PUCL Bulletin, May 2001

J. P. Memorial Lecture:
Diminishing Freedoms of the Poor - The Poor Future
S.R. Sankaran

Also, Twentieth PUCL Journalism for Human Rights
Award & Twenty First JP Memorial Lecture

I deem it a privilege and honour to be called upon to deliver the JP Memorial Lecture today. I am conscious of the fact that I do not have the credentials of a civil liberty activist but I am only a mere civil servant who retired many years ago. I thank the People's Union for Civil Liberties for giving me this unique opportunity and I consider it as an expression of their goodwill towards my good work, if any, as a civil servant and me. Indeed, I deeply cherish this gesture as I am following in the footsteps of eminent personalities such as Shri Dada Dharmadhikari, Shri Achyut Patwardhan, Justice Rajindar Sachar, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Sri Rajni Kothari, Shri K.G. Kannabiran, and Shri A.K.N. Reddy who have delivered the earlier lectures.

Indeed, this is an occasion for all of us to pay our humble tribute and homage to Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan - affectionately called JP - who was one of the most outstanding leaders in India's freedom struggle. The memorable statement which he made at his trial at Jamshedpur in the year 1940 - when he was sentenced to imprisonment for nine months - will have an honoured place among the most inspiring documents of history of India's struggle for freedom. Pleading guilty to the charges levelled against him, Jayaprakash Narayan declared: "As for the charge of endangering the defence of British India, I think the irony of it cannot be lost upon us. A slave has no obligation to defend his slavery. His only obligation is to destroy his bondage."

Much later, in independent India, in the same undying spirit of defying unfreedom and bondage, he gave his leadership to a massive popular movement, which was sought to be suppressed with the imposition of Emergency in 1975 and his own imprisonment. The people repudiated the Emergency and this day marks its revocation in 1977.

JP was a tall Indian endowed with courage and commitment, a political mentor of selfless stature, and a great crusader against the misuse of political power. His was an unusual and unique political life dedicated throughout, not to the pursuit of power either for him or for a group, but to the ideals and values of human freedom. He has been a source of inspiration for all those who have struggled and who continue to struggle for human rights and democratic values in this country. The founding of the People's Union of Civil Liberties was part of his efforts to construct an institutionalised bulwark against the erosion of the liberties of people. Indeed, this year will witness the completion of twenty-five years of the endeavours of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), heralding its Silver Jubilee.

Sometime in 1957, Jayaprakash Narayan observed "the past course of my life might well appear to an outsider as zigzag and tortuous chart of unsteadiness... (but) …there were clear beacons of light that remained undimmed and unaltered from the beginning". As Bimal Prasad points out, the beacons of light illuminating JP's life were the ideas of freedom and equality. As Jayaprakash Narayan declared "this freedom has become a passion of (my) life and I shall not see it compromised for bread, for power, for security, for prosperity, for the glory of the state or for anything else… It must mean freedom for all - even the lowliest - and the freedom must include freedom from exploitation, from hunger, from poverty."

In this lecture today dedicated to the memory of Jayaprakash Narayan, I consider that it will be appropriate for me to reflect on this freedom - from poverty, from hunger and from exploitation - of the lowliest, the poor people in India.


The human rights of the poor, the freedom from hunger, poverty and exploitation indeed constitute the concern of the comprehensive concept of human rights that has been evolved within the United Nations system and reaffirmed by the countries of the world, often written into the national Constitutional laws. The universe of human rights has been ever expanding in its scope, sweep and content. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) recognised the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Article 25, in particular, declared that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability or other lack of livelihood. Two separate Covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant followed this Declaration on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 11.2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966 with entry into force in 1976) recognised the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. In the World Conference on Human Rights held at Vienna in 1993, the right to development was recognised as a universal and inalienable human right and an integral part of the fundamental rights of the human person. It was also emphasised at the Vienna Conference that the existence of widespread extreme poverty inhibits full and effective enjoyment of human rights and a violation of human dignity and therefore, urgent steps for promoting the rights of the poorest and immediate alleviation and eventual elimination of poverty must remain a high priority for the international community.

The Preamble to the Constitution of India sets out Justice - social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and opportunity and Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and integrity of the nation as the objectives. What makes the Constitution significant to the conditions and problems of the large masses of poor people of India is the socio economic soul of it. As Justice Krishna Iyer put it in his inimitable language, the Constitution has been made in the name of the millions and for the millions, not for the millionaires.

The founding fathers of the Constitution, especially Babasaheb Ambedkar who was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee, were acutely aware of the iniquitous forces embedded in the social systems, economic institutions and political organisations in India in relation to the weaker and vulnerable sections of the society and therefore, considered it necessary to provide for specific safeguards in the Constitution in their favour. The Constitution set out the fundamental rights of the citizens, especially, equality, freedom of speech and expression, protection of life and liberty, nondiscrimination, abolition of untouchability and prohibition of forced labour. The Directive Principles of State Policy envisaged a social order in which justice - social, economic and political - will inform all institutions of national life, minimising of inequalities of income status and opportunities, the right to adequate means of livelihood as well as the equitable control and ownership of material resources of the community. The protection of the interests of the weaker sections of the people, particularly the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes from social injustice and all forms of exploitation is a specific directive incorporated in Article 46 of the Constitution. Almost all the issues which the poor confront in their daily lives find place in the Indian Constitution - whether it is equality, freedom, human dignity, non discrimination, social and economic justice, right to livelihood, right to work, living wage or protection from exploitation. The Constitutional perspective combines both horizontal rights applicable to all citizens and vertical rights to enhance the lives of vulnerable groups. During the last five decades, the Supreme Court too through its corpus of active jurisprudence has read into the meaning and scope of the Constitutional provisions, fundamental rights such as the right to dignity; right to livelihood; right to speedy trial; right to health; right to education; right to gender equality and right to environment. The Indian constitution is thus a quest for equal and just society.

As eloquently expressed by Babasaheb Ambedkar, "We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life, which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality; equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty will produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty will kill the individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things…. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian society. One of these is equality… The second thing we are wanting is recognition of fraternity… Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians being one people. It is the principle that gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve… Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than a coat of paint".


Historically, and at the time of Independence, the socioeconomic scene in rural India has been characterised by widespread inequalities, especially in the ownership of land and wealth. A small minority of big landholders owned a major portion of the agricultural land, while millions of small peasants weighed down by perpetual indebtedness eked out a precarious existence on tiny fragmented holdings. More than half of the cultivated land was under tenancy and the bulk of the tenants enjoyed no security of tenure or fixity of rent. At the bottom of the agrarian pyramid, there was a vast army of landless agricultural workers whose social and economic status was pathetic.

