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Legal Hands On Session VI – Human Rights And The Challenges Of Building A Welfare State In India – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Legal Hands on Session VI - Human Rights and the Challenges of Building a Welfare State in India

Session Report
Aasthaba Jadeja

The Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi conducted a four week Online National Spring School Program on ‘Ending Gender-based Violence – Cohort 2: Awareness of Policies & Governance’ from March 5th, 2024 to March 27th 2024.

On day 7, Adv Shalu Nigam delivered a presentation on Legal Hands on Session VI – Human Rights and the Challenges of Building a Welfare State in India.

Adv. Shalu Nigam argues that neoliberal economic policies and privatization have eroded food security. She emphasizes that access to food is a fundamental human right, referencing both scholarly perspectives and the former Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s call to prioritize poverty eradication. Data underscores the grim reality of persistent global poverty, with a disproportionate impact on women who often live on less than $1.90 per day. The UN’s established goals for sustainable development, including the elimination of poverty, remain elusive. Despite progress in areas like literacy, India continues to struggle with malnutrition, highlighting the ongoing need for comprehensive solutions. Nigam’s argument suggests a critical evaluation of economic policies and a renewed focus on ensuring food security for all.

Covid 19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a domino effect of crises across the globe. In 2020, the global economy took a massive hit with a GDP decline of 3.5%. Millions lost their jobs, reflected in an 8.8% decrease in total working hours, which translates to a staggering loss of 255 million full-time positions. This economic downturn wasn’t felt equally; a shocking 124 million more people were plunged into extreme poverty, with women disproportionately affected.

Food security also worsened dramatically, with nearly a third of the world’s population, or 2.37 billion people, lacking adequate food in 2020. This represents a heart-wrenching increase of 320 million people going hungry in just one year. The pandemic’s reach extended beyond economics and hunger, with a potential 45% rise in child mortality projected due to healthcare disruptions and food shortages. Furthermore, restricted movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity combined to create a breeding ground for increased domestic violence against women worldwide.

Hunger and Wealth Disparity in Modern India

India faces a significant challenge with hunger. A staggering 21% of the population, representing a quarter of the world’s undernourished people, live on less than $1.90 per day. This problem is reflected in India’s ranking on the 2023 Global Hunger Index, where they placed a concerning 111th out of 121 countries. This marks a steady decline from a ranking of 65th in 2009. The situation seems contradictory, as a recent UNDP report highlights India’s status among top countries with high income. However, this prosperity appears unevenly distributed, with wealth inequality persisting alongside widespread disruption.

India’s economic growth has been accompanied by a concerning trend of rising wealth inequality. Despite opportunities created by globalization and technological advancements, a substantial portion of the workforce (nearly 60% self-employed in 2019) lacks the security and benefits associated with formal employment. This is further compounded by a low female labor force participation rate of just 23%. This informality translates to a lack of social security and basic protections for a significant portion of the population.

This economic disparity manifests starkly in wealth distribution. A mere 5% of the population controls over 60% of the nation’s wealth. To underscore this concentration, between 2012 and 2021, only 3% of the wealth generated in India went to the bottom 50% of the population, while the top 1% captured a significant 40%.

The number of billionaires has witnessed an exponential rise, surging from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022. Their combined wealth has reached a staggering $660 billion, exceeding the entirety of the Union Budget for more than 18 months. Conversely, the number of individuals facing hunger in India has nearly doubled, from 190 million in 2018 to a concerning 350 million in 2022. This widening wealth gap poses a significant threat to social stability and hinders India’s potential to fully leverage its large and growing population.

The wealth disparity in India extends beyond just numbers. It has devastating consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable. A staggering 65% of child deaths under 5 in 2022 were linked to widespread hunger. Furthermore, India holds the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest population living in poverty, with a staggering 228.9 million people struggling to make ends meet.

