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India: Building a cross-sectoral movement to defend and ensure social services & security for all

Proposing a coalition of social rights movements including Campaigns on food security and nutrition, employment, pension, health care, education

29 July 2014

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Pensions, NREGA, NFSA, including Rations and Maternity Entitlements, Discussion also on Changing Labour Laws, Land Acquisition And Displacement

Jantar Mantar, New Delhi
4th August 2014
10 AM to 4 PM

Dear Saathis,

With a new government in power, in its first parliament session, a number of campaigns around issues that affect the poor and marginalised have decided to come together in order to hold a public hearing in the budget-cum-monsoon session of parliament. To follow up on this decision, the Pension Parishad, the Right to Food Campaign, and the Rashtriya Mazdoor Adhikar Morcha, the JSA and the NAPM invite you to a public hearing on 4th August, 2014. The Public Hearing will focus on Pensions, NREGA, NFSA, including rations and maternity entitlements. It will be held at the Jantar Mantar, New Delhi.

The hearing will also spend some time discussing the changes being made in thelabour laws in favour of the Industry, changing land use and the merciless acquisition of land which is going to have a deep impact on people’s livelihoods, making them socially and economically more vulnerable.

For NREGA, Pensions, NFSA (including rations and maternal entitlements) – we will spend about an hour each giving our testimonies. Following which we will spend about an hour or more on the other issues.

We will invite Members of Parliament and others associated with all these campaigns to participate. We would like at least ten persons to come from each State and national network within each campaign for the hearing, including testimonies. Till now from the confirmations received, we have learnt that the larger mobilisation will be of people from Bihar, Rajasthan and Delhi.

Since the time for testimonies will be very limited, we request you to bringalong as much material as you can in the form of photos, written testimonies reports, etc. Do let us know how many people will be attending. All organisationsand participants will come at their own cost while the campaigns will share the cost of the tent and mike. On the 4th, packed lunch will be provided at a subsidised rate of Rs.20.

On the 5th of August, a meeting of all these campaigns will be organised so that we can build a joint movement across all social sectors in order to strengthen our collective efforts and voices. A note for discussion written by Abhay Shukla of the JSA and of the Right to Life Alliance of Maharashtra is attached. This meeting will take place at Raja Ram Mohan Roy Memorial Trust (Brahmo Samaj) Hall, 12 - Rouse Avenue Lane, (Opp. Gandhi Peace Foundation), New Delhi - 110002.

Since only representatives of different groups and regions from all the campaigns are expected to attend the 5th meeting, we will not make arrangements for accommodation. In case you feel that accommodation is needed on the 4th night, do let us know and we will try to organise accommodation at the Gareebdas Dharamshala near LNJP Hospital.



In solidarity,
Pension Parishad, Right to Food Campaign, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Rashtriya Mazdoor Adhikar Morcha, National Alliance of People’s Movements

Contacts: Shankar Singh 09414003247, Poornima 09422317928, Nikhil 09910421260, Kamayani 09771950248, Sanjay 09810711644, Nalini 07829777737, Arvind 09304238717, Swati 09702701525, Dipa 9650434777, Madhuresh 09818905316, Arundhati 09415022772, Kavita 09351562965, Vandana 0989155245

A note for discussion written by Abhay Shukla of the JSA and of the Right to Life Alliance of Maharashtra

A. The challenge facing social sector movements today
Today despite the claims of our rulers that India is pursuing ‘inclusive growth’, the globalised corporate class has grown tremendously in wealth and power, and is aggressively moving to capture all kinds of natural resources, while the vast majority of people remain deprived of the basic necessities of life.

As we know, due to the ongoing neoliberal onslaught and growing trends of privatisation and weakening of public services, struggles and campaigns have emerged across the country to ensure access to social services and entitlements. These include campaigns for rights to employment, food security, health care, education and social security focused on pension. These have been developing in the broader context of movements against land acquisition and displacement, struggles on various livelihood issues, and opposition to privatisation. The UPA-I government which was supported by Left parties, responded to popular aspirations in a limited form and launched initiatives to provide certain level of social services and entitlements to people. This included NREGA, NRHM, Right to Education act, universalisation of ICDS, and orders to improve delivery of PDS and Mid-day meals in context of the Right to Food Supreme court case. While each of these was characterised by major gaps and policy constraints, certain spaces were opened up for people to demand entitlements, which encouraged mobilisation around social sector rights.

