Activists are under attack in India. Columns such as this one on how misguided activism has created a “mess (that) will take some time to be sorted out” are not uncommon in the popular press these days. Part of this is mainstream journalists trying to make sense of a field where the motivations and incentives of the primary actors is hard to fathom. It is far easier to paint everyone as disruptive and regressive.
I am not an activist myself. However, the space for constructive activism in India is one that I care about. I will therefore, attempt to present a contrarian argument, advocating for greater space for activism in India.
It is still fashionable to present growth and development as a dichotomy. This is at a time when income inequality qualifies as possibly the biggest threat to India’s future. An aspiring global super power, we have the unenviable burden of literally hiding our poor behind make-shift screens every time we organise an international event or an important dignitary visits us. Many of those who are left out of the growth story also simultaneously suffer from disadvantageous social status and lack basic capabilities, due to an inability to access quality education, healthcare and the like. The experience of the past seven decades has shown that neither the state not the market on their own can empower citizens to exercise “individual preferences” that will pull them out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
In this scenario, a heterogeneous and vibrant civil society provides a platform to the disadvantaged to engage with both the state and the market from a position of collective strength. Activists are an important part of civil society, as they focus on challenging policies (whether of the state or the market) that disregard the interests of the poor. This challenge sometimes takes the form of disparate protests against dams or industrial projects and at other times, as part of a sustained battle for essential citizen rights.
However, activists are often misunderstood and even challenged on grounds of legitimacy in an electoral democracy. Yes it is true that activists are usually non-governmental actors and often do not fight and win elections, but using that argument to question the legitimacy of activism is a myopic view of democracy. The space for activists, as well as the larger set of civil society actors is integral to the health of a system checks and balances that contribute to good governance through deepening citizen engagement beyond the periodic democratic ritual of elections.
Many of the causes advocated by activists in India are now being dismissed as regressive, wasteful and anti-growth. Critics continue to carp against the Land Acquisition Bill, happily disregarding evidence that shows that 45% of the land held by state-level industrial development corporations have not been allotted for any industrial activity. Those who term the National Food Security bill as a wasteful scheme disregard the evidence of tonnes of grains rotting in our public warehouses. Opponents of MGNREGA don’t bother with inconvenient evidence that shows that there have been a series of improvements that have reduced leakages or that the scheme is highly inclusive where implemented properly.
Finally, on to the question of implementation. Activists would be the first in acknowledging the serious administrative capacity constraints in the system. These capacity constrains ultimately mean that the losers are the same citizens in whose names many welfare schemes are rolled out. Trapped in a downward spiral of poverty and deprivation, dependent on leaky government implementation machinery, they continue to be fed the same promises year after year. The longer-term battle therefore, is not just to secure more rights for citizens, but to also simultaneously, strengthen our institutions to regulate, adjudicate and implement more effectively. The space for activism, in all its different hues, therefore needs to not only be protected, but expanded so long as the state is either incapable or unwilling to protect the interests of its citizens.
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Photograph by Ekta Parishad via Wikimedia Commons