Monday, 27 May 2013

Amartya Sen, jholawalas, and the wrongs of rights-based laws

That Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has once again thrown his weight behind the Food Security Bill, lambasting the opposition for not allowing Parliament to pass the legislation, isn’t surprising. The venerable economist has been a champion of the rights-based entitlements approach for long.
This piece is not going to get into whether Sen is right or wrong about the National Food Security Bill 2011. This article, which links to other articles on the subject, effectively demolishes his argument.
The rights-based approach was discussed at the recent annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Greater Noida, where an ADB policy report, Empowerment and Public Service Delivery in Developing Asia and the Pacific, was released. Sen was part of the panel that discussed this report, which admits that its basic foundation is his “influential work on freedom, participation and agency”.
The report makes the point that despite tremendous economic progress made by Asian countries, they haven’t done very much in reducing poverty, malnutrition, improving health and education indices, among other things. This, it says, is largely because of inefficient delivery of public services. There’s little to dispute in these purely factual statements.
So how is this to be addressed? Being heavily influenced by Sen’s work, the report naturally tends to lean towards the rights-based approach to empowering people to demand better public services. But it also discusses community participation in service delivery, participatory monitoring of service providers (social audits, citizen’s report cards, grievance redressal mechanisms etc) and public-private partnerships.
Fortunately, it also highlights the problem with a rights-based approach, which Sen and other defenders of this approach almost never seem to talk about.
One, there’s the problem of resources. Two, the lack of institutional channels to enable citizens to claim their rights. Indeed, there’s little point in saying I am entitled to 100 days of work, or education for my child, or a certain quantity of foodgrain, or basic housing (another right that’s in the works) without adequate systems to ensure that I get them. Saying that these are justiciable rights also doesn’t mean much when I don’t have the time or resources to knock on the doors of overcrowded courts manned by overburdened judges.
Take the flagship National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). According to the latest Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the scheme, employment was not provided to job seekers within 15 days of their requesting it. Yet, they were not paid an unemployment dole, which they should have been.
Or take the Right to Education Act, which has come into force since 2010. Can the government really claim that this has been a resounding success? Far from improving access of children to schools, the Act actually runs the danger of reducing access by laying down a slew of impractical stipulations that even low-cost private schools have to comply with or face closure.
That is the basic flaw in any rights-based approach to welfare entitlements – their implementation is hugely problematic.
Assuming, for argument’s sake, that this is a good approach, why not, then, use this to enforce existing Fundamental Rights in the Constitution? Why not ensure the right to “practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business” as enshrined in Article 19 (g)?
Why are self-employed people like street vendors, hawkers, rickshaw pullers and the like subject to a plethora of restrictions that make it near-impossible for them to earn a decent living and perhaps move up beyond the poverty line?
A cap on the number of cycle-rickshaws in Delhi has made rickshaw-pullers (for whom there is great demand in the suburbs) vulnerable to not just rapacious owners of rickshaws but also policemen and transport department officials. Street vendors too have their goods being routinely confiscated. If these people are freed from the licence-permit raj, there would probably be no need for NREGA or a Food Security Act in their present form.  That will make for a truly inclusive growth model (unlike the cronyism that we are seeing currently, which merely benefit a few corporate fat cats).
Similarly, if low-cost private schools were allowed to function freely, the problem of access to schooling at least in urban areas will be solved to a large extent.
Why not also restore the right to property as a fundamental right? This will allow poor people who may have land to use it as an income generating resource in whatever way they deem fit.
Let us also concede, again for argument’s sake, that the state alone will – and can – provide essential services to the poor. The record of its doing so is, well, poor. Ration shops routinely claim they haven’t got supplies, making a mockery of the public distribution system. Government hospitals claim they don’t have medicines. Teacher absenteeism in government schools is high.
If, as the report says, the government has to be made accountable, legislating a right to education, or food, or health is not going to solve the problem. As the report itself concedes, this has to be accompanied by changes in the way the government machinery works. Only one right is necessary to ensure that – the Right to Information (RTI).
The RTI movement in India gathered steam after it was used in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to successfully get details about the working of fair price shops. If a below poverty line ration card holder can use RTI to find out why he hasn’t been getting his monthly quota of rice, wheat and sugar, that will do far more to make the system accountable than any food security legislation can. Because as the working of the NREGA shows, the mere enactment of an Act will not ensure that a poor person does get 100 days of work or 25 kg of foodgrain. It is an RTI which will tell him why he hasn’t. The RTI Act is already in place, but its implementation is patchy and there are constant attempts to dilute it.
Sen and his band of jholawallas would be better advised to focus on ensuring that rights like those to livelihood or information are enforced and implemented properly, than insisting that a plethora of meaningless rights are legislated.

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