Andre Beteille: A Right for Every Season

Fifty year after Independence, India’s record as shown by some of  basic social indicators of development is dismally poor. The spotlight is now on failures on the front for elementary education, and there has been much public recrimination. Educationists have blamed the politicians, and politicians have blamed each other. There is something odd about all this. Every time the advocates of universal elementary education seem to argue as if it is the first time its great significance for the health and well-being of the nation has been discovered.

It has rarely been doubted that the spread of education is a good thing for both individual and collective well-being. At least the makers of the Constitution were free from such doubt. Article 45 in the Directive Principles of State Policy urged the state to provide ‘within a period of ten years from the commencement of  this Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age for fourteen years’. The Constitution has been in force for nearly fifty years, yet elementary education is even now far from being universal.

Would it have been better if elementary education had been made a fundamental right instead of being made a matter of state policy? There would be no doubt be some difference. There would be a greater sense of urgency, at least in some quarters, though perhaps not in all. There would be also a greater pressure on the courts to enforce the right created by the law. Some judges would welcome this as an opportunity to enhance the social well-being, but other would probably be alarmed by the prospect of the courts having to cope with unresolved and perhaps unresolvable litigation. Judges now appear to be less alarmed by the arrears of pending cases than they might have been a few decades ago.

It is simply not true that the people of India or even the ruling classes are opposed to all changes. There is widespread desire for change and betterment among all sections of society, all communities and all professions. Everybody wants to get to the end of the rainbow, but not many worry about how to get there. Economists seek to create their utopias through planning, politicians by legislations, and social activists through empowerment. They all can give detailed and eloquent accounts of that the utopia will be like once it has been created. But they find it tiresome to dwell too closely on the obstacles the lie on the way. Perhaps in our social environment these obstacles are so pervasive and so oppressive that the mind naturally turns away from them. In the event, people tend to alternate between being utopian and being fatalistic, or fluctuate between a moralizing and a cynical perception of the world.

India has a complex, divided and hierarchal society in which life chances are very unevenly distributed among individuals and groups. Although there are many currents of change, they do not all flow in the same direction or work towards the same end. Societies are governed by their own laws of change; they do not change simply because change seems desirable; and they cannot be changed according to mere will and pleasures of individuals. This is not to argue against conscious or directed change, without which no society can move forward in modern world. It is only to draw attention to the obvious fact that human intervention in social processes and institutions has unintended consequences. By their nature, these consequences — of economic planning, of social legislation or of political mobilization —  can never been fully foreseen. But more thought can be given to them than is usually done by the advocates of radical break with the past.

The first two of three decades following Independence were marked by an enormous enthusiasm for the transformation of society through economic planning. If economics was the imperial science anywhere, it was in India in fifties and sixties. In Delhi, the economists maintained a high-profile, and they were to be seen everywhere: in the universities, in research institutes, and in the government. They were brilliant, articulate and highly skilled technically, but they also overestimated their own capacities as brilliant intellectuals sometimes do when they are gripped by a social mission. Some of the best among them became victim of their own fantasies about the transformative powers of economic models.

Planning models are still important and useful, but the days of their glory are over. Now the spotlight is on ‘rights’ rather than on ‘models’, and judges, advocates and jurists are joined by social scientists and social activists who all demand the creation and expansion of rights: the right to education, the right to health care and the right to work. But the belief in transformative power of rights may turn out to be no less delusive than the belief in the potency of planning models.

When people do not have schools and the school teachers to give them a decent education — or, for that matter, any kind of educationn — it will be a small consolation for them to have right to education. The government can not doubt take satisfaction from giving people at least something: the right, if not the real thing. It is like the French queen Marie-Antoinette’s observation on a clamouring Paris mob. When told that the mob was clamouring for bread, she is reported to have said: ‘The don’t have bread? Well, let them eat cake.’

Responsible judges and jurists should surely tell our legislators and our public that rights must not be created unless they can be enforced. It is not enough to create rights that can be enforced only in some cases or even in many cases. Conditions must exists for their enforceability in most if not all cases. Let it be not said about the Indian legal system that it has the most rights and the fewest sanctions. Nothing can be more corrosive of the laws and Constitutions than to take rights lightly.

Political theorists since the time of de Tocqueville have known that what contributes even more than the laws of nation to the working of democracy are its customs. It is vastly easier to replace old laws by new ones that to replace malign customs by benign ones. Good laws certainly help to change customs, but the creation of laws that can not be enforced, that are disparaged and disregarded, does more harm than good to society.

— Andre Beteille, January 28, 1999, Times of India

About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
This entry was posted in Andre Beteille, Democracy, Education, Policies and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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