof the postulated link between literacy and women’s status.

In sum, not only do a quarter of the world’s poor live in India, the number of illiterates, school drop-outs, people suffering from communicable diseases, and infant, child and maternal deaths, amount to a staggering proportion of respective world totals. More troublesome is the fact that country has high numbers of hungry people despite the existence of huge buffer stocks of food. And India’s record in providing services-sanitation, clean drinking water, electricity, housing, and jobs-is even bleaker. It is clear that political democracy has simply not been accompanied by the institutionalisation of economic and social democracy.

Does it then follow that given a choice between more democracy and more well being democrats should opt for more well being? The choice is difficult especially when we are confronted with massive poverty, deprivation, and ill-fare in the country. The author suggests that democracy is always preferable to authoritarianism for one core reason: the possession and exercise of basic rights enables citizens to mobilise and press the state to deliver on the promises embedded in the Constitution and in policy pronouncements. Arguably mobilisation leads to enhanced participation, and participation deepens democracy simply because it helps realise the prime legitimacy claim of the concept-that of popular sovereignty. In sum, the peculiar virtue of Indian democracy, howsoever formal and minimal our avatar of democracy may be, is that it is premised on the recognition of, the grant of, and the codification of basic rights: the right to freedom of expression, of assembly, of association, and more significantly the root right to demand other rights. This alone allots to democracy an intrinsic value that outweighs greater well being delivered by non-democratic regimes.

In this paper the author argues that whereas the codification of directive principles of state policy in part four of the Indian constitution has motivated the enactment of social policy, the codification of fundamental rights in part three of the constitution has inspired and empowered collective action for the implementation of the said principles. To put it differently, collective action in India has served to connect constitutional entitlements, state policy, and well being via the route of expanding the vocabulary as well as the conceptual repertoire of rights.

The argument proceeds in four parts. In the first section of the paper Chandhoke details the structures of social opportunities provided by the state. The second section deals with the structural barriers to well being and also the role of political agents in addressing these barriers. In the third section the author discusses some of the contemporary campaigns that press for the effective implementation of the Directive Principles. And in the fourth section she analyses the pre-conditions that are required for achieving well being. It is being suggested that whereas the compulsions of formal democracy may encourage the enactment of social policies; it is only when civil society mobilises for the strengthening, the expansion, and the effective implementation of these policies, that we can expect a transition from political to social democracy. But civil society interventions have their own limits. What these limits are is discussed in the last section of the essay.