ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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A Republic of Voices

Devaki Jain (devakijain@gmail.com) is a feminist economist living in Delhi. She was with the Delhi University and the Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi before retirement.

The skimpy or almost non-existent coverage by the media of the four landmark legislations empowering the underprivileged once again highlights its pre-occupation with issues central to the elite.

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 rate. I am talking about the extraordinary legislations that have been passed recently by Parliament or about to be passed – a result of coming together of informed voices.

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, 2013, and the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, 2012, were tabled in Parliament in recent months. 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 details 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 Amartya Sen 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 the same for so many years, this aspect of India’s current political and legislative behavior not only needs to be noticed but also showcased and enabled effectively.

Unfortunately sensationalism and economic crises get excessive attention of the media as well as of the powerful corporate sector and the middle class. A couple of weeks ago, when the rupee was sliding down and the stock market was dull, people thought that India was on the verge of collapse. And what is more, the hysteria went to the point of asking for an immediate dissolution of Parliament! Those highly visible voices and ideas were soon replaced on the television screen and the print media by the debates on 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.

Ignored by the Media

The lack of media attention, especially the electronic media’s which is so powerful because of its imagery, to these four legislations, however flawed ‒ except, of course, for the boring ping pong matches on the financial viability of the National Food Security Bill ‒ was glaring. We did not witness a similar level of excitement, for example, over the recently passed Street Vendors Protection Bill in the Lok Sabha. The limited space provided for this Bill on television was an advertisement put out by the government. In this well-crafted advertisement, 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 just like in a Hindi movie. But one vendor, in this case, a bhelpuri wallah, does not budge. The constable uses his lathi and says, “Move!” The vendor refuses and smiles. After a bit the vendor says that he has a right to vend and pulls out a license. The policeman backs out but is given, in affection, a dish of bhelpuri by the vendor. The vendor then addresses the audience and says, “Claim your right!”

What a great thing it would have been if the English news channels hosted a debate on this issue and carried visuals 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 groups and run by them as well. This bill is an outcome of long years of negotiations by the National Association of Vendors, India (NASVI). In my view, the provisions of the bill are as valuable and significant as the provisions which have been recently framed in relation to sexual violence.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, prohibits people from handling night soil and carrying it on their heads. This is another brilliant step forward, something that has been on the minds of Indians for generations beginning with the independence. Of course this is not good enough. But if the energy of the media and civil society organisations (CSO’s) who are criticising the state or pointing the weaknesses in this Act could be mobilised to reach out to the men and women who will be displaced by the Act, it will be remarkable. Instead of waiting to see the failure of the implementation of this Act, they should plunge into organising the displaced, find and enable production and marketing of products and services, get the banks involved, create innovative latrines and devise new ways of cleaning blocked sewage lines.

The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, with all its weaknesses including the latest criticism that it still shortchanges the land owners, especially 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 towards ensuring compensation and some amount of legal protection for land owners in the rural as well as urban areas. It could help build a platform for a vigilant community, especially those working on conservation, and enable land owners to also look at the environmental hazards.

India that set out to be a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic” has indeed kept its word, or a part of it, by now becoming a Republic of Voices. Vending, land, scavenging and food – all issues related to the less privileged have been brought under some amount of judicial protection through voices; voices expressed in public places and through the press. Sadly, these do not hit the headlines and our exuberance seems limited to the Sensex and to the pre-occupation of the elites.

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