Republic of Voice
September 13, 2013
There is reason to celebrate, and I am not talking of the recent upward swing of the sensex or improvement in the rupee-dollar exchange rates – I am talking of the extraordinary legislations that have been put on the ground or are on the road to be put on the ground in the last two weeks in the Indian Republic – a result of the building up of informed voice.
The National Food Security Bill, 2013, The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2011 and The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012 – these bills, some of which are yet to become acts, are imperfect and these imperfections have been pointed out both, by those who have fought for these bills and worked on their detail; and, by the critics of what are called “populist” legislations.
This reveals one of the important aspects of Indian democracy namely the effectiveness of what can be called public action. While icons like AmartyaSen have been pointing to this aspect of our political system in contexts such as the comparison of India’s reaction to famine with China’s response to famine for so many years- this aspect of India’s current political and legislative domain and behavior, not only needs to be noticed but also enlarged, showcased and enabled effectively.
Unfortunately sensationalism and economic crises get enlarged attention in the media as well as by the powerful corporate sector and the middle class. Seen to be on the brink a couple of weeks ago, when the rupee was sliding down and the stock market was dull, India was on the verge of collapse it said, and what is more, the hysteria went to the point of asking for immediate dissolution of Parliament !Those highly visible voices and ideas were soon replaced by the violence in Uttar Pradesh. In the midst of all that sound and fury what was lost was the wonderful progress made on at least four spaces which are largely occupied by the less privileged, and whose abilities and the fostering of whose capabilities, could create more value for the national political economy than the ups and downs of the Sensex or the Rupee.
The lack of media attention, especially the electronic media which is so powerful because of its imagery, to these four achievements however flawed - except of course for the boring ping pong of political difference on the financial viability of the National Food Security bill- was glaring. We did not hear similar excitement for example with the recently passedstreet vendors protection bill. The only channel which showed what was really an exciting and stunning “story”to watch,was an episode on Doordarshan where a police van with a loud speaker, rushes through a street full of petty vendors, coconut sellers and women with multiple goods for sale ,asking them to clear out -making them go helter-skelter in confusion, like in a Hindi movie.But, one vendor, in this case, a bhelpuriwalla, does not budge. The constable uses his lathi and says, MOVE! The vendor refuses and smiles. After a bit the vendor says I have a right to vend and pulls out a card which gives him the license. The policeman backs out but is given,in affection a dishof bhelpuri by the vendor. The vendor then addresses the audience and says, “Claim your right!” to other vendors who are watching hopefully.
What a great thing it could be if the English speaking channels would have had a debate on this and much more picturising of markets and streets where women and men are creating livelihoods for themselves and offering goods to the public at the lower end of the economy! These are the largest market spaces in India - not the malls - for the lower income and by the lower income people. This act is an outcome of long years of negotiations by theNASVI, the National Association of Vendors , India. In my view thislegal provision could also be seen as valuable and significant as what has been happening in India in relation to sexual violence.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2011, the one which prohibits people from handling night soil and carrying it on their heads is another brilliant step forward, something that has been on the minds of Indians for generations starting with the independence. Of course not good enough. But if the energy of the media and CSO’s who are criticizing the state or showing the weaknesses in these acts could be mobilized to reach out to these men and women who will be displaced by the act; and instead of waiting to see the failure of implementation of this act, plunge into organizing the displaced, finding and enabling production and marketing of products and services, getting the banks into the act and so forth, creatinginnovating new kinds of latrines, new ways of cleaning blocked sewage lines, it will be remarkable.
Then,the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, with all its weaknesses including the latest criticism that it really still shortchanges the land owners, especially amongst the less powerful, is a breakthrough. Although it will definitely make things easier for companies and enterprises involved in mining and building infrastructure, it is the first step in ensuring compensation and some amount of legal protection for land owners in the rural as well as urban areas. It could build the platform for a vigilant community of persons , especially those working on conservation to enable land owners to also look at the environment hazards .
So, India, that set out be a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic” has indeed kept its word ( or a part of it ) by now becoming the Republic of voice. Vending, land, scavenging and food – all issues related to the less privileged have been brought under some amount of judicial protection, thourhg voice, voice at public places, voices through the ether , through the press . Sadly, it does not hit the headlines and our exuberance seems limited to the Sensex and to the pre-occupation of the elites.
Devaki Jain is a feminist economist living in delhi after retirement from the Delhi University and the Institute of Social studies Trust , New Delhi