To Jayaprakash Narayan, there could be no freedom in the country while vast inequalities in wealth existed. Even as early as 1936, he had written that this fact of inequalities, with all its brood of social consequences, is the central problem of our society and it is the unequal distribution of property that is the core of the social problem. He gave land reforms a pride of place in his programmes for socioeconomic transformation. For him, reordering of land relations was crucial to social change and the Bhoodan movement, when it emerged under the leadership of Vinoba Bhave, appeared to him not only as a movement for redistribution of land but the beginning of a great human and social revolution as well as nonviolent mass action. He plunged wholeheartedly into the Bhoodan movement in 1952. He explained that Bhoodan was not asking for charity but a demand for realisation of rights. In August 1970, Jayaprakash Narayan lent his strong support to the movement started by some of the political parties in Bihar for peacefully occupying lands held by proprietors in excess of ceiling fixed by law. Answering critics who raised questions of morality, democracy or of law and order, he tersely commented: "There was no such question raised, no hue and cry about land grabbers, no democracy-in-danger slogans when the stronger elements in the villages illegally and stealthily stole hundreds of thousands of acres to which they had no rights whatsoever".

The abolition of Zamindari in its various forms and the restructuring of the land relations, often popularly expressed in the slogan of "land to the tiller" was part of the ethos of the national movement for Independence itself. Article 38 of the Constitution too envisaged a social order in which the inequalities in status and opportunities are eliminated and disparities in incomes minimised. Article 39 laid down that the State shall direct its policy towards securing that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good and that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment.

Indeed the very first amendment to the Indian Constitution was undertaken, among other things, in order to validate the Bihar Land Reforms Act of 1950. An authoritative outline of a national policy on land reforms, including a ceiling on agricultural holdings, was set out in the First Five Year Plan (1951-56). Treating the issue of land ownership as fundamental in national development, the First Five Year Plan emphasised the objective of land reforms in terms of the social aspects of the land policy, such as reduction of disparities in wealth and income, elimination of exploitation, provision of security of tenure to tenants and workers and providing equality of status and opportunity to the different sections of the rural people. The subsequent Five Year Plans continued to re-emphasise land reforms and over a period of time, a comprehensive policy evolved, which included the abolition of intermediaries, tenancy reforms, imposition of ceiling on landholdings and distribution of surplus land, allotment of Government owned land, consolidation of holdings, and protection of the lands of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The initial thrust of the land reforms programmes was on the elimination of the hierarchy of intermediary proprietary interests that existed between the State and the actual cultivators of the land, constituting layers of parasitic groups that had appropriated a substantial share of the produce of the land and often harassed the cultivators in different ways. It was perhaps easy to abolish the Zamindari, for Zamindars were the product of the British Raj and the abolition was in tune with the initial spirit of Independence. The abolition of intermediaries resulted undoubtedly in a change at the top of the agrarian pyramid bringing about 20 million peasants, in direct relationship with the State, though substantial compensation was paid and large areas left over for personal cultivation by landlords. The tenancy reforms also resulted in the conferment of ownership rights for about 125 lakh cultivators in nearly 150 lakh acres of land, though in many areas of the country tenancy continued in various concealed forms.

The implementation of the laws on the ceiling on agricultural landholdings in India has been rightly summed up as a case of "inchoate policy, imperfect legislation, and inefficient implementation". It has been estimated that in China, the extent of land redistributed was 43 percent of the total agricultural land and it was 33 to 37 percent in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, whereas in India, the efforts of the Central and State Governments to enact, revise and implement the ceiling laws spread over five decades resulted in the redistribution of only 1.25 percent of the operational area. The principal reasons are the total lack of political will, the painfully slow process of legislation, which itself was full of loopholes; lukewarm and inefficient implementation; absence of pressure from below; inadequacies of the administrative machinery and indiscriminate judicial intervention. It is also well known that many political leaders and senior officials of the Government were sympathetic to and under the sway of larger landowners who wielded considerable political power.

The Bhoodan movement resulted in the donation of about 40 lakh acres in the country, only about half of which was actually distributed. There are also large tracts of land owned by temples and other institutions, the benefits of which are derived by the richer classes. The land struggle of the cultivators of Bodh Gaya Math, which drew its inspiration from JP, is well known. It was only in November 1987 after years of struggle that about 35000 acres of land including the lands of Bodh Gaya Math could be distributed to the cultivators.

In a number of States efforts were made to allot lands at the disposal of the Government, Gram Sabha and the Gair Mazrua lands to the landless poor, specially Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes on a preferential basis. It will be worth noting in this context that even in the days of British rule, some part of the Government owned land in the villages was reserved for allotment exclusively to the landless poor belonging to the Scheduled Castes, who were the primary agricultural labour caste. Such land was known in the southern states as Depressed Class (D.C) reserved land, which was to be allotted entirely to the landless poor belonging to these communities. This was indeed the application of the principle of reserving the land resource for the labouring communities. Much of this land, and even the very principle itself appear to have evaporated in course of time.

Taken together, it could be said that all the efforts at land reforms including Bhoodan have resulted in reordering the rights and relationships in less than 10% of the cultivated area of the country. As a result, the longstanding inequalities in the village community were hardly touched. In some of the States - such as Kerala or West Bengal - where it had been implemented in a somewhat more effective manner, Land Reforms had an overall favourable impact on the conditions of the rural poor and agricultural labour and made some inroads into the power structure. To the rural poor, equality means equality in the ownership of land. Transfer of land entails transfer of power; land reforms transfer power, property, and status from one group to another. In short, it serves to empower the poor within the rural structure. Land reforms, if properly implemented, would not only have had a decisive impact through increasing the income and life chances of the rural poor but also created a less dependent and less exploitable population.

Soon after Independence and even during 1960s and 70s, there was widespread support to land reforms on grounds of both equity and efficiency. Land reforms continued to be a topical item on the policy agenda throughout the 80s and even in early 1990s. Today, however, for various reasons including the setbacks to socialism and emergence of globalisation as the ruling creed, it would appear that the issue of land reforms, once regarded as fundamental to social change, has ceased to be a major socio political issue. In operational terms too, land reform programmes have virtually reached a dead end. It continues to remain, if at all, at a symbolic level, operating more in terms of rhetoric than as an action-oriented programme, aptly described as a "romantic theme for the intellectual, a populist slogan for the politician, and a persistent source of hope perhaps receding - for the landless".


A unique feature of the Indian rural situation, barring some regions, is the close correlation between the agrarian structure and the caste hierarchy. While the large landowners invariably belonged to the so-called upper castes, the cultivators belonged to the middle castes and the agricultural workers largely to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and other extremely backward communities. The picture of the landless labourer continues to remain the dominant motif of Dalits1 and other rural poor even today.

Jayaprakash Narayan declared that his total revolution would not be complete as long as the caste system was not eradicated from the Indian society. He wanted the participants in the total revolution to do constructive work of living with the people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and win their confidence by serving them. In a broadcast to the nation on the All India Radio on the 13 April 1977, he said: "In our heritage from the past, there are some things that are noble and valuable - these have to be preserved and strengthened. But we have also inherited a great deal of superstition and wrong values and unjust human and social relations. The caste system among the Hindus is a glaring example of our evil inheritance. From the time of Lord Buddha, and may be even from earlier times, attempts have been made to destroy the hierarchical system of caste but still it flourishes in every part of the country. It is time we blotted out this black spot from the Hindu society, proclaimed, and practiced the equality and brotherhood of all men. The purging of these evils falls within the purview of total revolution."