This economic inequality is further amplified by an unfair tax system. The poorest half of the population shoulders a disproportionate tax burden, paying six times more indirect tax as a percentage of their income compared to the richest 10%. This means essential items, both food and non-food, are taxed heavily for those who can least afford it. Oxfam emphasizes that the lack of fair taxation on the wealthy forces the government to rely on consumption taxes, which unfairly burden the poor and exacerbate the existing inequalities.

Food Insecurity

Shedding light on the complexities of food insecurity in India, a 2023 study by the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) provides valuable insights. Encompassing over 9,000 adults in two locations, the research indicates that roughly 10% of the population grapples with food insecurity, ranging from mild to severe levels. However, the experience of food insecurity is not uniform across the population. A significant gender gap emerges from the study, with women, particularly those residing in rural areas, reporting higher instances of food insecurity compared to men. This disparity may be attributed to unequal dietary patterns within households. 

The study suggests that women may prioritize allocating food to other family members, potentially leading to a lower intake of essential nutrients for themselves. Furthermore, the PHFI research goes beyond individual experiences to identify inefficiencies within the food system itself. The study highlights a troubling issue of food wastage occurring during transportation from farms to consumers. This finding suggests that potential solutions to food insecurity in India may lie not only in addressing food distribution but also in tackling inefficiencies within the food supply chain.

The Right to Food Movement and the National Food Security Act

The 1990s exposed a glaring paradox in India. Food Corporation of India (FCI) warehouses overflowed with grain, while people succumbed to hunger. This stark reality sparked outrage, leading to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed in 2001. The petition highlighted the rampant corruption within the Public Distribution System (PDS) and its arbitrary distribution practices, leaving many vulnerable to starvation.

The Supreme Court recognized the right to food as integral to upholding Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to “life with human dignity.” This landmark decision placed a legal obligation on the government to ensure food security for its citizens.

As a consequence of the court’s interim orders, various schemes were implemented, including employment programs, school meal programs, and welfare programs for mothers, children, the elderly, and the most impoverished households. To oversee the effective execution of these initiatives, a commission was established to address grievances related to food entitlements.

In 2009, acknowledging the need for a more robust legal framework, the government announced the National Food Security Act (NFSA). This act aimed to provide a statutory foundation for food security, with a primary focus on strengthening the PDS and ensuring stricter monitoring mechanisms.

The Right to Food Campaign, a citizen-led movement, played a pivotal role in advocating for these changes. Their powerful slogan, “bhooke pet bhare godam” (starving bellies, full godowns), captured the essence of the struggle: ensuring that overflowing granaries translate into food security for all.

The National Food Security Act, 2013

The National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 marked a significant shift in India’s approach to food security. Prior to this legislation, existing government programs like the Public Distribution System (PDS), Midday Meal Scheme, and Integrated Child Development Services functioned on a more discretionary basis. The NFSA transformed these programs into legal entitlements, guaranteeing access to subsidized food grains for roughly two-thirds of the population (75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas).

This legal framework prioritizes women by ensuring that the eldest female adult in a household is registered as the head of the household for PDS ration cards (Section 13).  Furthermore, the NFSA recognizes the importance of maternal health by incorporating maternity entitlements. The inclusion of the Midday Meal Scheme and Integrated Child Development Services Scheme alongside the PDS underscores a comprehensive approach to food security, encompassing both children and mothers.

As legal scholar Upendra Baxi observes, the NFSA exemplifies how the law and fundamental rights can be leveraged by activist groups to achieve social change. This act demonstrates how legal instruments can be employed for “constitutional politics,” effectively bringing about positive change within the existing constitutional framework.

Challenges to Food Security in India: A Human Rights Perspective

Despite a long history of food distribution programs like the PDS (Public Distribution System), activists highlight significant shortcomings in implementation that threaten the right to food for many Indians. Aadhaar card linkage has emerged as a major barrier, with excluded individuals denied essential benefits. Further exacerbating the issue, the central government’s cap on beneficiaries based on outdated census data excludes many deserving households.

