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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : Atrophy of institutions?

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Tuesday, May 15, 2001


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Atrophy of institutions?

WE CAN justifiably feel proud that our democracy is working unlike that of many other Third World countries which, after gaining independence from former imperial powers, have slipped into military rule, dictatorships or autocracies. The resilience of our democratic institutions is demonstrated by the fact that we have successfully held 13 Lok Sabha elections and several more Assembly elections in our States. Our institutions - the Presidency, Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive - are working but signs of strain and discord can be seen. Although, India is a functioning democracy, increasingly, it is not well governed. In the words of the social scientist Atul Kohli: ``The evidence of eroding political order is everywhere. Personal rule has replaced party rule at all levels... and the civil and police services have been politicised.''

The rowdy and occasionally violent behaviour both inside and outside Parliament and State Assemblies is a matter of shame and disquiet. This distressing aspect of modern democratic processes prevents the legislature from carrying out its duties.

Political scientists have offered different reasons for the crisis of the state in modern India. Where Rajni Kothari talks of a process of atrophy of democratic institutions, Ashish Nandy and T. N. Madan put the responsibility for this situation on the imposition of alien western institutions by the elite of India. As a result there are signs of discord and perhaps fatigue to be seen in most of the organs of the state - Parliament, the Executive, the Judiciary and the civil services.

The Judiciary

Take the case of the Supreme Court. It has recently removed the stay on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam despite the fact that the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has staged massive rallies and dharnas under the leadership of Medha Patkar, has been highlighting the tragic displacement of millions of people from their ancestral homelands. Unfortunately, there has hardly been any attempt at negotiation with the tribals and other affected people to minimise their suffering.

In another case, that of displacement of polluting industries from out of Delhi, the concern has been only for pollution that is likely to result in Delhi but not in the areas where these industries are to be shifted. The Supreme Court is apparently also not concerned with the loss of thousands of jobs in the process. Many industrialists would find it more economic to close down their units rather than shift them to distant and unfamiliar areas whose viability would first need to be established.

While the judiciary has been more than active, it has yet to put its own house in order. There is a large degree of misuse of the legal process leading to prolonged litigation and delays in getting justice. The delays will result in ordinary people losing faith in the judiciary and may lead them to resort to extra- judicial measures for seeking justice. The Union Minister for Law, Justice and Company Affairs, Mr. Arun Jaitley, has admitted to 3.4 million pending cases in the High Courts and 21,600 cases in the Supreme Court at the end of 2000. Part of the problem is the shortage of judges, but as Mr. Jaitley himself has admitted, merely appointing additional judges will not be enough. Court procedures need to be simplified and Mr. Jaitley has suggested amendments to the Civil Procedure Code (CPC) and other measures to expedite the disposal of cases.

Not only the judiciary, but also many other institutions are in peril. As the noted constitutional expert A. G. Noorani has observed:

``India's federalism has suffered grievously at the hands of successive governments at the Centre, regardless of their political complexion and with uniform disdain for constitutional norms and values, or scruples for political morality. The office of the Governor of the States has been systematically abused for political ends by those in power in New Delhi. The office of the Chief Minister of States is also afflicted by the same abuse. Very many Chief Ministers owe their office not so much to the confidence of their Legislature Party as to the bounty of the party's high command.''

Sovereignty is the sine qua non of a nation state but today, thanks to multilateral agencies like the WTO and the World Bank this feature is severely constrained. Whether it is in devaluation of the currencies or in reducing the subsidies in agriculture, the states are dictated to by these agencies. And at the behest of the WTO, the contemporary states, especially of the Third World, are compelled to allow free flow of imports and to lift QRs on them despite the ruinous impact on their manufacturing and farming.

Unbridled liberalisation

As a result of poorly functioning institutions and conditions imposed by the international agencies, the state of the economy, education, employment, food, nutrition and health services is in bad shape. Almost 40 to 45 per cent of the population is deprived of these basic necessities. The Constitution of India unambiguously provides for economic and social justice in many Articles but their implementation is extremely unsatisfactory and inequities persist. In fact, it can be almost conclusively shown that the unbridled liberalisation of the economy is responsible for the large-scale inequalities to be seen in the country.

RAVI P. BHATIA

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