Caste is a specifically Indian expression of institutionalised inequality and indignity. The meaning of caste to those who suffer it, is power on one side and vulnerability on the other; privilege on one side and oppression on the other; honour and denigration; plenty and want; reward and deprivation. It means, as Babasaheb Ambedkar described it, graded inequality with elevation for some and degradation for others; not a division of labour, as sometimes misconceived, but a division of labourers. Untouchability too is part and parcel of the caste structure.

The history of social and economic oppression of Dalits is well known. Many may not now believe that when the trains were introduced during the nineteenth century, in some parts of the country, such as Madras, people belonging to Scheduled Castes were forced to plead for being allowed to enter into the compartments and some 'well meaning' people suggested even a separate reserved compartment for them! There were certain parts of India where the untouchable communities were prohibited from owning any landed property. It may now be a matter of history that even in a State like Kerala, the Scheduled Caste agricultural workers were being sold almost as a commodity along with the land; it was as if, instead of land being owned by human beings, the land owned the human beings!

The large majority of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes live mostly in rural areas. The habitations of the Scheduled Castes are scattered all over the villages of the country, almost always at the periphery. While some of the Scheduled Caste families are small and marginal farmers, most of them work mainly as agricultural labourers. Almost all primary workers in the leather industry come from Scheduled Castes. Fishermen belonging to Scheduled Castes are found in the eastern region of the country. There is a large concentration of weavers belonging to Scheduled Castes in the western India. In the urban areas, a large proportion of unorganised workers including rickshaw pullers and Safai Karmacharis are from the Scheduled Castes. More than two third of the bonded labourers identified in the country are from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Naturally, the proportion of the Scheduled Castes among the poverty groups is high and they are among the poorest of those below the poverty line.

The abolition of untouchability - the defining marker of the denial of human dignity for Scheduled Castes - is a key Constitutional provision for securing basic human dignity to Dalits. Article 17 declared its abolition and criminalised its practice in any form whatsoever. Through Article 17, the constitutional outlawing of untouchability and Article 23, the constitutional proscription of many forms of agrestic serfdom and traffic in human beings, the Indian Constitution enhanced the reach of fundamental rights beyond the State to the civil society and mandated State action to combat civil society violation of basic human rights, designating them as offences created by the Constitution itself. Following the stipulation in Article 17 of the Constitution, the Untouchability Offences Act was enacted in 1955, five years after the Constitution came into force. As this law was found to be inadequate and ineffective, this was replaced in 1976 by the comprehensive Protection of Civil Rights Act, a quarter of a century after the Constitution. Even forty years after the Constitution, untouchability and atrocities continued to be so widely prevalent that the State was compelled to enact a special law - the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989, necessitated by the continuing predicament and plight of the Scheduled Castes. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 created, for the first time, a whole new range of new offences termed as atrocities and provided for stiff sanctions. The Government however took six years to frame the Rules under the Act, which were finally notified only in 1995.
Yet another derogation of human dignity is the continuance of the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging, which is blot on the Indian society. Almost all those engaged in this occupation - there are about a million of them in the country even now - are from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It was only four decades after the commencement of the Constitution that a legal prohibition of manual scavenging was attempted through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act which was passed in 1993. It took another four years to bring the Act into force in six States in 1997 and even after eight years, the legislation is not of countrywide applicability. The Act is so full of preconditions and conditionalities that its utility to achieve the objectives appears very limited A National Commission for Safai Karmacharis was also set up in August 1994 under the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis Act 1993 to monitor and oversee the programmes. Strangely, the legislation under which the Commission was set up required periodical repromulgation.
Even at the initial years of the twenty-first century, the Dalits who constitute a substantial section of the Indian population thus suffer from varying degrees of unfreedom and denial of human dignity. The discrimination against the Scheduled Castes is not merely the kind of treatment suffered by the poor in general but the unique form of special discrimination in the form of untouchability in the hands of caste society and this is the primary basis for regarding them as a distinct grouping, even among the poor within India. The low levels of literacy of the Scheduled Castes are a particularly potent indicator of the denial of the very access to education in the past, having its mark on the present and future social situation. It is well known to any discerning observer that throughout the whole of rural India, the houses of the Scheduled castes are even today usually segregated mostly on the outskirts of village. They are at the fringe and at the bottom of the society - in wealth, social status, education, health or in living conditions.

The post-independence public policy in relation to Scheduled Castes consisted essentially of legal measures for removal of disabilities and discrimination, reservations in elected bodies, reservations in public employment, special support for education with guaranteed places particularly in higher educational institutions and specially directed developmental programmes. The statutory reservation in legislatures, local bodies, public appointments and higher education is no doubt significant and has indeed served to help in accelerating the growth of a small professional class such as administrators, lawyers, doctors and engineers and an articulate middle class providing much needed leadership. But a share in public employment even if fully proportionate to a share in overall population cannot by itself benefit more than a fraction of the Dalits. The issue of reservation has to be viewed at as one of equitable sharing in all the opportunities and resources. There is almost complete absence of Dalits from areas of private organised sector employment, other than the manual or the menial. The Dalits have also been almost absent from lakhs of people who have found some prosperity from employment abroad, as this seems to require a network of useful connections, which often serve as a lever of social and economic advancement. It would seem that notwithstanding the laws and State action, without which even the modest progress in the overall situation would not have been possible, the society itself has yet to accept imbibe and internalise the values of equality, nondiscrimination, human dignity, justice, and democratic behaviour in relation to Dalits.


The access of the rural poor to forests and common property resources has also been declining, due to the progressive abrogation of their rights mostly by the state itself. Sometime around 1840, in an article on Sixth Rhine Province Assembly Debates on the law on the theft of woods, a proposed law that will make criminal, the gathering of minor forest produce, Karl Marx, who opposed the proposal, observed:

"Just as it is not fitting for the rich to lay claims on the alms distributed in the streets, it is also so in regard to the alms of Nature… it is by its activity too that Poverty acquires its right. By its act of gathering, the elemental class of human society appoints itself to introduce order among the elemental products of nature ''

Whether the right of poverty, as Marx termed it, was upheld or denied in the Rhine Province of Germany, is not known. But it may not be just a coincidence that India borrowed its forest policy from Germany. As Britain had no established tradition in forest management, German experts were called in to start the Imperial Forest Department in India in 1864. This led to the enactment of the Indian Forest Act 1878 which resulted in state monopoly in forests and the constitution of massive areas as reserved forests - covering nearly one fifth of the subcontinent's land area by the turn of the century - and their subsequent working on commercial lines, with peasants and tribals allowed only a limited access to forests and forest produce. Over a period of time, the access of the poor to the forest land and forest produce has been severely curtailed, by removing them from settled occupations, by adding large extents of wastelands as reserve forests, by extinguishing their rights on forest produce and by the declaration of sanctuaries and national parks. The problems faced by the Van Gujjars in Uttar Pradesh or the slum dwellers settled on the borders of Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the outskirts of Mumbai city are recent examples. The evolution of forest law and policy in India has been characterised by the progressive curtailment of the rights of the poor for life and livelihood derived from forests. Commenting on the extraordinarily high number of forest offences in the tribal districts of Central provinces Verrier Elwin observed in 1936: "At every turn, the Forest laws cut across his (tribal) life limiting frustrating destroying his self-confidence. It is obvious that so great a number of offences would not occur unless the forest regulations ran counter to the fundamental needs of tribesmen".

