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Rights approach, the Right approach

Fundamental Rights are guaranteed by the constitution for the citizens of a country. Human Rights transcend boundaries and are universally applicable to all human beings. And now we hear of rights based legislations. Are we heading in the right direction?

As students of civics we read about our Fundamental Rights – rights to equality, right to freedom, right to life, and so on – and the civil liberties and human freedoms these rights entail for every citizen.The concept is linked to the evolution of democracy,from the time of the ancient city of Vaishali (now, in Bihar, India), Cyrus the Great of Persia and the Greek city-states in 5th and 6th Century BCE, to the writing of the Magna Carta in the early 13th Century. Some of the milestones, along the way, were the ‘Declarations’ of Rights that came from England, France and the US, emergence of the trade union (after the industrial revolution) and the suffragette movements (Finland became the first country, in 1906, to give the right to vote to women) and the wave of decolonization's – and nascent independent nations wanting to chart their own course – in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

After the horrors and human suffering of the two World Wars the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In its preamble, the Declaration condemns all violation of human rights that, “ … (outrage) … the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want...All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”The two world wars and the formation of the Soviet Bloc led to a physical as well as ideological redrawing of the world map. The ensuing displacement of populations and the human rights violations, in its wake, led to the emergence of advocacy organizations like Amnesty International.

For a declaration on Child Rights, however, the world had to wait till 1989. When the Convention on the Rights of the Child was articulated on the global stage in the late 80s, the ideas were slow to percolate to India, slow to reach the millions of people who struggle to rear their children – babies, toddlers, school going children –and even slower to receive affirmative action from the State.Since children cannot be expected to fight for their rights, especially in the early, vulnerable years, surely there must be those who are responsible to fulfill these rights. Would it be parents, communities, teachers, public servants or employers of parents? Or all of the above?

Mobile Creches believes that in the case of young children, especially those living in poverty, the answer would have to lie with the state. The Constitution of our Country 'which we have given to ourselves' has appointed the President, the Prime Minister and Ministers and all those elected to office, to swear by its Directive Principles and Fundamental Rights when they take office and are obligated to fulfill them.Parents are certainly the primary stakeholders responsible for the well being of their children. But it is the state and all its agencies – the Duty Bearers – who are responsible for putting in place resources, infrastructure, systems and programmes– that provide quality services, accessible to all.The dereliction of this ‘duty’ on their part has reached crisis proportions.

It is exactly this failure of implementation – coverage and quality – that has led, in the last decade, to a spate of public interest litigations and campaigns for rights-based legislations. India's Supreme Court judges have increasingly demanded action and they have typically done so by redefining economic and social rights as fundamental and legally enforceable. In a few cases they have prescribed specific action: In 2001, in response to a PIL on hunger deaths, the Supreme Court demanded the universalization of anganwadis to all hamlets and villages with a population of 1000 or more, and the provision of a hot lunch to every Indian schoolchild.

The legislation's include the Right to Information (RTI, 2005), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA 2005) and the Right to Education (RTE, 2009). Rights-based schemes appeal to politicians because they get you votes. And skeptics will grumble that it still doesn’t put money on the table and food in hungry mouths. But it is, as the Economist says, “ … the expression of a young democracy's hopes … India's crusading judges sometimes take on too much, but they have often held the government to account—and Indians like them for it.”

The Rights approach, therefore, is about citizenship in the social, political and economic processes of a country. It is about participation in the kind of development, which demands transparency of actions and accountability through performance.MC believes that once citizens understand that social goods are an entitlement, not a privilege, they will demand them. This will in turn force the state to perform where it has previously failed and improve the administrative and social system that has failed its citizens, especially the youngest.

All of this takes time. And exactly like John Maynard Keynes, the economist who prescribed short-term fiscal solutions as a way out of the Great Depression of the 1920s, people living in poverty will tell you that, “in the long run we are all dead”. So while we put the rights based irons in the fire we need to keep chipping away at the rot in the system, keep our ears to the ground and do what we can to make current schemes and programmes work.

Every child has the right to a world where s/he can grow up healthy, play, learn and feel safe. And every adult – parent, teacher, businessman, worker and policy maker - must own up to the responsibility to create such a world.

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