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Human Rights in India


Providing an Improved Environment for Human Rights in The Country(India)

"While human rights institutions like the NHRC have a significant role in the promotion and protection of human rights, the contributions of civil society actors and the state are just as crucial"

An informed discussion on how to provide an improved environment for human rights in the country, and how to achieve social justice through human rights is very necessary. Social justice, as the American philosopher John Rawls pointed out, ‘is predicated on the idea that a society can be regarded as egalitarian only when it is based on principles of equality and solidarity, where human rights are valued and the dignity of every individual upheld.’ A just society is one which provides a degree of protection to its weaker, differently-abled and less gifted members. It is not one where the law of the jungle prevails, where might is right. In a civilized society, reasonable constraints are placed on the ambitions and acquisitiveness of its more aggressive members and special safeguards provided to its weaker and more vulnerable sections. These considerations are basic to any scheme of social justice and their neglect will brutalize society. In a limited sense, the right to social justice may be said to be the right of the weak, aged, destitute, poor, women, children and other underprivileged persons, to the protection of the State against the ruthless competition of life. It is a bundle of rights, in another sense it is a preserver of other rights. It is the balancing wheel between haves and have-nots. 

Our Constitution makers were fully alive to the need for providing safeguards to the weaker sections of society as is evident from the Preamble to the Constitution and Part IV of the Constitution, that is, the Directive Principles of State Policy. Social justice has become a pressing issue across the world, especially in the larger context of globalization, which is altering traditional roles and relationships between states and their citizens and throwing up multiple challenges to the realization of socio-economic justice, whether in the form of the devastating financial crisis, the rising cost of essential food commodities, or the growing influence of transnational bodies such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank and Multinational Corporations. 

Human rights have been recognized as standards of achievements and norms of behaviors of all members of society, in particular the Government and its agencies. Human Rights form the foundation of society, and without its observance, society would disintegrate. Society can be maintained only by protecting and promoting dignity of human beings. 

The basic Charter of Human Rights is found in Magna Carta, American War of Independence and French Revolution. They were mostly in the form of negative rights, i.e., State shall not interfere with the enjoyment of certain basic rights. But after the Second World War, attempts were made to build an international system so that holocaust of war was not repeated. This system wanted to protect civil and political rights of people and ensure that all nations were committed to this. At the same time, the international community also had the obligation of fulfilling certain positive rights, like economic, social and cultural rights. These positive rights required positive action involving the use of resources and in 1948, Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations which included both civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

It was realized that the distinction between the civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights was artificial and thin. Human rights needed to be considered in totality as human dignity is by its nature indivisible. It was not enough merely to protect individual rights like civil, political, economic etc, without looking at the whole picture, as people were doing. We needed protection that was sustainable. Adequate steps needed be taken to build up mechanisms to safeguard these human rights in entirety.

The developing countries sought for an equal status with other nations. This led to the Declaration of Right to Development in 1986, which was adopted by the United Nations with an overwhelming majority, defining development as a composite right where all human rights – civil, political, economic, social, cultural as well as other rights such as the rights of children and women, are realized. Thus human rights were given new a dimension and content. Development was described as comprehensive economic, social and political process where all rights can be realized, and not merely as increase of GDP or rise in volume of employment or export promotion. Development necessarily entails economic growth, but this growth has to be equitable, participatory, accountable and transparent. The right to development is something which cannot be realized immediately. Right to food, health, education, employment, standards of living need to be realized progressively in phased manner, summing up to the right to development, and ultimately to human development. Human development means expansion of freedom and ensuring people’s ability to lead lives of their choice, with the removal of obstacle such as hunger, malnutrition, ill-health, illiteracy and economic insecurities.

The pursuit of social justice has become imperative in this day and age. However, while governments find it increasingly difficult to deny citizens their basic rights, there are deep-seated and well-entrenched socio-economic structures that continue to pose a colossal challenge to the realization of a just and equitable social order. Broadly speaking, social justice stems from the idea that all human beings are entitled to the fulfillment of certain basic needs and rights, regardless of their social differences such as economic disparity, class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability or health. ( Neo Simutanyi. 2008. “The African Debate on Social Justice.” Paper presented to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung-Tanzania/Chama Cha Mapinduzi Youth League Regional Forum on Youth Perspectives and Social Justice, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 23-27 November 2008).