The extent to which the forest laws can be oppressive can be seen from a case that arose in the not too distant past, fifty years after Verrier Elwin made the above observations. In the year, 1986 Madhya Pradesh High Court was called upon to decide whether the tribals of Chainpura village could lawfully collect droppings (dung) from their own cattle which were allowed to graze in the reserved forest under a licence granted by the Government. The Government of Madhya Pradesh argued that this excrement became state property under Section 2 (4) (b) of the Indian Forest Act. It was left to the Madhya Pradesh High Court to pronounce that the dung excreted by the cattle of the licenced graziers is not a minor forest produce and the graziers are not to be deprived of the natural right to the dung [2].


It may not now be very well known that slavery was widely prevalent in India even by the middle of the nineteenth century and the labourers were being sold as a commodity. Almost every administrator who went to Malabar in the early nineteenth century reported on the rigour of slavery and wretchedness of the slaves. In 1801, Buchanan remarked that in South Malabar, the slaves perform by far the greatest part of the labour in the fields. Dharma Kumar in her excellent analysis assessed that the proportion of slaves was about 15 percent of the population in Malabar and South Canara districts of the Madras Province in the middle of nineteenth century. Slavery converging with landlessness and caste was deep-rooted in Indian society. When the British Government initiated measures in the middle of nineteenth century to abolish slavery, the Indian Zamindars strongly voiced their opposition. Following the publication of the draft Anti Slavery Act in 1843, some Zamindars and Talukdars of Bengal, submitted in a memorandum to the government: "It (abolition of slavery) would tend to be the ruin of all India, specially that of the respectable part of Sylhet3. From time immemorial, slaves of both the sexes were engaged in the services of respectable men and performed drudgeries of various descriptions. According to the Shastras and customs of the country, the slaves were alienable by sale purchase or gift… If the proposed Act is passed into law, the slaves would consider themselves men of respectability and would refuse to perform duties which were habitually assigned to them"

While slavery in its acute form declined in most regions in India and with the enactment of Anti Slavery Act in 1843 and Sections 370 and 371 of the Indian Penal Code 1860, it stood abolished and became punishable, hereditary servitude institutionalised as bondage continued to be the condition of large proportion of agricultural labour. Utsa Patnaik describes the historical picture thus: "India is a country of survival and adaptation to new functions, of social forms which elsewhere have become extinct. The various forms of subordination of one class of human beings by another have not been swept away here by any revolutionary upheaval; on the contrary, their characteristics have accumulated and mutated sometimes under the impact of capitalism to produce an extraordinary amalgam of the modern and the archaic. While subordination and bondage are characteristics of many aspects of social life, agrestic servitude has formed historically the most important component. A consideration of the history of agrestic subordination of one class by another inevitably becomes the history of the evolution of the class of agricultural labourers in India"

Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits traffic in human beings and beggar and similar forms of forced labour and declares it a punishable offence. It took a quarter of a century for the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Ordinance to be promulgated and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act to be enacted in 1976. The scope of the provisions of the law has been strengthened and widened by the rulings of the Supreme Court in various cases such as the Asiad and the Bandhua Mukti Morcha cases. It has been declared by the Supreme Court that the denial of minimum wages itself is enough evidence of the existence of forced labour. While the law cast its net far and wide, the actual enforcement fell far short of the objectives largely due to the absence of political and administrative will. Many of the orthodox forms of agrestic bondage have no doubt undergone changes over a period of time but a large number of bonded labour still exist in agricultural work as well as in brick kilns, stone quarries, limestone mines, match factories, carpet weaving, irrigation works, handloom and a variety of other occupations.

Jayaprakash Narayan attached the highest value to human freedom. The emergence of wage labour, representing a formal freedom for the poor is itself a relatively recent phenomenon in the rural areas. But extreme poverty and staggering levels of inequality in village life become fetters on the creation of a completely free work force. Freedom and unfreedom of agricultural labourers is, among other factors, deeply influenced by the production conditions in agriculture and material conditions of their lives; economic dominance of a small group of landlords; caste discrimination and practice of untouchability; usury and indebtedness; and widespread illiteracy.

The Indian Constitution prohibits employment of children below 14 years of age in factories, mines, and other hazardous occupations. The Constitution also mandates free and compulsory education to the children up to 14 years of age. These two Constitutional requirements have to be seen together as the recognition of the right of the child to be in the school and not at the work place. But India has one of the largest number of child labour, variously estimated at 17.5 million, 44 million or even 75 million. While child workers are found in a variety of occupations such as building construction, hotel industry, domestic labour, stone breaking, carpet weaving, match factories, slate industry and gem polishing, the largest number are in fact engaged in agriculture and related occupations. There is a continuing paradox - large-scale employment of children coexisting with equally large-scale adult unemployment. While there have been limited efforts to intervene in regard to child labour engaged in hazardous occupations, there is an inability, in fact, an unwillingness to perceive child labour per se as an illegitimate practice, leading to the stunted growth of the future generations.

With the hopes of acquiring land resource through redistribution becoming remote, the largest and marginalised groups of the poor would continue to consist of landless labour located precariously on the brink of subsistence, depending on uncertain employment and wages. The total working population in the country is estimated at about 320 million. The share of organised sector in total employment is less than 10 percent. More than 80 percent work in rural areas and the number of agricultural labourers itself is more than 200 million. In economic and political discourse, the term labour is often taken to refer to industrial work, but as Jan Bremen points out, for no good reason at all, since the biggest working class in India has a rural identity.