However during the UPA-II period, especially the latter part, hardly any new major social initiatives were launched except for the Food security act, which has been controversial in design and is basically yet to be implemented. The restricted entitlements in Food security act, unwillingness to allocate adequate resources and pay minimum wages in NREGA, freeze on the budget of NRHM, limited resources for implementation of Right to education are all symptoms of a constricted policy framework, which is linked with the current era of ‘fiscal consolidation’.

Now with a ‘Less government’ regime recently coming into power at national level, adequate provision of any of these entitlements seems even more unlikely, and provisioning is likely to be increasingly channelised through private sector based ‘PPP’ mechanisms and cash transfers, rather than any expansion and strengthening of public systems. True to the aphorism ‘Give something to the poor, but only as long as it does not take anything from the rich’, the government has resisted raising additional revenues required for expansion and universalisation of public services, which would require effective taxation of corporations and the private sector. In fact the state has been unwilling even to touch the massive tax exemptions being given to the corporate sector and various business sections, which could have raised substantial revenues for expanding and universalizing social services. Overall rather than being treated as a sphere of social entitlements and rights to be served by robust and accountable public systems, social services are emerging as ‘assured markets’ where the private sector can move in, often with guaranteed support from public funds. At the same time, we have seen recent policy declarations from the newly installed ruling party, declaring that labour laws would be made more corporate friendly, that land acquisition legislation would become more conducive to business interests but less cognizant of the rights of cultivators, and even questioning the need for a law to guarantee employment in rural areas.

We need to address this political context emerging over the last few years, initiated during the later part of UPA-II and likely to be accelerated by the current NDA government, characterised by increasing resistance from the state to ensure even basic social entitlements. Just local protests and symbolic mobilisations are not likely to have a significant impact on this deepening policy framework which is ‘fiscally constrained’, corporate friendly and increasingly ‘people resistant’. In this situation, given the receding of ‘Political will from above’, we need to plan how we can effectively build ‘Political will from below’. The emphasis needs to shift towards reshaping the larger political climate through broad based socio-political mobilisation. In this context, there is need to develop broader socio-political action on certain cross-cutting and common policy concerns related to various social services and entitlements. For this, campaigns and activists working in various sectors today need to combine their efforts and work with progressive political forces and mass movements, to challenge the current policy framework, defending existing entitlements and proposing people-centred policies to expand and actualise these entitlements in universal manner.

B. Existing common policy constraints related to the Social sector
The ‘welfare’ state is expected to ensure for all its citizens certain social services and forms of social security, either free of charge or at highly subsidized rates, in form of universal entitlements or rights that are essential for life. Education, health care, food security and nutrition related services fall in this category. Parallel to these rights are social security measures like basic employment guarantees and pension which should be available for all who require these, delivered by the state or public agencies. These are considered to be universal rights which must be available to all people, irrespective of their capacity to pay – these are entitlements of people basically as citizens and not as consumers. Secondly, these should to be delivered by public agencies or publicly managed systems.

We can term these entitlements as social rights, and we may note that there are some cross cutting features of current policies related to these:

a Targeting and denial of universal access – currently there is some provision of free subsidized services for individually selected ‘BPL’ or ‘Priority’ households, and denial of entitlements to other large sections of people who may also be suffering from significant levels of deprivation and insecurity. This leads to weakening of public services (witness the decline of PDS following introduction of targeting), creation of divisions among the poor and reduction of solidarity, and overall large scale deprivation of major sections of the population. It may be noted that an inevitable consequence of targeting is often introduction of user charges for those sections who are not ‘targeted’, in the Indian situation usually all those who are not ‘BPL’.

