Friday, April 4, 2014

The UPA’s Rights-Based Approach and its Impact in India

The UPA, in the past decade, has introduced a new paradigm in India’s development story: the Rights-Based Approach. This article explores the origins of this strategy and evaluates its impact on India. 

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that the UPA is in a bad way. Large swathes of public opinion have turned against it, the media uses it as a punching bag and even its own leaders are convinced of the futility of the 2014 elections. All of this is for good reason, of course. The past 5 years have been a study in how not to run a government. Nevertheless, we must give even the devil its due. For all its ills, the UPA has, with its Rights-Based Approach, enacted a paradigm shift in the way development is thought of in this country. In a crushingly poor nation such as India, it has overturned conventional modes of thinking on development, the benefits of which have been and will continue to be significant.

The philosophical basis to the Rights-Based Approach has been principally provided by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum which is generally called the Capability Approach to development. As argued by Sen in his seminal book, Development as Freedom, development is a concept that should be directly and deeply concerned with the effective freedom – capability – of actual people to achieve the lives they have reason to value. Development, therefore, should be defined as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Some of the freedoms as enunciated by Nussbaum include being able to live up to one’s natural life span, having good health, having one’s bodily integrity secured (freedom from assault, having control of your reproductive abilities etc) and being able to make and participate effectively in political choices. 

Traditionally, though, development has been defined in far narrower terms, the most common being conflating it with the GDP or income growth. This lovely little illusion comes crashing down using two of Sen’s favourite examples: Kerala vs. Gujarat and India vs. Bangladesh. Gujarat has a per-capita income about 11% more than Gujarat. Yet in all real parameters of human development (see table below), Kerala is streets ahead. This comparison becomes even starker for Bangladesh and India. Our eastern neighbour leads us on a number of key human development statistics in spite of India’s GNI per capita being an impressive twice that of Bangladesh.

As is apparent from these two examples, incomes can hardly be used as a proxy for measuring development. A girl child would be better off in “poor” Kerala/Bangladesh than “rich” Gujarat/India. This, of course, does not mean that higher incomes cannot coincide with development. But as Sen has repeatedly pointed out, incomes are just one of the means towards development and in no way is it a necessary and/or sufficient condition. Of course, we tend to ignore this and mistakenly treat GDP numbers as ends to development and not means, as they are.

Given this false centrality of GDP/incomes in development, welfare programmes carried out by governments and aid agencies often functioned on a ‘basic needs’ approach in which elementary requirements of target groups were identified and then aimed to be fulfilled. Of course, given the fact that ‘development’ (i.e. GDP growth) was not directly linked to those needs, the needs were not given the highest of priorities. 

Enter, the Rights-Based Approach (RBA), which guarantees freedoms as a right.  Development now is meant to increase freedoms rather than push up a number such as GDP. Unlike the ‘basic needs’ approach which did not make it mandatory to fulfil needs, rights are justiciable. This approach allows us to keep our eye on the ball, letting agencies involved with development to actually focus on making lives better rather than be obsessed with figures such as GDP which are often not even directly related to actual human development.

The UPA has implemented the Rights-Based Approach using 5 acts: the Right to Information, the NREGA (right to work), the Food Security Act (right to food), the Right to Education and the Forest Rights Act 

The RTI has probably done more to change governance in India since 1947 than any other single measure. By making information a “right” (upgraded from being just a “need”), the act has made bureaucrats responsible for stopping it, thus remedying, to some extent, the huge imbalance in power between citizens and the government.  Citizens are using this new power to crack the whip and force the state to act. 

The NREGA has ensured basic livelihood security at a scale (in 2011, it reached 215 million households) which makes its impact almost revolutionary. The act has not only ensured income security but increased wages overall and has fundamentally changed the distorted relationship between farmers and labourers, giving the latter more of a voice. The World Bank (not the most enthusiastic supporter of the RBA, it must be pointed out) has hailed the act, noting that it “illustrates how good governance and social mobilisation go hand-in-hand”. It also commends the RBA of the scheme claiming that the “fact that the law is organized as a right motivates job seekers’ collective action to hold authorities accountable for supplying employment instead of siphoning off the allocated funds”.