Most of the unorganised labour are the working poor who continue to live in a state of misery and oppression because of the low wages paid for long hours of work. They are people producing wealth and sustaining development, without themselves sharing justly and fairly in the prosperity and well-being. The misery and oppression leads to rural urban migration in search of work opportunities in towns. Every day millions of workers travel away from their homes in search of work. Massive wage labour circulation - between country and town as well as rural to rural for either long or short periods and last but not the least a never ending switch between various sectors of the economy - is expressive of a situation in which the working poor have to constantly stay on the move in order to survive. Many workers especially in agricultural sector or nonagricultural rural sector often take to road in family groups - as Marx described in another context, they are a class of people whose origin is agricultural, the light infantry of capital thrown by it according to its needs, now to this part now to that; when they are not on march, they camp. The vivid and perceptive description by Jan Bremen is as true as it is deeply moving: "The most dramatic evidence in the towns and cities of the worker as a migrant, as a 'casual', as a member of the amorphous informal sector is the sight of work-seekers gathered in the mornings at specific places… There they wait to be engaged to sell their skills, their strength, their raw labour power. Those among them who have some skills are a little more confident. Those who have their own tools are a little more dignified. But in the end, they are all mere commodities - to be haggled over, "purchased" for the day or for the job and taken away to the work site… All this has, in many respects, reversed the processes of production itself - from being carried out in factories to once again being fragmented into manufactories. The consequences are severe for the labour process as well as for the labouring people... Most of their working life is spent as unsettled migrants rootless in their place of work. Many workers - especially those who find work in the agricultural sector or are engaged in nonagricultural but rural jobs - often take to road in family groups. Men, women and children go together setting up camps wherever they can find work… with their pathetic bundle of worldly goods arrayed around them… Sometimes, the shelter is in the shadow of the city, transient arrangements which, over time, congeal into slums whose residents service those who live in high rise apartment buildings… the migrant has to create a habitat: it may be a temporary shelter under trees by roadside or a wretched, ramshackle hut run up out of sticks, rotting planks, dirty rags and even cardboard... Even the use of bricks does not disguise the ephemeral nature of migrant workers' presence; once the work gets over, the worker goes away."

As Bremen observes, rightly, the State appears to have abdicated its role in most of rural India vis-a-vis landless labourers as well as what is commonly described as urban informal sector and even if State is present, its presence is ineffectual. While on the one hand, the Courts have elevated the right to minimum wages to a fundamental right and even construed non-payment of minimum wages as forced labour, the law on minimum wages, the Minimum Wages Act which was enacted in the year 1948 well before the Constitution was adopted and which is of great relevance to the largest segment of labour, known as unorganised labour, is yet to be brought in line with the Constitutional commitment for ensuring a living wage and right to work... The detailed analysis made by the National Commission on Rural Labour (1991) showed that no specific principles have been followed by the Central or State governments for fixing the minimum wages. In fact, the Act itself does not lay down any principles that should govern the determination of minimum wage, resulting in a situation of highly depressed minimum wages for rural labour. Indian wage system is based on dual standards, one for organised and another for unorganised sector. In many States, the notified minimum wage is far lower than the minimum amount needed to cross the official poverty line, not to speak of the living wage referred to in the Directive Principles of the Constitution. In any event the minimum wage fixed by the Government is only a distant dream for most agricultural workers, as the actual ruling wage remains far below the minimum for most parts of the year and the basic problem is that of securing employment itself, irrespective of the wage levels. There are only three States - Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal-where legislation exists laying down security of employment, payment of wages as well as welfare and social security of agricultural workers. Even the modest National Minimum Wage recommended by the National Commission on Rural Labour was not given effect to. An all-India legislation for agricultural workers drawn up almost three decades ago has still not been enacted.

Trade unions too are unable to significantly affect the lives of such workers. The membership of agricultural workers in trade unions is less than 10 percent of the total labour force. One would tend to agree with Jan Bremen and Arvind Das when they say "organising blue collar workers in secure jobs and moving on from there to unionising white collar employees mostly in banks, government and the similar employment has kept labour leaders in business and when blue collar and white collar workers are so important for them, they have no time for workers whose tattered rags have no collars at all."
The living space itself has often been a problem for the rural and urban poor. The poor in villages have been in permissive possession of house sites or homesteads with the constant threat of eviction. Small resources like a home site of one's own, as even a very small extent of productive land, can operate as a powerful tool of liberation of the Dalit and other poor from total and arbitrary dependence on the dominant. It will be interesting to recall the experience of Jayaprakash Narayan himself in connection with the Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act, a law passed by Bihar Legislative Assembly and Council in 1950 which created homestead tenants conferring occupancy rights in homestead plots. JP refers to the stand taken by both Jan Sangh and Raja Bahadur Kamakhya Narayan Singh, members of a Committee set up by the Coalition Ministry in Bihar (1967) that the contract between share croppers and the landlords is a private sacred contract and the state has no right to interfere. JP's caustic comment on this specious reasoning is worth recalling: " I do not know where these people got this idea about a contract between an elephant and a mouse. Is it such a sacred contract that the community has no right to protect a mouse?"

While rural poverty in India is directly related to land ownership and control over land, the urban poor consist largely of the overflow of the rural poor, engaged mainly in casual and uncertain occupations such as street vendors, construction workers, rickshaw pullers and similar occupational groups. The victims of extrajudicial killings or encounter or custodial violence or illegal detention are mostly from the poor and backward sections of the society with little financial or political power to back them. There is little more than token space in urban areas for the poor pushed out from villages by poverty and social degradation. All of them live in unhygienic conditions in unending insecurity, never sure when they will be displaced by local authorities or other powerful groups. The term slum clearance or encroachment removal is often an euphemism for uprooting the powerless urban migrants to low value sites, often at the periphery leading to virtual economic extinction The recent developments in Delhi putting the life of almost one million workers in jeopardy in the name of environment is an example of the precarious nature of the life of urban poor. As Rajindar Sachar has pointed out that the Courts have to maintain a balance and prioritisation between environmental considerations and the right to livelihood guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution and after all, the greatest violation of human rights is the poverty, homelessness and not having a shelter. To recall his words, "if ever a choice was to be made between preserving the Human Right to livelihood of the dweller and the so-called environmental standards laid down by the First World, I would unhesitatingly opt for the former because to me none takes precedence over the Right to Food".

Jayaprakash Narayan wanted the Right to Work to be included among the fundamental rights in the Constitution. He felt that once the State accepts the obligation, means will necessarily have to be found for providing employment to all. The right to adequate means of livelihood and the right to work have been set out as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution. Sometime in 1990, pronouncements were made that the Right to Work will be inscribed as a fundamental right and a nationwide Employment Guarantee Scheme will be introduced. But none could materialise except a very diluted Employment Assurance Scheme introduced much later which seems to have had very little impact. Maharashtra is the only State in India which has the unique distinction of having introduced an Employment Guarantee Scheme in May 1972 and later, a statutory right to work under the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act of 1977 providing a right to guaranteed employment in unskilled manual work in favour of the rural poor.


Soon after Independence and the enactment of the Constitution of India, there was an abiding faith in comprehensive planning as well as the imperative need for State intervention in economic and social development. There was a dominant role accorded to the instruments of the State for socio-economic transformation and an implicit or even explicit lack of faith in free market forces. An era of planning was initiated with the commencement of the First Five Year Plan in the year 1951 with self reliance as one of the primary goals of planning. In his letter to Jawaharlal Nehru 4 March 1953, Jayaprakash Narayan drew up a Fourteen Point Programme consisting of constitutional, legal, administrative, fiscal and economic reforms in the direction of socialism - including redistribution of land, nationalisation of banks, insurance companies, coal as well as other mining industries, progressive development of state trading and scaling down of the highest salaries and emoluments in government.
The twentieth century was a turbulent century which saw waves of war and winds of peace 4. The century witnessed the dissolution of colonial empires, redrawing of the national boundaries and spheres of influence and equally, the rise and fall of ideologies The closing years of the twentieth century saw predictions and pronouncements of the end of ideology, the end of history, end of modernity, end of socialism, end of the nation state and apprehensions of clash of civilisations and impending nuclear wars. It may not be the end of history, as described by Fukuyama, but surely the beginning of yet another phase in history. And as Aijaz Ahmed mentions, when one reflects upon the twentieth century, what makes it unique is that socialism emerged as the central fact around which most aspirations and conflicts on the global scale were shaped, struggles for and against, failures and defeats; alignments and adversaries, wars - hot and cold - and the very fact that roughly a third of the humanity passed through this experience, memory and critical analysis of this experience will remain an integral part of the emancipatory politics of the future.