b Inadequate and constricted budgets, linked with weakened public delivery systems or programmes –due to the ‘fiscal consolidation’ framework, the level of public funds provided by the state for all these provisions is inadequate and may be shrinking in real terms. Lack of funds is generally given as a pretext for denying universal access, for example the refusal of the government to provide universal or near-universal subsidised foodgrains in the Food security act, on the grounds that it would cost too much. Similar considerations are being stated to justify the unwillingness to provide universal pensions. Inadequate funds for supplementary nutrition as part of ICDS is another example of such constraints. Such inadequate funding is directly linked with weakening of public provisioning systems and unwillingness to substantially expand and improve such systems.

c Privatisation and ‘PPPs’ –many of these services are being privatized, either by active privatisation of existing public facilities, or passive privatisation, where public services are weakened through inadequate funds and poor management, so that people are forced to resort to private providers. We also have so called ‘Public Private Partnerships’ (PPPs) where public funds are handed over to private operators, including large scale health insurance schemes. Cash transfers instead of provision of food items may be regarded as another form of privatisation of provisioning. In all these contexts public systems are weakened, accountability of private providers remains non-existent or very weak, quality of services tends to further deteriorate, and corruption along with misuse of public funds tends to proliferate.

d Lack of effective systems for accountability, community control, participatory planning and grievance redressal– due to failure of political accountability and also internal accountability within the system, today public services often do not work effectively, and are clouded by widespread corruption. The consequences are insensitive and often inadequately functional services at ground level, major siphoning off of resources (for example the scams related to supply of kerosene and other rationed items), inappropriate planning and design of programmes and endemic corruption at all levels, which is generally coordinated from the topmost levels of power. Hence we need to demand mechanisms for direct accountability to communities and multi-stakeholder accountability bodies, including community based groups and civil society organisations, which would be operationalised from local to district and state levels, to ensure that various public systems function in a much more responsive and effective manner. This requires well defined mechanisms and processes, where we can draw upon experiences like Community monitoring of health services (example of Maharashtra) and Social audit of NREGA (example of Andhra Pradesh), along with effective grievance redressal mechanisms. Parallel to this is the need for development of effective participatory planning for responsive implementation of PDS, including district level procurement based on local crops, and appropriate participatory planning of NREGA work related to local agricultural and social requirements.

e Precarious condition of frontline service providers – Another feature of the neoliberal policy framework is refusal to expand the regular workforce in the social sector, where adequate skilled humanpower is crucial. Hence we have large numbers of ASHAs, Anganwadi workers, ‘Shiksha karmis’ and other contractual or informal workers who are relied upon to deliver services, but who lack job security, adequate wages and social security. Public services which are based on insecure and inadequately compensated frontline workers are bound to remain inadequately implemented.

Obviously this policy framework for social services and entitlements needs to be located in the wider context of neoliberal policies, characterised by ongoing privatisation and promotion of the corporate sector, especially related to control of natural resources such as land, minerals, water, forests etc.

C. Discussing a shared campaign on universal social rights, to challenge and reshape the overall policy framework

We have briefly discussed the dominant policy framework which imposes serious constraints on people’s access to universal social provisions, and some major common challenges that prevail relating to practically all of these services and entitlements. We would argue that this is related to the larger political dispensation which places profits above people, and values the benefit of corporations above the needs of communities. While existing issue based and sectoral networks and campaigns definitely need to continue to demand specific improvements in services, it is obvious that in addition, a larger combined socio-political effort is required to challenge and change the broader policy framework.

Given this entire background, existing campaigns and movements in the social sector, various kinds of mass organisations, organisations of unorganised sector workers and trade unions, political parties and groups, social movements, rights based civil society organisations and active citizens who are concerned about social services and entitlements need to come together and discuss such a possible combined, large scale and sustained movement to strongly challenge this policy framework, while raising and publicising a range of people-centred demands and proposals. This campaign might proceed simultaneously through both local mobilisations and coordinated state or national level campaign processes and actions.

While some organisations may have a ‘core interest’ in particular issues or sectors (e.g. food security or employment rights or health), in this campaign we propose to focus on cross-cutting demands which are relevant for all social services and entitlements, and hence we would seek to develop a shared understanding and commitment to addressing all of these in a combined manner. Therefore such a campaign would not just be an ‘arithmetical aggregate’ of specific demands in each sector. Rather all participant organisations would be expected to appreciate the common concerns and entire set of demands, while working on the cross-cutting themes that are relevant for all services and entitlements.

