Elections 2019: Looking beyond the Smokescreen

This reading list enumerates the pressing issues that India faces today which ought to have been the primary focus of electoral debate.

The purpose of an election manifesto is to outline a political agenda. In an ideal democracy, a manifesto would be more central to the electoral process and would be a document that takes cognisance of the most pressing issues that are faced by the citizens of the country. One would assume that the discourse in campaigns and rallies preceding the elections would be hinged on these issues. However, we have grown accustomed to a deteriorated form of discourse during the campaigning period, and the prelude to this year’s Lok Sabha election was no different, fraught as it was with personal attacks and hate speech.

When elections are grounded on vacuous rhetoric, as is exemplified by the tweets above, the sensationalism that is generated draws away attention from the issues that are central to ensuring social justice.

So when a democratic country such as ours goes to the polls, what are some of the broad issues that should be more central to the electoral discourse?

1) Agrarian Distress

With about 69% of the country’s population employed in agriculture and allied activities, the prolonged agrarian distress that India has been witnessing has brought forth a number of problems such as farmer suicides, inadequate support prices, etc, which have led to farmers taking to the streets repeatedly in the last couple of years.

If India has to overcome its agrarian crisis and build a sustainable agricultural economy, then M Vijayabaskar, Sudha Narayanan and Sharada Srinivasan argue that specific policy attention needs to be paid to youth in farming.

A youth or generational perspective demonstrates that we do not know much about youth in agriculture—their aspirations, variations across regions, how they access resources (land, knowledge and skills), challenges they encounter and so on, necessary to offer workable strategies.The article not only highlights the need for greater visibility of young farmers in research and policy but also more importantly for an intersectional approach on reviving agriculture, tackling rural poverty and youth livelihoods.

2) Labour Rights and Unemployment

A recent story published by the Business Standard shows that unemployment in India is at a four decade high. The data was based on National Sample Survey data which the NDA-led government was reluctant to release. Meanwhile, the government has been projecting higher and higher levels of growth which begs the question: how is the economy growing without jobs?

In 2015, the government also sought to amend the Labour Code which would drastically affect the already weak state of labour laws in India, such that the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the BJP’s own trade-union affiliate had protested against the proposed amendment.

The 2015 bill does away with labour courts altogether. Instead, the focus is on dispute resolution through industrial tribunals. While Section 10A of the Industrial Disputes Act relating to “voluntary reference of disputes to arbitration” is copied almost verbatim in the bill, it is, however, given a separate chapter altogether, indicating added emphasis on arbitration as a mode of dispute resolution. One important modification empowers the parties to refer disputes to arbitration at any time (Section 50); currently the said route could be availed only before approaching a labour court/ tribunal (Section 10A).

Babu Matthew and Chirayu Jain argue that the 2018 bill dilutes labour provisions significantly.

In 2018, by amending the rules of Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act of 1946, the BJP government has introduced a concept of “fixed-term employment workman.” As the name suggests, it envisages a workman (“worker”) who is contracted for a fixed period. By introducing this concept of fixed-term employment, the BJP government has now taken Section 2 (oo)(bb) of Industrial Disputes Act to its highest neo-liberal form, by sanctifying hire and fire as a provision of statutory law. Before the insertion of Section 2 (oo)(bb), any worker relieved of work was said to have been retrenched, that is, all the procedural safeguards provided for retrenchment would automatically apply. The law as it stands today, reduces labour relations to a pure contractual exercise where a worker stands to lose their rights even at the time of signing of the contract.

3) Education and Reservation

In the last few years, education and particularly higher education has been in a state of siege, with the University Grants Commission guidelines increasingly inching towards privatisation. Academic freedom and institutional commitments to social justice have been eroding. Romila Thapar argues that there is a recognisable pattern in which the attacks on a number of central universities have been carried out, which betrays a sinister motive to suppress independent thought by targeting those who hold dissenting opinions in university spaces.

One might well ask why the BJP–RSS is so bent on dismantling institutions of learning and converting them into teaching shops. Is it the premium on conformity and out-of-date knowledge that the BJP– RSS would like to define as education? Is it the kind of education that is given in the shishu-mandirs and madrassas that is seen as ideal in form? Interestingly, the institutions that come under attack are those associated with freedom of thought, the asking of questions, the advancing of knowledge. Those that conform to education as learning by rote and providing supervised answers are not interfered with all that much, since this pattern of learning fits into a catechism style.

Reservations that were instituted to ensure affirmative action are also being diluted. Most recently, the 13-point roster system proposed by the UGC was met with protest because in practice, it would effectively reduce the number of people from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes that a university employs in total. This is because under the 13-point roster the department is taken as a “unit,” and it can have at least one appointment from each reserved category, only when a minimum of 14 appointments are made in that department. But most departments do not have 14 faculty positions.

It is important to note that the 13-point roster was implemented in DU only in 1997 to provide reservation to SC and ST with the following specifications. The first six seats were kept unreserved, the seventh post was kept reserved for SC, and the 14th post for ST. After the completion of one full cycle, the same cycle was repeated. Later, in order to accommodate the 27% reservation for OBC, every fourth seat was kept reserved for the OBC in the same roster. In this manner, every fourth, seventh, eighth,12th and 14thposition was reserved.

4) Hunger and Inequality

Though hunger is not a new issue in India, the situation with regard to hunger and malnutrition is in a state of emergency. Several studies have found that hunger needs to be addressed by urgent policy decisions. Harsh Mander, for instance, had advocated for a comprehensive national food security act, which was made into law in 2013. But in 2013, while the bill was being passed in Parliament, Dipa Sinha’s estimates found  that the planned costs for the implementation of the bill would be unaffordable.

What is disappointing is that in some ways a historic opportunity was not fully utilised by the bill which is still quite narrow in its vision. The demands for more comprehensive interventions related to decentralised procurement, a universal PDS that included adequate cereals, pulses and oil, and special interventions for the destitute, aged, people living in starvation and severely malnourished children remain unfulfilled. While including these would have of course added to the costs of the NFSA, maybe the real question we need to ask is about the “Cost of Inaction” on hunger and malnutrition.

Along with hunger, inequality has also been on the rise, to such a great extent that it has been called “morally outrageous”. Rishabh Kumar argues that India’s income distribution statistics are alarmingly similar to the trends of income distribution that is typical in developed countries.

The expected value of incomes for all but a small percentage can be described with one parameter (mean income). For the remaining few, the distribution has no well-defined measure of variance and invites a sharp disparity of incomes. The divergence of the upper-income tail at the 97th percentile and the concentration of wealth-related incomes are in close agreement with the finding of Silva and Yakovenko (2004) for the US. Naturally, the question arises: why do we find similar statistical properties for two very different economies?

5) Civil Liberties

There are a number of laws which have been used by the government to curb the liberty of citizens in the past. Often, a communal tone can be detected in the way that these laws are employed, that specifically target religious minorities. In addition, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, has been employed to uphold “public order” in the states of Kashmir and Manipur, to disastrous effect. The act was being reviewed by P Chidambaram when he was home minister in 2009, however, AFSPA remains largely unchanged in use today, despite the fact that the excesses committed under it have grossly violated civil liberties guaranteed to citizens under the Constitution time and again.

Can such a provision as Section 4 of the AFPSA ever stand a fair scrutiny in the light of Article 21 of the Constitution?....Section 4(a) of the Act is even more offensive. It ignores the officer’s duty to respect the life of the citizen, omits this vital injunction and contains instead a carte blanche unheard of in any other statute in any other democracy – “even to the causing of death”. Where did the draftsmen get this from?

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