The international economic scene also underwent momentous changes. The Brettonwood Twins - the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - in their fifty years of existence have gained enormous strength, with their conditionalities and structural adjustment programmes 5. While the initial aim of IMF was to smoothen balance of payment adjustments, it transformed itself from short term lender to a source of long term conditional lending. The role of the international financing institutions in shaping the public policy of the borrower States in line with their own perceptions and priorities is an important factor to be reckoned with many of the national governments of the developing world have adopted the Fund-Bank economic philosophy as the price for financial support from these lending institutions. As Jonathan Cahn argues in Harvard Human Rights Journal: "The World Bank must be regarded as a governance institution, exercising power through its financial leverage to legislate entire legal regimens and even to alter the constitutional structure of borrowing nations. Bank approved consultants often rewrite a country's trade policy, fiscal policies, civil service requirements, labour laws, health care arrangements, environmental regulations, energy policy, resettlement requirements, procurement rules and budgetary policy".

The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) too grew far beyond its original role of an agreement on trans-border trade into the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO has been assuming a position of authority as an arbiter on the decisions of the national governments, laying down the parameters of their internal economic policies as well, thus intruding into their sovereign economic space. It has been enlarging its scope and space further, pushing aside the other international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) or the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) or United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The direction of the dominant international economic policy was clear - the ideal of what is termed as a free market. The world has come to be looked upon as a global market place and globalisation or integrating with world markets seems to be the ruling creed. To put it in a somewhat lighter vein, instead of the workers of the world uniting, the capitalists of the world seem to be uniting and coming together globally! While the Soviet Union has disintegrated, the European Union integrated the countries of Western Europe and a variety of regional economic alliances have been taking shape. Internationally, there has been an ascendancy of the market-oriented ideology as part of the process of globalisation and a retreat from the concept of equity.
Globalisation is not simply confined to trade flows, investment flows and financial flows. Trade, investment and finance no doubt constitute the cutting edge of globalisation; but the last two decades have witnessed explosive growth in international finance with the result that in terms of magnitude, trade and investment are now dwarfed by finance. Globalisation also extends to flows of services, technology, information, ideas and persons across national boundaries. It has significantly altered the relationship between sovereign States and world markets. Market transactions of modern capitalist enterprises extend across and stretch far beyond the boundaries of the States; in fact, there is no sovereign body with the kind of jurisdiction which is coterminous with the markets. Markets are, in varying degrees, transnational - transcending territory, sovereignty and political control of nation states. Global markets constitute a "borderless world", as they have been described, a process of transformation in which all aspects of the world system coming into the orbit of a continuous circulation of ideas, commodities and social relations and they tend to reshape the economies of nation states and in this vortex of change, the State cannot autonomously formulate its policies. Globalisation has also sought to legitimise the diverse forms of inequality and exploitation in the world system. Indeed, very often, many public policies have been justified solely on the ground that they lead to or flow from globalisation.

The autonomy of the States is on the decline as new global rules of trade bind national policies and as new global actors wield great influence. And as privatisation proceeds ahead, private enterprises and corporations have larger impact on the economic opportunities of people. Under the process of globalisation, the boundaries between private and public sectors have been redrawn with the economies being opened up to the process of global economic competition. States bargain not only with other States but also with firms and enterprises; firms, in turn, bargain either with Governments with one another. There is a greatly intensified competition among the States for world market shares. In fact, states do more than merely mediate between domestic and international political economy; they themselves become market actors; states appear to represent a national firm or a cartel, operating directly in a transnational environment. The central authorities of the State, such as the Chief Ministers, Finance Ministers or the Governors of the national central banks become increasingly linked to each other and also with the heads of the institutions such as International Monetary Fund or the World Bank or Microsoft or the world businessmen as they meet at the forum at Davos in Switzerland or elsewhere. As a consequence, they often tend to espouse or adopt policies that reflect international rather than domestic imperatives. In fact, a view has been expressed - it does, no doubt, sound alarmist - that we are today in the process of a new form of colonisation which involves no territorial conquest of the colonial type but takes control of production systems, resources, labour regimes and ideological apparatuses in a most invasive and comprehensive manner.

A significant point to be noted is the propagandist and persuasive role of global mass communications in promoting the ideology of consumption through the transmission of symbols, images and ideas. The United States of America remains the leading corporate power in the information industry with an enormous range of ideological control especially over the Third World. As Aijaz Ahmad observes, in many branches, the United States of America remains the global centre for higher education and training for privileged techno managerial strata. This combination of virtual monopoly over higher education of Third World elites and over most far reaching ideological production of information industries has its impact and consequences for the political climate in Third world countries - and undoubtedly for India. As a perceptive analysis in New York Times brings out, the computer-financial complex, with strongholds in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Seattle, and connections to New York, Boston, and elsewhere, has been both principal source and spiritual symbol of this era of wealth. Tech wealth has the same disproportionate, commanding-heights effect on today's culture… the tech-wealthy have very little sense that they live in the same country as any one who is poor.

India too seems to have arrived at a very different design of development and economic relations. In the fifties and sixties or even the seventies, the term `reforms' denoted and chose to describe, unlike in the nineties, a vision of redistributive efforts such as land reforms and an equitable spread of benefits to people. Internationally too, a concern for equity formed part of the spirit of the Third World. The term "reforms" itself acquired a different meaning altogether when a comprehensive orchestration of a new set of policy measures came up around July 1991, on the eve of the Eighth Five Year Plan. Indian economy was globalised, as a part of the process of structural reforms under the umbrella of conditionalities imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Though what sparked off the chain of actions was the perceived crisis in regard to external balance of payments in the year 1991,the package of policy instruments was large and wide and extended far beyond the requirements of resolving the problem of external balances. The external imbalance - it would appear more so in retrospect - was used more as a validating factor and it was, in a sense, what has been described as "Reforms by stealth". The package known as liberalisation or structural reforms or more generally as globalisation included devaluation, fiscal correction, trade reforms, financial sector reforms, deregulation and privatisation - in essence, greater reliance on markets and market signals. Almost simultaneously came the final text of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (popularly known as the Dunkel Text) and later the WTO. It would seem that finally the State yielded to the market, national and global.