Generally speaking, in continuation of healthy democratic traditions, the processes for developing and organising this campaign must be democratic and inclusive, involving collective decision making based on consensus. There needs to be adequate space for differences and debate, yet despite any ideological differences, the attempt would be to focus on planning and implementing commonly agreed actions.

As a first step, some activists belonging to the Right to Food campaign, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and National Alliance of People’s Movements are taking the initiative to convene a broader meeting of activists involved in various campaigns and movements on 5th August 2014 at Delhi. The possibility of building such a broader coalition for social sector rights would be discussed in all its aspects, and based on the understanding that emerges through collective deliberations, various campaigns may further discuss these ideas within their networks and might formally think of coming together to form such an action platform, which appears to be the need of our times.


Possible cross-cutting and overarching demands to be raised by the movement to ensure the right to social services and social security for all:

1. Ensure substantial increase in public spending on social services and social security.

Currently expenditure on the social sector as percentage of GDP in Thailand is 13%, in South Africa it is 15% and in Venezuela it is 23%. In contrast, combined spending by central and state governments on the social sector as a proportion of GDP in India is just around 7%. We demand that this should be at least doubled as a proportion of GDP to around 15% in the medium-term. This would include doubling of total budgets (central + state governments) as proportion of GDP for education, health care, food security and employment rights in the near future, and raising substantial public funding required to provide pension for all.

While the government claims that raising such substantial additional public funding for social services and social security is financially unviable, it needs to be kept in mind that on the other hand the state is reluctant to tax the corporate sector and the rich; currently taxation levels in developed countries are in the range of 25 to 50% of GDP, while in India this is only about 17% of GDP. Further the state is heavily subsidising the corporate sector in various forms, and if such subsidies to the corporate sector are withdrawn, this would make available substantial additional funds for the social sector. For example in 2012 – 13, tax waivers of 1,13,000 crores have been given to the corporate sector and rich sections of the population. During 2013-14, the quantum of ‘taxes foregone’ amounted to a whopping Rs. 5,73,000 crores, of which a significant proportion could have been claimed by the state and used to finance basic services and entitlements. At the same time, natural resources are being handed over to private companies at extremely discounted rates, for example during approval of contracts for exploiting coal resources to large companies, due to massive under-pricing there has been an estimated loss of 1.86 lakh crores to the public exchequer which would amount to about 2% of the GDP! Similarly today massively discounted sale of shares of public sector companies is being carried out by the government, leading to loss of public resources.

It is obvious that terminating major handouts to the corporate sector, and increasing the levels of direct taxation focussed on the rich, could substantially increase the funds available with the state, which could be used for providing essential social services and social security to all. Hence we demand that the current pro-corporate and pro-rich policy regime must be transformed and replaced by a framework that ensures higher levels of taxation on the corporate sector and better-off sections, and these additional revenues should be spent on the social sector on a priority basis. This may involve compulsory earmarking of a substantial proportion of central and state budgets for social services and social security. Handing over of natural resources to corporate houses at discounted rates must be brought to an end, instead there should be long-term sustainable planning for use of these resources, and whatever revenues are generated should be prioritised for supporting the social sector.

2. All forms of targeting and constriction of entitlements to social services must be terminated, and all entitlements must be made universal.
Free health care, education, water for domestic use and highly subsidised food security must be made available to all without any official demands to fulfill certain preconditions or present various kinds of ‘cards’. No one should be excluded from access to social services and protection by social security. This would include universalisation of food security including PDS without any form of targeting, universal free and quality education for all up to the age of 18 years, and provision of pension including all those working in the unorganised sector, in genuinely universal manner.

3. Stop all forms of privatisation, contractualisation and weakening of the public systems which provide social services. These systems must be strengthened and substantially expanded to provide services for all.

