By Vikas Jha
“The Charter of the United Nations begins with recognition of the importance of respect for, protection of,and promotion of human rights as necessary conditions for the establishment of international peace and security and for the promotion of social progress and improved living standards for everyone.” (UNDP Training Manual on Human Rights and Sustainable Human Development, p. 3).
On the eve of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2015, community-based organizations and NGOs, such as Sehgal Foundation, analyze how their work promotes social progress and improvement in living standards for the poor. At the same time, we should also reflect on how policy interventions of Government of India and State Government are protecting human rights through social welfare policies and access to information.
Community-based organizations across India play crucial roles in generating awareness within communities of their rights and entitlements, and help marginalized people develop the confidence to state their issues to government, often in conflict with the vested interests of the socioeconomic elite in their communities. When hundreds of community-based organizations join together for a cause, they take up the form of a movement such as Ekta Parisad for protecting the rights of tribals, and National Alliance of People’s Movement for protecting the land of marginalized people. Such movements not only make people aware of their rights but also help them take their issues to the appropriate level of government.
Sehgal Foundation has helped to create citizen leadership, empower village institutions, manage water, and develop agriculture in selected areas in the districts of Mewat, Haryana, Alwar, Rajasthan and Samastipur, Bihar. In the last 15 years, as many as 500,000 villagers have benefited from its rural interventions. Similarly, NGOs such as Pradan, Care India, and Development Alternatives have played important roles in promoting social progress and raising rural people’s standard of living.
While community-based organizations and NGOs continue to work for people’s welfare, they also serve a critical role in monitoring government’s social welfare programs. In the last six months, they have raised concerns about the pruning of the MGNREGA budget and non-functionality of the Right to Information Act. The Government of India plans for MGNREGA to target the 200 poorest districts or 2,500 poorest blocks, to check pilferage of money from the scheme. While better targeting of districts is advisable, other methods are available for controlling pilferage in social welfare schemes, such as Andhra Pradesh’s Smart Card for payment in MGNREGA. A more effective system for monitoring work and payments is required.
There is room for substantial improvement in the Right to Information (RTI) system at the point of providing information and the handling of appeals. Public Information Officers (PIOs) and State Information Commission (SIC) function poorly. In Mewat district, RTI applicants report that PIOs at thedistrict and block level do not provide information on time or give complete responses, in violation oforders of the SIC. The RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group Report 2014 does not project a positive picture of access to information under RTI in India. Implementation of this Act, which has the potential of ushering transparency and accountability in governance, is undermined by serious bottlenecks. The Act’spromise of providing free access of information to all people, the key principle of human rights, fails to be achieved.
On Human Rights Day, we must review what has worked well in the last year and identify areas which need improvement in the coming year. Rural development interventions should rightly be seen through the framework of protecting and promoting human rights so that people can live with the dignity that the laws were designed to ensure.