Since 1991, there has thus been a conscious effort by the government at the national level - as well as State level - to change the shape and focus of its macroeconomic policies in order to bring them in conformity with the larger programme of structural reforms or globalisation. Indeed, very often, economic policy reforms have tended to postulate globalisation as an end in itself and many public policies have been justified solely on the ground that they lead to or flow from globalisation. As against the consensus in the past that the State should play an active role in the development process and the Constitutional mandates to secure equality and social justice, there has been, in recent years, a swing towards rolling back of the State. If the year 1951, the beginning year of the First Five Year Plan marked the commencement of the era of planning, the year 1991 will represent the beginning of a distinct shift away from planning. As observed in the Eighth Five Year Plan document, the Eighth Plan was a plan for managing the change, managing the transition from a centrally planned economy to market economy. The Ninth Five Year Plan (1997-2002) continued the basic philosophy of the Eighth Plan with private initiative, whether individual collective or community based forming the essence of development strategy articulated in the Plan.

The poor have neither the skills nor the assets to respond to the market signals. Hence markets have very little relevance to them. As observed by Prof Khusro policy makers must understand what this market economy is not - not a competitive economy with healthy competition but economy of monopolistic competition - an oligopoly which bends economy to its purpose. In a country where the distribution of income, resources, and political power are uneven among classes and groups, public policy cannot be left merely to the market signals. The hollowness of market orientation in a poverty dominated economy is obvious, with the poor being virtually outside the market. A market system wholly uncorrected by the institution of justice, sharing and solidarity, makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker; markets as masters of society enrich the rich and pauperise the poor6 .

The withdrawal of State under the cover of ideology of liberalisation from its proactive social role and from affirmative action has also been accompanied by calls for implementation for labour reforms whereby exit policies are put in place to push more and more workers out of the sector where there are at least some security. The regressive labour policy announced in the recent Budget including lay off of workers and legalising contract labour reflect the market orientation of state policy. Globalisation offers no prospect of advantage to the poor and taken along with the shrinking employment in public organised sector diminishes the opportunities further to their disadvantage. Social and economic position in an era of globalisation will be determined by access to the market rather than to the State and those already advanced in the socio economic ladder will be those who derive primary advantage in this situation.
It is however encouraging to note that, of late, there have been some dissenting voices even from those who were generally on the side of the reforms so called. Criticising the WTO agreement - which brought agriculture within its framework for the first time - as inherently unequal among nations, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the renowned agricultural scientist has stressed the need for India to become livelihood secure from being food secure. He observes that seventy percent of our population derive their livelihoods from crop and animal husbandry, forestry and agro forestry inland and marine fisheries and agro processing and agribusiness and eighty percent of our farmers belong to the small and marginal farmer category and therefore livelihood for Indians should be the bottom-line in our trade negotiations and India should press for what he terms as Livelihood Box which will permit us to impose quantitative restrictions where such imports will kill livelihood opportunities for small and marginal farmers and landless agricultural labour as well as those involved in small scale agro-processing and agribusiness activities. The greatest challenge facing us today is the provision of jobs or livelihood opportunities to millions of women and men living below poverty line.

Yet another eminent economist Dr. Arjun Sen Gupta sounds a similar warning on trade and tariffs.

"Take the simple case of India opening up the trade barriers in many consumer goods after April 2001. Consider the case of matches industry which employ a very large number of extremely poor and mainly women workers at very low wages. The industry has not mechanised and is almost certain to be destroyed by foreign competition after 2001. No doubt these are inefficient units and their disappearance will probably increase the country's overall efficiency, however minutely, and consumers would get cheaper matches. But the women who will lose their jobs will starve and probably die if not of hunger then of malnutrition. But there is very little market-related way by which they can be protected or trained up for other jobs. A human rights approach would require first instituting compensatory public policies to protect them before market is opened up".


At the end of five decades after the commencement of the Constitution, there is widespread poverty, exploitation, inequality and unfreedom in the country. The proportion of people below the poverty line - the cut off line between poor and non poor which provides in fact only for bare subsistence - has, according to official estimates, dropped from around 45 percent in 1950 to about 36 percent in 1993-94 and as been assessed very recently, to 26.10 percent of the total population during 1999-2000. Even according to these estimates, around 260 million people are below the poverty line. The acceleration of the aggregate Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is mainly due to the rapid expansion of the services sector, the social significance of which is not free from doubt as a good part of it represents increases in military expenditure and wage increases of Government employees. There has been, on the other hand, unprecedented rise in living standards among privileged classes in recent years. Growth has favoured urban India, organised sector and property owners - against rural India, unorganised sector and wage earners.

The march of development is having different kinds of impact on different sections of our people. It has tended to widen the existing inequalities and create new inequalities. The already marginalised sections, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes are the greatest sufferers in this process. The developmental path is often hurting them and sometimes threatens their very existence7. A staggering number of 30 million people, around 2.5% of the population in the country, have been displaced during five decades since Independence due to different developmental projects and there is as yet no coherent and just rehabilitation policy.

There have also been severe deprivations to the poor resulting from the increasing commercialisation of health and education. Though this would require a separate detailed analysis, the reach and access of the poor to public goods of health and education has been severely compromised and on the other hand, there has been conscious encouragement of the "health care industry" where the rich can avail of health care. The urban and semi-urban areas are also witnessing a spurt of private commercial educational enterprises promising high quality education for those who can afford to pay steep fees. For the poor, there are only poorly equipped and inadequately staffed schools and hospitals.

The expansion in food production makes it possible to guarantee adequate food for all. For a substantial part of humanity, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, the health problems connected with food consumption have ceased to be the result of having too little; instead they stem from having too much. One part of humanity desperately searches for food to eat; another part counts calories and looks for ways for slimming! The persistence of poverty and hunger in many countries in the contemporary world including India is related not merely to a general lack of affluence but also to a substantial, often extreme, inequalities within the society. There is a paradox of mounting food stocks on the one hand and starving millions on the other; paradox of plenty in the midst of poverty. India, today, has over 45 million tonnes of wheat and rice in its godowns but over 250 million children, women and men go to bed partially hungry everyday. The issue of hunger is in substance an issue of equality and social justice. When some people go hungry, it is not food which is in short supply, but Justice. If the conditions of the poor are to improve, a variety of positive interventions will be needed to assist the poor including land restructuring, wage interventions, price interventions, employment generation, equitable share in emerging opportunities and well targeted socio economic programmes, backed by effective implementation of special laws in their favour - not just "safety nets" or "human face". While there is unending scepticism about the efficiency of the State, there is as yet some degree of hope among the poor on the State apparatus to deal particularly with poverty or deprivation. This is especially so in a democracy, where adult franchise and the Constitutional commitments still provide some space for the poor.
But in the emerging scenario, the poor would not only find themselves in a hostile society which shows little consideration for them. While formally, an apparent concern for the poor has often characterised all the plans and policies in the country sometimes due to a genuine humanist concern and often because of enlightened self-interest or survival strategy of those in power, policies for the poor have invariably been the privilege of the rich. A section of India, particularly urban India, is getting increasingly integrated with the west and its consumerist ethos and this more privileged section is immune and insensitive to the problem of the underdogs. The universe of human rights is expanding. But the prospects for the poor appear to be shrinking. It is a result of failure of just not the State but also the democratic framework of institutions to perform. What is a cause for serious concern is not only the present misery but the diminishing hope for the future.