While the Indian economy has grown at a phenomenal pace since independence, thanks to the introduction of new technology, modernization of agriculture, and rapid industrialization; the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we have made as much progress in terms of human development. By human development, I mean widening and deepening the scope of freedoms available to all people without exception and guaranteeing them their right to dignified and meaningful existence. We need to ask ourselves if the citizens of this country live with freedom from fear, repression, discrimination, exploitation, hunger, and poverty, and participate in public life as free-willed and equal citizens, or if certain sections and communities of people continue to face economic marginalization and social exclusion?

In terms of human development indicators, the South Asian region has a dismal record. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008 has estimated that mounting food prices are likely to push as many as 100 million people in ‘absolute poverty’, mostly in “Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, already regions with the largest numbers of people living in extreme poverty.” According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia share the highest regional Hunger Index scores, making poverty and hunger levels in these regions ‘alarming’. This fact is further corroborated by the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative in collaboration with the UNDP, according to which eight Indian states including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, “together account for more poor people than in the 26 poorest African Nations combined”( Times of India. 12 July 2010). The NHRC has also been closely monitoring the case of starvation deaths reported earlier this year from the Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi (KBK) districts of Orissa.

While it is widely recognized that no social phenomenon is as full in its attack on human rights as poverty, there are several other social and economic inequalities that exist, which deny individuals their fundamental rights and in turn prevent them from living full, meaningful lives. These inequities often reflect themselves in what the political scientist Johan Galtung, famously described as ‘structural violence’, which is a reference to a form of violence based on the systematic ways in which the existence of certain social structures or institutions harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized casteism, sexism, and elitism are just some examples of the various forms of structural violence.

Despite these challenges, however, there is also a concomitant and encouraging move towards recognizing an ever-increasing number of rights, which are deemed necessary for living a dignified and full life. The ambit of social justice has gradually expanded to include among other rights, the right to healthcare, education, food, forest rights for indigenous communities, and policy-level interventions in the form of affirmative action for the historically marginalized and discriminated communities. Further, issues of gender, youth and the disabled are also increasingly being viewed as social justice issues requiring policy interventions.

While historically, all religions have preached the equality of individuals and fair treatment, it was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which perhaps for the first time, formally acknowledged the importance of legally guaranteeing and protecting human rights of people across national divides. The UDHR together with the International Covenant on Social and Economic Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, contain progressive provisions that aim at promoting social justice globally.

Historians would certainly describe the last few decades as the age of corruption and kickbacks. Unprecedented corruption, a proliferation of scams, growing involvement of public servants occupying apex positions and media reports about huge amount of money hoarded in foreign banks, would all justify the categorization. Naturally, the rights of the common man are dented. The Prime Minister’s recent assertion to the Chief Secretaries during a recent interaction with them, to take on corruption vigorously, and the Home Minister’s observation over the deficit in governance and ethics ongoing since long, are an expression of common man’s concern & sufferings. Unequivocally the other malignant contributors towards human rights violations are persisting ethnic, religious and political tensions aggravated by weak institutions of civil society. The call of the hour is for an integrated approach to cleanse the system for establishing an atmosphere conducive to respect, promotion and protection of human rights of all ensured by the Constitution of the country.

The NHRC, in its short journey of over 16 years, has relentlessly endeavoured to be at the vanguard of the battle to curb violations of human rights across the country and create an enabling environment for the realization of social and economic justice. In furtherance of its task to better protect and promote human rights, it has realized that failures in the sphere of human rights in economic, social and cultural areas are widespread across the nation and these denials drive the citizens to the margins of human existence. The struggle for the promotion and protection of human rights inevitably requires the elimination of aberrations that, over time, fragment society, leaving some more equal than others.

Efforts are thus essential to continue to be actively engaged in the protection and promotion of the rights of the weaker sections of the Society through various programmes such as social and educational empowerment, labour welfare, supplementary and continuing education, rehabilitation for the physically and mentally challenged, sustainable livelihood, and women’s empowerment, among a host of others.

While human rights institutions like the NHRC have a significant role in the promotion and protection of human rights in all spheres including social, economic, political and cultural, these can at best work as catalysts in assisting in efforts towards protecting and promoting human rights of the most vulnerable groups. The contributions of civil society actors and the state are just as crucial in this noble endeavour. In this regard, I believe the approach should be, ‘think globally and act locally’. It is only when we combine our efforts and energies in a symbiotic and enabling partnership that we will become, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, “the change we wish to see”. Let us draw inspiration from the lives of great men like Mahatma Gandhi in building a new India, a great India based on social justice.  

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By : Justice K G Balakrishnan
        Former Chief Justice of India & Chairperson, NHRC


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