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An ad a day will keep voters away

How bizarre can a government policy decision get? India's first national policy on resettlement and rehabilitation for people affected by development projects was declared through a one-page advertisement, even though the detailed policy paper isn't ready. For a country with an estimated 35-55 million displaced people -- hardly 25 per cent of them have received any sort of rehabilitation -- the policy declaration adds insult to historical injury. The declaration was preceded by three decades of efforts at various levels and four draft documents; but all these efforts have been junked

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

-- HOW bizarre can a government policy decision get? India's first national policy on resettlement and rehabilitation for people affected by development projects was declared through a one-page advertisement, even though the detailed policy paper isn't ready. For a country with an estimated 35-55 million displaced people -- hardly 25 per cent of them have received any sort of rehabilitation -- the policy declaration adds insult to historical injury. The declaration was preceded by three decades of efforts at various levels and four draft documents; but all these efforts have been junked. They aren't reflected in the declaration at all. The policy peeks into the packages of a few existing, but widely contested rehabilitation policies of big projects -- like Sardar Sarovar -- and puts further conditions to these already unfair packages.

The policy focuses exclusively on resettlement, and not rehabilitation. In earlier debates on the issue, this used to be an extremely contentious matter. Resettlement is easier for government to undertake; they have to merely compensate for land, or simply allocate new lands to the displaced people anywhere. Rehabilitation means reinvigorating the lives of displaced people economically: the package should raise the income level of the displaced people, so pushing them above the poverty line. The new policy discards this. It also does not fix any responsibility on the entity that undertakes the projects, whereas the last draft prepared at the initiative of the government in 1998 had suggested that 10 per cent of the project cost to be spent on rehabilitation and resettlement had to come from such entities. Given the horrendous resettlement track record in different projects, there was a strong suggestion to incorporate the policy within the ambit of the Land Acquisition Act of India, so that it becomes a piece of legislation that governments wouldn't be able to tamper with. In the current policy, there is no such commitment.

The casual style of declaring policies -- on the eve of general elections -- brings to the fore the troubling debate on public good vs public relations. A policy ought to reflect the state's commitment, for it is like a commandment that guides future legislation. Here is a policy that will affect the lives of millions of Indians. Yet, it is presented in a way that makes the country look investor-friendly -- never mind what happens to people. Either way, it has been ignominously reduced to a vote-grabbing stunt.

The telling question is: Can government emerge from slumber, one fine strategic day, and turn a survival roadmap into a PR exercise? And: Is there any ethics left at all in governance?

No. Consider how politicians have reacted to the rejection clause
The Union Election Commission of India (EC) wishes to confer upon voters the right to reject candidates in elections. This has caused panic in political parties. Within a month of the suggestion being put forward, political parties have rejected it and the government is mum on it.

The EC's reasoning is solid. Voter turnout in India is decreasing; the EC feels that the right to reject could make people turn up at the voting booths again, in a positive way. Secondly, such an option would make the voting process more truly reflective of voters' choices, thus putting pressure on parties to field the right candidate. Ideally, the fundamental right to vote incorporates the right to reject candidates, but in the current electoral process, people have to vote for a candidate notwithstanding his/her credibility; the option to reject simply does not exist. Such a right could have sharpened the process of governance by rendering candidates completely accountable.

Voting psychology indicates that low turnout in parliamentary elections is an index of voters' confusion. Who is the right candidate? The answers to this question have become extremely murky, what with parties fielding criminals, actors and such politically inexperienced riff-raff. Moreover, voters know politicians resort to extra-parliamentary measures. In this way, democracy gets rammed down the throats of citizens, leaving them cold. In such a situation, the right to reject could have effectively involved people who no longer wish to exercise their franchise, for candidates would have come under scrutiny from the very beginning. Norway, which has a similar provision, even allows voters to even name suitable candidates, outside the ones contesting.

But political parties in India will have none of this. Their reasoning is extremely self-interested. They argue that people who abstain from voting are already exercising the right. If you vote for a candidate, it implies you have rejected the others. Truth is, the new proposal placed enormous pressure on them to clean up the candidate selection process. The other threat was that the fear of rejection would influence a party's autonomy in candidate selection.

Truth is, the parties are running scared. Indian politicians no longer like to face the public; they are candid about not being accountable. Any measure predicated on democracy and good governance is pure anathema to them. Sad.

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