Amartya Sen observed on some occasion, "The design of public services depends in any country on what the powerful groups of that society see as important and imperative. For example, generally infectious diseases tend to receive much more attention than other maladies such as undernourishment do. The battle against infectious diseases has been a success story in the world - eliminating small pox, vastly reducing malaria, cutting down cholera and so on. Even the poor get a lot of attention and support when they have infectious diseases - partly for good humanitarian reasons but also because the possibility of the diseases spreading to others worries the more privileged members of the society. I sometimes wonder whether there is any way of making poverty terribly infectious. If the privileged could catch poverty from the poor they meet in the street, I do not doubt at all that poverty would be eliminated with remarkable speed" 8.

In March 1977 on the eve of the then general elections to Lok Sabha, Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan said, "the India of my dreams is a community in which every individual is dedicated to serving the weak, a community dedicated to Antyodaya, to the well being of the least and the weakest. In short, my vision is of a free progressive and Gandhian India." About a quarter of a century later, the President of India in his Republic Day Address on 25 January 2000, summed up the picture: "Fifty years into our life in the Republic, we find that Justice - social economic and political - remains an unrealised dream for our fellow citizens. The benefits of our economic growth are yet to reach them. We have one of the world's largest reservoirs of technical personnel but also the world's largest number of illiterates. The worlds largest middle class but also the largest number of people below the poverty line and the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition. Our giant factories rise out of squalor; our satellites shoot out from the midst of the hovels of the poor. Not surprisingly there is sullen resentment among the masses against their condition, erupting often in violent forms in several parts of the country. Tragically the growth in our economy has not been uniform. It has been accompanied by great regional and social inequalities. Many a social upheaval can be traced to the neglect of the lowest tiers of the society whose discontent moves towards the path of violence. Dalits and tribals are worst affected by all this… The unabashed vulgar indulgence in conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche has left the underclass seething in frustration. One half of our society guzzles aerated beverages while other has to make do with palmfuls of muddled water. Our three way fast lane of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation must provide safe pedestrian crossings for the unempowered India also so that it too can move towards equality of status and opportunity".

What the distinguished economist Mahbub-ul-Haq said in a celebrated passage in March 1976 twenty five years ago sounds very true even in the year 2001: "A poverty curtain has descended right across the face of our world dividing it materially and philosophically into two different worlds, two separate planets, two unequal humanities - one embarrassingly rich and the other desperately poor. The invisible barrier exists within nations as well as between them… The struggle to lift this curtain of poverty is certainly the most formidable challenge of our time. A part of the struggle is at the international level - to change the patterns of hopeless dependency to new concepts of equality partnership and interdependence. Most of the required changes lie right within the control of the Third World - whether in the restructuring of the domestic political power or in the fashioning of new development styles and strategies or in the search for new areas of collective self-reliance." 9.

I once again thank the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties for giving me the opportunity for delivering this JP Memorial Lecture.


  1. The term Dalit in its wider sense includes all the oppressed. Of late however, it has come to be used as synonymous with Scheduled Castes. I am using the term accordingly in this lecture
  2. This has been referred to in the Twenty Eighth Report of the Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and reported in 1986 Madhya Pradesh Law Journal pp 704-707.

  3. Sylhet district went to Pakistan at the time of partition and is now part of Bangladesh.

  4. A part of the observations in this chapter are based on my earlier lecture Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture at the University of Hyderabad on 29 September 2000.

  5. As brought out even by the Meltzer Commission - the International Financial Institutions Advisory Commission appointed by United States Congress - these institutions over a period of time have been functioning far beyond their original mandates.

  6. This observation was made by Barbara Ward in her Foreword to the "Poverty Curtain: Choices for the Third World" by Mahbub-ul-Haq 1976.

  7. This was mentioned out by the President of India in his Address to the Nation on the eve of the Republic Day 2001.

  8. These observations were made by Amartya Sen in a lecture entitled Poverty Alleviation: Targeting versus Universalism in his Convocation Address at the Management Development Institute India 3 July 1992 (mimeo).

  9. These are the opening sentences of the Preface by Mahbub-ul-Haq to his famous book, Poverty Curtain (1976).Italics have been added. The last two sentences have been rearranged.


  1. Aijaz Ahmad (2000): A Reflection on Our Times: Frontline, February 4, March 3, July 7 and September 1;
  2. Arjun Sen Gupta Dr. (2000) Ninth Dharam Narain Memorial Lecture: Frontline March 2, 2001;
  3. Bremen Jan and Arvind N. Das (2000): Down and Out - Labouring under Global Capitalism, Oxford University Press;
  4. David. C. Korten (1995): When Corporations Rule the World: Kumarian Press;
  5. 5. Dharma Kumar (1992): Caste and Landlessness in South India in The World of Rural Labour in Colonial India Ed Gyan Prakash Oxford University Press;
  6. Dreze Jean and Sen, Amartya (1989) Hunger and Public Action, Oxford University Press;
  7. Elwin Verrier (1964) The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography, Oxford University Press;
  8. Jayaprakash Narayan (1957) From Socialism to Sarvodaya;
  9. Jayaprakash Narayan: Towards Struggle, p 204 cited in Bimal Prasad;
  10. Jayaprakash Narayan (1970): Article in Hindustan Times: 9 August 1970;
  11. Jayaprakash Narayan (1977) Prison Diary: Popular Prakashan Bombay;
  12. Mahbub-ul-Haq (1976): The Poverty Curtain: Choices for the Third World: Oxford University Press;
  13. New York Times (2000): 20 March The Invisible Poor by James Fallows;
  14. Patnaik, Utsa and Dingwaney Manjari (1985) Chains of Servitude, Bondage and Slavery in India: Sangam Books;
  15. Prasad, Bimal (Ed) (1980): A Revolutionary's Quest: Selected Writings of Jayaprakash Narayan: Oxford University Press;
  16. Sachar Rajindar (2000): Environment and the Poor: Mainstream December 23 Annual 2000;
  17. Swaminathan M.S (2001): Livelihood Security must be the Bottomline: Frontline, February 10, 2001.

(S.R. Sankaran, unassuming but strong, humble but firm, retired from the Indian Administrative Service in October 1992. In the course of more than 35 years of work as a civil servant, he held various important assignments in the Central and State Governments including Principal Secretary of Social Welfare Department in Andhra Pradesh, Chief Secretary of Tripura State, and Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development in Government of India. He has been associated with the nationalisation of coal industry in the seventies and with the abolition of bonded labour. His major area of work and concern has been the safeguarding of the rights and the development of the weaker sections of the society, particularly the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Presently at Hyderabad, Shri Sankaran is the Convenor of the Committee of the Concerned Citizens, an independent group of persons endeavoring to mitigate the sufferings of people in the context of the climate of violence in rural Andhra Pradesh, specially in Telangana, arising from Naxalite movement and State action and striving for a long term solution to the social turmoil through enlarging the democratic space and ensuring adherence to human rights norms - General Secretary).