Poverty - the mother of all human rights violations

-- By Rajindar Sachar

Of the many violations of human rights that can be listed, none is worse (but less spoken of in fashionable seminaries on human rights) than poverty -the mother of all human rights violations.

No doubts human rights violations manifest themselves in various forms - brutality of police, or gender injustice, pollution and environmental degradation, social ostracism of the dalits - but
ultimately the answer to all these must be found in our commitment to the elimination of poverty.

The horror of poverty was highlighted in a message given on October 17, in observance of the
International Day of the Eradication of Poverty, by the United Nations Secretary General,
Mr. Kofi Annam : "How many times have we said that it (poverty)was incompatible with human

"But billions of people are still trying to survive on less than Rs. 130 a day, with no drinking
water, health care, or access to education, still denied the jobs that would help them escape
their impoverished state, and thus, still deprived of some of their most basic rights.

During the Cold War human rights were said to be restricted to what we call the political right
of freedom of speech. Association and economic rights were said to be something necessary,
but not a part of human rights. This is a myth.

Fortunately, this myth of conflict between political or economic rights or artificial prioritisation
of such rights in developed or developing countries was exploded when the Vienna Declaration
and Programme of Action at the World Conference on Human Rights(1993) affirmed that human
rights were the birth right of all human beings and their protection and promotion were the first
responsibility of the Government and that all the human rights were universal, indivisible and

Bread and liberty are two sides of the same coin, and deprivation of either must inevitably damage
the fabric of the other. The freedom to agitate for bread, and sustenance to fight for one's
liberties are concomitant.

Freedom of an individual, which is the postulate of human rights, obviously can have no meaning
so long as the poor in the country do not have their economic conditions improved and the
discrimination based on privilege do not become mere memories instead of becoming more
and more aggressive as time passes on. The present situation must cause concern to all human
right activists.

The richest fifth have an income 74 times that of the poorest fifth.

One percent of the wealth of the 20 richest people, or $ 8 billion, could provide universal access
to primary education for a year but no political party is seeking to correct this balance the result
is a denial of the human right to universal education.

The assets of the three of the richest people are more than the combined GNP of the 48 least
developed countries.

In Delhi, nearly one third of the total population lived in Juhggi Jhompri bustees. There is a
shortage of 40 million houses. Those preferring artificial sympathy to the homeless express
helplessness because of the huge outlay of Rs 123,000 crores required for this purpose. But
curiously these very worthies maintain a deafening silence about Rs. 55,000 crores in bad
debts (euphemistically called non performing assets) owed by big business to banks and which
if realised could considerably help the homeless meet their needs.

Many a time one feels distressed by some human rights organisation getting preoccupied with
human rights problems which are more relevant in the European and America context the rights
of homosexuals , the rights of unmarried mothers, the right to abortion or the status of surrogate
mothers - no doubt important aspects of human rights dimension in their social set up. But I do
feel that the protagonists of human rights in developing countries should concern themselves on
a priority basis with the actual realities of oppression of the weak and of discrimination in the
social set up.

The blessing of the government would degenerate in to tyranny unless it is accompanied by a
recognition that there are certain basic rights which are possessed by all the citizens. Though
belivers in human rights must be ever vigilant to resist any onslaught on the civil and political
liberties of the individual, and there can be no compromise on their essentiality, it is necessary
that these rights, so far as developing countries are concerned, must correlate with the
equally important major issue which is also an aspect of human rights, namely, the
development of the economy and the responsibility of the society to feed, clothe, house,
keep its people free from starvation, and to be able to be bring up one's children and
oneself in a decent, healthy environment.

The former South African President , Mr. Nelson Mandela ,speaking at the Heads of the
Non - Aligned Nations Conference held on 2.9.1998 in Durban highlighted the immediate
need to fight poverty when he said: "We have to remark to our common world anew.
The violence we see all around us, against people who are as human as we are, who sit
in privileged positions, must surely be addressed in a decisive and sustained manner. I
speak here of the violence of hunger which kills, of the violence of homelessness which
kills, of the violence of the joblessness which kills, of the violence of the Malaria and
HIV/AIDS which kill of the trade in narcotics which kills."

Unfortunately the solutions being suggested are all an illusion. Thus the much touted
claim by the propagandists of globalisation that it will accelerate progress in developing
countries is belied by the UNDP's Tenth Human Development Report of 1999, which
says that "market dominated globalisation has led to growing marginalisation of poor
nations and people, growing insecurity and growing inequality with benefits acquiring
almost solely to the richest people and countries". HDR 1999 has commented tersely
that "the benefits of globalisation in the past decade have been so unevenly shared
that the very word had come to acquire in certain quarters a pejorative tinge".

Similarly, the World Development Report for 1999- 2000 says that at the start of the new
millennium an estimat3ed 1.5 billion people will subsist on the equivalent of a dollar a day.

About 220 million urban dwellers (13 percent of the developing World's urban population)
lack access to safe drinking water and about twice that number lack access to even the
simplest of the latrines.

In most countries women have neither the right to the home which they were born nor to
the home they live in after marriage. This essential homelessness of women is a major factor
in limiting the valuable contribution women can make towards gaining and retaining a home
and, in turn, in building a society. This critical fact has the effect of perpetuation of gender
inequality and poverty.

A century ago Swami Vivekananda warned the Indian elite that unless they carried the masses
with them in all efforts at national regeneration , no great progress could be made. The neglect
of the masses ...... chronic poverty under which they were held down have been the main cause
of India's degradation . "I call him a traitor who having been educated, nursed in luxury by the
hearts blood of the down trodden millions? A few thousands graduates do not make a nation,
a few rich men do not make a nation".

How sad that even after a century, that reproach by the saintly soul should continue to shame us.

(Rajindar Sachar, is a former President of the PUCL and the former Chief Justice
of Delhi High Court.)

Home | Bulletin Archive