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Of protecting human rights

Of protecting human rights
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A week ago the Human Rights Day, December 10, was observed the world over, but sadly it failed to receive the attention it deserves in India.

A week ago the Human Rights Day, December 10, was observed the world over, but sadly it failed to receive the attention it deserves in India. More so, for the past two-three decades there has been a vociferous advocacy of human rights across the globe. While in the developed West, such rights are ensured, in the East people lack their basic rights to enjoy a dignified existence.

Such rights are essential for all as these are consonant with freedom, dignity and conducive to physical, moral, social and spiritual welfare. The term ‘human rights’ was first used by Thomas Paine in the English translation of Declaration of Rights of Man & Citizen. It is a 20th century name for what has been traditionally known as ‘natural rights’ or the ‘rights of man’.

The need for protection of rights has arisen because of increase in the control over men’s action by government, which by no means can be considered desirable. Add to this the fact that lack of balanced development along with non-functional grassroots democracy is possibly a significant reason for people being denied such rights. Maurice Cranston said no one can be deprived of human rights without a grave affront to justice.

Eminent Jurist Justice P N Bhagwati stated (in Maneka Gandhi case, 1978) that: “All those rights which are essential for the protection and maintenance of dignity of individuals and create conditions in which every human being can develop his personality to the fullest extent may be termed human rights.” Thus, the idea of human rights is intrinsically bound with the idea of human dignity.

Thus, it is quite clear that human beings ought to be protected against unjust and degrading treatment while also assuring them the fundamental facilities needed for an existence. However, in most countries, such facilities are non-existent. In India, two recent enactments pertaining to educational right and the right to food are welcome steps in realisation of human rights to the masses, which over the years have been denied these two vital necessities. Now, Modi has assured that every household would get shelter by 2022. This has to be made a reality. Apart from providing shelter to all, the question of making it a fundamental right needs consideration. Social problems arise only when there is lopsided development and, in India, the majority has been languishing in poverty and squalor. The urban bias in planning has resulted in the rural sector being neglected. This found expression in different types of mass movements, asserting the need for bestowing basic rights and privileges on the oppressed sections. These movements have questioned the elitism of representatives of democracy and pioneered alternative forms of direct democracy.

Bestowing the right to free and compulsory education and the right to food to the hungry millions have indeed been significant strides in the country’s rights based approach. However, the enrolment rate at the upper primary level (Class 6 to 8) is as low as 60-62 per cent while the dropout rate in the 6-14 age group is over 40 per cent and these need examination. The revamping of the educational system, especially in rural areas, is called for along with improving the quality and module of education imparted.

However, the slow disposal of RTI has become a huge hindrance towards achieving good governance. A study by the RTI Assessment & Advocacy Group and Samya Centre for Equity Studies in the 10th anniversary of the Act painted an alarming picture of pending cases. It found that an RTI appeal in Madhya Pradesh Information Commission would come up after 60 years while it would be a 17-year wait in West Bengal. In Rajasthan, the appeal would be taken up after three years and in Assam and Kerala, it would take two years.

If the Acts are not properly monitored and strictly implemented, pious wishes will remain only on paper and the poor would not benefit in anyway. The question of child rights is also very important but though India was the first country to join the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour way back in 1992 and also ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, millions of children continue to be drafted into the country’s labour force. The problem is acute where children are used in hazardous industries and there is trafficking of girls who are sexually exploited and abused.

In a society where we hear almost daily of inclusive development, how is it that a significant portion of children don’t go to school, people die of starvation or malnutrition, health care doesn’t reach the poor, shelter is not available to the distressed? While educational right needs to be enforced through a revamping of the State machinery, health needs serious attention. Why cannot the State provide health care to the poor at affordable rates? Is it due to the lack of doctors or the inadequacy of proper infrastructure in the health sector?

The latest Economic Survey showed that the Centre’s expenditure on health and family welfare as a percentage of total expenditure was hovering around 2 per cent since 2008-09. As a proportion of India’s GDP, the expenditure on health is even lower at 1.4 per cent. The present government has promised a new ‘National Healthcare Policy,’ which should obviously lead to greater public investment in health care.

One may conclude with Dr Karen Vasak’s observation made almost four decades back during his association with the Council of Europe: “The promotion of human rights… implies action resolutely directed towards the future: the question of human right is seen as containing a lacuna, because they are not all, or are only incompletely, guaranteed under national legislation, or international law, or because they are not sufficiently understood by the persons entitled to them or by the States and their subsidiary bodies which are bound to respect them. In these circumstances, a body for the promotion of human rights will attempt to determine inadequacies and even violations, not so much in order that they may be punished but that similar situations may be prevented from recurring in the future”.

By: Dhurjati Mukherjee

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