Apart from income security, the tertiary effects of the NREGA on rural prosperity are also manifold: just to take one example, a University of Oxford study in 2013 has found that the NREGA has a significant effect on reducing child malnutrition.

The latest entrant to the UPA’s RBA showcase is the Food Security Bill which promises that most basic of human rights: food. The Bill expands the structure of the pre-existing PDS to ensure highly subsidised grain for “up to 75% of the rural population and up to 50% of the urban population”. This is critical in a country such as India which has some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, worse than even most countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries in which chronic malnutrition is less than India include Bangladesh, Tanzania and Niger. Even Rwanda, a country which has suffered the worst genocide on the planet since WWII, manages to ensure better nutrition for its children. Statistics such as these might explain Amartya Sen’s emotional plea, pointing out that the opposition and delay in passing the Food Security Bill was causing 1,000 child deaths per week.

In fact, the recent debate around the Food Security Bill (FSB) is instructive in order to observe the opposition to the RBA. This conversion of basics such as food or information from “needs” to “rights” has irked many supporters of “minimal government”. Their main argument rests around the issue of cost: is this extra financial burden sustainable?

At its core, this is a valid question: piloting schemes which bankrupt a government is not a very wise move. 

When we get down to hard numbers, though, fears that the RBA will have a significantly adverse impact financially remain quite unfounded. The FSB, as pointed out by Ashok Kotwal, Milind Murugkar and Bharat Ramaswamy, entails an extra expenditure which is less than 1% of the GDP. Similarly, the NREGA only involves a government allocation of 0.5% of the GDP. In contrast, military spending is 3% of the GDP. India’s fuel subsidy, benefiting its upper and middle classes is 1.3% of the GDP and tax subsidy to industry in the 2012 budget was a whopping 5 times of the NREGA allocation.

Clearly then, the money is there—the government RBA expenditure is a tiny part of its total expenditure and, given its impact, is money well spent—which makes opposition to these bills a bit of a mystery. 

Given its large scale impact, the UPA has clearly benefitted from its RBA approach. In 2009 the Congress won 206 seats in the Lok Sabha elections, a massive 42% increase from the 2004 results (the Rights-Based Approach Wave?). UPA 2, though, has paid far less attention to the RBA than UPA 1. It delayed the FSB significantly in contrast to the speed with which it passed the RTI and NREGA. Moreover, as Jean Dreze has pointed out, the FSB severely dilutes the RBA by allowing governments to select “eligible households” allowing for huge gaps in who does or does not benefit, thereby weakening the “rights” nature of the measure.

This, in fact, might be one reason why the UPA is so despondent about the next elections. Its forceful espousal of the RBA helped it in 2009; maybe its failure to do so during its second term will end up costing it the 2014 elections.

Given the approach’s success, it will be interesting to see whether the next government adopts it or not. Although given the UPA 2’s shabby treatment of the concept and the BJP’s ideological opposition to it, this, unfortunately, looks rather unlikely.

First published on NewsYaps


Akash said...

I used to enjoy your writings for the refreshing and irreverent outlook on various things. Sadly, this is the election season and business is business and, so you have fallen trap to rhapsodizing on matters that have been discussed threadbare.
NREGA a revolutionary scheme? Really? Disappointing piece.

Hades said...

Thanks for the comment and for the kind words, Akash :)

I guess we disagree on the NREGA, which is fine. Boring to find agreement all the time.

Akash said...

Well, I was not disappointed as much by your approval of NREGA but your lack of legwork on how good the scheme is in practice. It's a little surreal to expect people on the edge of starvation to petition the court for implementation of their rights. Shades of Kafka, maybe?

Hades said...


NREGA rights seekers (as well as others like RTI) do need to go to a court. They are justicable via monetary fines (of <=1K, iirc) of individual functionaries, which have been found to be *very* effective, emperically.

I think it would be for the best if your read the act before forming an opinion about it or least before bringing out the big guns like 'Kafka'!

Akash said...

I have seen the implementation (or lack of it) in my village. They spent much of 2011 digging a canal to a river that had changed course 20 years ago. Even SA Aiyar, no fan of BJP, has highlighted the problems that bedevils the act and its implementation. The act's sole purpose was to buy votes and it has miserably failed in that sphere too.