These implementation failures have dire consequences. Documented cases of starvation deaths linked to lack of ration access raise serious concerns. Additionally, restrictive interpretations of the law by authorities further hinder access to a nutritious diet. Activists emphasize the importance of a protein-rich diet incorporating diverse sources like legumes and animal products, which is currently out of reach for many due to these various challenges.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food has offered crucial policy recommendations in a report submitted to the Human Rights Council. One key critique is the overemphasis on increasing food production and lowering prices, neglecting the crucial aspect of ensuring accessibility of a varied and nutritious diet.

A sustainable approach, the report argues, requires supporting diverse farming systems that not only provide adequate food for all but also empower small-scale farmers and promote environmental sustainability. Furthermore, empowering women, who are often the primary caregivers, to make informed decisions regarding food choices is critical to ensuring proper child development and well-being.

Ultimately, adopting a human rights framework for food security can help ensure that short-term solutions do not come at the cost of long-term progress. This approach necessitates a holistic strategy that addresses not just food production but also accessibility, distribution, and the empowerment of those most vulnerable.

India’s Welfare State on Paper and in Practice

The Indian Constitution establishes a robust framework for promoting social and economic justice. Part 3 enshrines fundamental rights, guaranteeing basic human rights for all citizens. Part 4 outlines the Directive Principles of State Policy, which guide the government towards creating a welfare state. These principles, along with various specific laws and policies like NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), the Right to Health, and the Right to Education, aim to address issues like poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to healthcare and education. However, a crucial question remains: how effectively are these rights translated into reality? While the legal framework exists, ensuring its proper enforcement is a critical challenge that needs to be addressed.

The Interconnectedness of Human Rights and the Challenges of Implementation

Human rights are not isolated concepts. They are intricately linked to law, morality, culture, and the fabric of society itself. This complex web highlights the importance of holding the state accountable when it fails to uphold its moral obligations to its citizens.  Such failures often manifest as denials of basic rights to life, justice, and dignity. Marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by the state’s shortcomings. Their social, economic, and civil rights are more likely to be violated.

Claiming citizenship itself becomes a contentious struggle for these groups, requiring immense effort and perseverance. The unfortunate reality is that even when rights are enshrined in law, their actualization for the powerless and disenfranchised remains an ongoing battle. The very definition and enforcement of these rights for marginalized groups necessitates constant reevaluation and monitoring.

While crafting and implementing laws within a complex society poses challenges, social movements have played a crucial role in expanding the concept of citizenship and fostering a more inclusive democracy. Their efforts highlight the need for ongoing dialogue and action to ensure human rights become a lived experience for all.

India’s Welfare State: Promises and Realities

India’s constitution establishes it as a welfare state, implying a responsibility to ensure the well-being of its citizens. However, a critical question arises: how effectively are resources allocated to fulfill this mandate?

The state undeniably possesses the power and resources to create a more equitable society, particularly for marginalized populations. Yet, a significant number of Indians continue to face poverty, hunger, and deprivation. This paradox raises concerns about the implementation of welfare programs and the true value placed on every citizen’s life.

The constitution, while promising equality and justice, fails to explicitly guarantee fundamental rights like access to shelter and healthcare. Though courts strive to expand the right to life to encompass these necessities, the question remains: why haven’t elected officials prioritized them?

National debates often focus on the cost of social welfare programs, but such discussions neglect the human cost of inaction. India’s struggle with poverty, hunger, and inequality demands a shift in focus towards real progress reflected in the Human Development Index (HDI).

Adv Dr Shalu Nigam is a Visiting Senior Fellow IMPRI; Advocate, Author, and Researcher, Gender and Human Rights.

Read more at IMPRI:

Building Partnerships: Collaborative Approaches for a Coordinated Response to Gender Based Violence

Beyond Binaries: A Deep Dive into Tackling Sexual Harassment Through POSH Policies

Acknowledgment: Aasthaba Jadeja is a Visiting Researcher at IMPRI.

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