INDIA: Human dignity is the true measure of development

India is trying to project itself as a state looking toward a place in the league of developed nations. It has put a claim as a leading Asian and global power with a right to permanent membership in the UN Security Council. To substantiate the claim, its government iterates statistical data showing annual economic growth second only to China in the region. 

However, is not economic growth: it is human dignity. By that measure India is among the least developed nations in the world. The quotient of dignity for the ordinary Indian is meagre even in comparison to other developing nations. Just a cursory glance into the lives of millions reveals unparalleled human rights violations: starvation deaths, caste atrocities, overwhelming corruption, police brutality and extraordinary delays in judicial procedures are the daily fare of countless Indians. All these are caused and compounded by the near total failure of rule of law in the country.

What excuses can any government in India, state or central, pose for letting its people starve to death? How can any government justify decades of delay in adjudicating cases in courts of law? Which government can allow its law enforcement agencies, particularly the police, to operate almost exclusively as agents of persecution? What justification can a government give for letting its bureaucracy be corrupt from top to bottom? Which state can justify the practice of extreme forms of discrimination based on birth and gender?

The government of India often absolves itself of responsibility for such problems on the ground that the country’s population is too large. However, this is a lame excuse which offers the victims of abuses nothing and belies the image of development that the authorities try to create by conjuring up numbers about this or that. What explanation can these authorities give for the subhuman living conditions of the Mushahar community in Belwa village, Uttar Pradesh or those persons in Jalangi of West Bengal, for instance? What about the weaver community starving in Varanasi while silk cloths are imported from China?

Take the case of Laxmina Mushahar, a resident of Belwa. On 26 July 2006 she had to pawn her clothes for a hundred rupees in order to bring her nine-month-old malnourished baby for treatment at a public health centre located nine kilometres away from her village. To save the child’s life this desperate step was necessary as the authorities have not bothered to open a public distribution shop in her village and provide underprivileged and marginalised communities the benefits of various government schemes that are rightfully theirs. The failure to take such steps amounts to criminal neglect that puts people’s lives in danger, from which neither the government nor its employees can escape liability.

Meanwhile, custodial torture, deaths in custody and alleged encounter killings are reported from across India. The incidence of such atrocities is growing at an alarming rate–so much so that the image of a criminal is now synonymous with a uniformed police officer–yet the government has no apparent policy or even intention to counteract this damaging trend. If the decline in discipline, lack of accountability and total impunity of Indian law enforcement agents continues, the total collapse of the rule of law is quite likely. The consequences are, and will, be felt most of all by ordinary persons.

Overcrowding and low morale are the stark realities of the justice system in India today. The complete absence of basic functioning infrastructure has exacerbated these problems and contributed to an increasing lack of faith in the courts among ordinary people. Instead, they settle disputes through exchange of money, violence and other means completely outside of the legal and administrative system. This situation renders the constitutional guarantees of rights and domestic laws worthless. That courts which once contributed towards a body of meaningful human rights jurisprudence now remain silent and inert when the values embodied in their judgments are blatantly violated only makes matters worse. 

The People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights in Varanasi has together with the Asian Human Rights Commission and others continuously brought these issues before various government agencies in India. Despite this, children suffer from malnutrition and die due to starvation; millions continue to be classed as ‘outcastes’ and deprived their basic human dignity from birth to death; millions more suffer countless daily indecencies at the hands of the country’s so-called law-enforcement officers, and have further indignities heaped upon them by the courts. India as a state has failed to ensure the progressive realisation of economic and social development for millions of Indians. In fact, it does not even have a notion of how to do this. The consequence is the denial of basic human dignity to the majority of the country’s people. This reality makes a mockery of claims to progress and prosperity through statistics. If India truly is seeking the path of development, it must start with these problems, and end with human dignity, without which any other concept and measure of development will be a chimera.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-180-2006
Countries : India,