This includes terminating various forms of semi-privatisation and countering current proposals that public services should be forced to function according to ‘market logic’. All contractual workers carrying out work of regular nature in the social sector must be employed on a regular basis. The working conditions of front-line staff must be improved, and all vacant posts must be filled promptly in a transparent manner. Public systems providing social services must be internally democratised, with involvement of social sector employees in the decision making process linked with their capacity building. Decision making which is currently over-centralised and often prone to influence by the corporate and private sector, must be made more decentralised, transparent and accountable.
Handing over large scale public funds to private providers in the name of so-called ‘PPPs’ should be stopped. Where absolutely necessary, with application of public norms and public logic, based on the criterion that the public system should not be replaced or weakened, rather its capacity should be strengthened, there may be insourcing of specific services through transparent processes and with effective mechanisms for direct accountability to the people availing of the services.
Unregulated proliferation of the private sector in social services has a distorting influence even on public systems. Therefore all private and ‘charitable’ providers (such as in education and health care) must be effectively socially regulated, based on adopting an overall direction of progressive socialization of these providers.
Working conditions and emoluments of frontline service providers in the social sector must be improved, contractual employment should be converted into more secure forms of employment, rights of such providers must be protected, and they should be actively involved in democratic processes for accountability and participatory planning of services.

4. Generalise community based monitoring, social audit and similar processes at all levels of the system, to ensure that all social services are made effectively accountable to people. This should be integrated with participatory planning mechanisms.
The principle that ordinary people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of various social services, must be actively involved in monitoring the services, and these services must be made effectively accountable to people, should be widely accepted. Community based monitoring of health services in Maharashtra and Social audit of NGREA in Andhra Pradesh are experiences which have yielded promising results, which could be further built upon. Such participatory monitoring should be universalized for various social services, and mechanisms to ensure people-centred accountability of even higher levels of decision making in public systems, including State and national level Departments and Ministries, must be adopted as a policy. This should be combined with systems for participatory planning of social services like health care, education, PDS as well as implementation of NREGA and other schemes. Mass organisations, community based organisations, civil society groups and local elected representatives must be actively involved in the designing and operationalizing of such systems for community monitoring and social audit of all social services and entitlements.

5. Various policy measures must be adopted to ensure improved and expanded content of services, improved implementation of programmes.
Provision of good quality public services is a highly effective means of reducing social inequities. However today often public social services are not of adequate quality and may not be addressing the full range of people’s needs. To transform this situation, it is necessary to ensure that these services are significantly expanded and upgraded in terms of content, and are delivered in a responsive manner. For example the PDS system should make available not only adequate amounts of foodgrains, but also pulses, local cereals including millets, domestic fuel and various essential items of consumption. Provision of good quality education to all is a powerful means of reducing social inequities. Hence quality of education needs to be upgraded in all public schools, so that it is child-centred and enjoyable, not unnecessarily burdensome, and is facilitated by well-equipped schools and libraries with playgrounds and other facilities. The system of education must promote values of equity, the curriculum and teaching methods need to be improved, and quality education should lead to quality outcomes in terms of development of each child’s capacities and values. Implementation of NREGA works must be made relevant and specific to the agricultural and social requirements of each area and must promote local agrarian development, rather than being limited to traditional activities like road building.

Review of key policies in each sector must be carried out through broad based social consultative processes; these could bring in modified people-oriented policies and responsive frameworks necessary to ensure adequate quality and appropriate content of services (e.g. effective medicine procurement policy, expanding range and quantity of items to be provided through PDS with local procurements, curriculum reform and teacher reorientation in education sector, modified policy for child nutrition moving away from packaged Take-home rations etc. etc.).

6. As part of universal provisioning, it needs to be specifically ensured that various oppressed and marginalised social groups such as women, dalits, adivasis and minority communities can definitely access quality social services. For this, special provisions, monitoring and appropriate norms will need to be ensured.

It is various oppressed social sections who have been historically deprived, who have the greatest need for social services and security, however they are often excluded or their needs are not effectively addressed. Hence as part of the universal policy framework, it must be ensured that various social services would definitely be made accessible for these social groups, hence keeping this focus in mind appropriate norms and criteria would be developed to review the delivery of services, and their organisations and communities would be actively involved in monitoring and planning of services and entitlements.