India: Voices That Link People With Policy

By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service

Right to Information emerged as an embryo of a notion thrown up over 20 years ago from the hot, dusty plains of Rajasthan when the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) was working to ensure a minimum wage for workers on government worksites. That small, significant idea now moves files in the highest corridors of policy making in India.

Call it the power of people’s voices, which when linked with social action can challenge the power of political interests and confront administrative corruption and inertia.

As the global community prepares to review its progress on the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) this September, many civil society activists in India see the process as an opportunity to make visible the growing economic disparities in a country that accounts for a third of the world’s poor and to push for changes in government policy.

This rainbow of interventions has many dimensions. It seeks to work among people and capture their realities through social audits, articulate key concerns through public hearings, and force government accountability by engaging directly with decision makers. The process straddles the entire spectrum of issues – from employment and food security to water and sanitation – which comprise the eight MDGs that India has committed itself to achieving by 2015.

Many activists find that the potential for policy change is directly related to the government’s assessment of its own interests. Observes Anil K. Singh, Secretary General, South Asian Network for Social and Agricultural Development (SANSAD), “Our experiences have differed from state to state. We have been, for instance, more successful in Bihar than in Jharkhand. In Bihar, when we organised 25,000 farmers to congregate at Gandhi Maidan, Patna, after floods had ravaged their fields last year the state government undertook to distribute free seeds almost immediately because it did not want to be seen as insensitive to farmers’ interests with an impending election.”

Social change is a complex phenomenon. Amitabh Behar, Convenor, National Social Watch Coalition, explains, “It is difficult to say what has worked. Something like the Right To Information movement, while it was inspired and anchored by the MKSS, had the participation of senior journalists like Prabhash Joshi, bureaucrats like Harsh Mander, judges like Justice P.B. Sawant who actually helped draft laws. So this is really about weaving together a winning combination of actions and actors.”

Behar believes that if today the government is discussing the Right To Food Bill, it is because hunger has been flagged as a major concern, helped by social activism, recent election verdicts and international commitments like MDGs.

“Today, if the consensus is that extremism can only be addressed by ensuring that marginalised communities have access to food, education and sustainable livelihoods, it is because of movements on the ground,” says Behar.

Social audits, which empower local people to scrutinise records of programmes designed for their welfare, have become an important tool of this process. Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation for Indian Women (NFIW), the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India, is just back form a social audit exercise conducted in nine gram panchayats in Thrissur, Kerala, that scrutinised the working of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Says Raja, “Ordinary people should get the information to ensure that government initiatives and benefits actually work for them. An effective social audit can help greatly to ensure this.”

One of sectors where India is clearly lagging behind in terms of its MDGs commitment is with regard to child mortality (MDG 4) and maternal mortality (MDG 5). Raja’s organisation, the NFIW, is now conducting social audits on the Janani Suraksha Yojana, a government programme to address the distressing fact that too many Indian mothers continue to die in childbirth or of childbirth related causes.

Dr Usha Shrivastava, a Delhi-based epidemiologist and public health expert, who has been associated with the NFIW exercise, says, “We want to acquire fresh data on maternal health delivery in some of India’s poorest regions by involving the people themselves. Initiatives like this defy the top-down approach of the bureaucracy. People’s voices make a huge difference. Take the recent Ruchika case. It was because of public pressure that the guilty police official was brought to justice, even though it took 19 years.”

The NFIW’s social audit on the Janani Suraksha Yojana involves the training of data collectors – mainly college students – who develop questionnaires, visit earmarked villages, interact with local communities and officials and assess how the system is working. Says Dr Shrivastava, “The data they bring back will be compiled and the gaps in health delivery identified. The report based on this new data with our recommendations will then be presented to the health authorities at various levels, including the director of the National Rural Health Mission.”

Such campaigns have a political dimension because they help change the nature of popular discourse. Argues Ashok Bharti, of the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), “Parliament is the embodiment of the voices of the people and we consider it the top tier of government. Its power stems from the people and it is the people’s voices, which should be influencing policies; people’s concerns should, in fact, be at the heart of policy-making.”

But he also realises that this will only happen if there is pressure from below. Bharti recalls how in 2006, after the MGNREGA came into force, the then Uttar Pradesh government under the Samajwadi Party, was resisting its implementation. “Our organisation, NACDOR, took up the challenge and began the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra, or Right To Work rally, from four districts marking the four corners of the state: Lalitpur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Kaushambi and Chandauli. The yatra covered 22 districts and mobilised hundreds of thousands to go to the local block offices and demand their job cards. Before long the government was forced to act.”

Stirring the government into action often requires new and innovative approaches. Earlier this year, the Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, a national network to enforce government accountability, spearheaded a people’s mid-term appraisal of India’s 11th Five Year Plan. For the first time government planning was put under the scanner by over 3,000 groups from every state in India, with the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission himself participating in the final conclave. “With that campaign we managed to create some space for civil society

organisations to hold the government accountable on existing policies. But the bigger challenge is to transform these policies themselves,” says Behar, who was one of the organisers.

Changing policy-making demands sustained vigilance and concerted action. Anil Singh believes that the first Manmohan Singh government, which had come to power in 2004, was more responsive to people’s issues, than the present one. “Now we are pinning our hopes on the newly-constituted National Advisory Council chaired by Congress President Sonia Gandhi,” he states.

As the September global review of progress on the Millennium Development Goals draws closer, both the Indian government and civil society organisations are busy working on their own assessments. NACDOR, in association with local partners, is even planning a Millennium Yatra to focus on the MDGs, specifically education, hunger, child mortality, maternal mortality and the diseases of the poor, like malaria and tuberculosis.

This is about amplifying new voices, bringing in the excluded and unleashing fresh ideas. Young Farha Inam, a graduate in Social Work from Delhi’s Jamia Millia, who recently participated in a campaign against child labour, puts it this way, “The government just announces programmes and forgets about them. We want to tell the government: We are watching.”