DALKI SAHI, India — Three years ago, a group of parents in a remote tribal hamlet handed local officials a petition demanding a new school. Their children had to walk nearly two miles through farmland, forest and creeks to reach the closest government school although, they argued, India’s new Right to Education law entitled them to something closer.
But while the new law may have stirred the people of Dalki Sahi in the eastern state of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) into action, they still do not have a new school. Across India, amid questions about whether the government can really deliver, many are asking whether the law was merely a well-intentioned promise dressed up as a legally enforceable fundamental right.
In the past eight years, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has enacted a set of laws that give Indians the right to peer through official files and to get schools, rural jobs, forest land and, most recently, food at rock-bottom prices. Some call it India’s silent rights-based revolution.
The laws signal a radical shift in the way the government delivers social services — telling people they have a right to them and urging Indians to stop waiting passively and instead force the usually apathetic bureaucracy to perform. Advocates of the approach say the laws are slowly altering the inherently feudal, top-down relationship between the government and its citizens.
The government boasted about the new rights in an advertising campaign this year, and members of Singh’s Congress party say they plan to use the laws in catchy slogans in the national election scheduled for next year.
Singh’s government, battling inflation and a string of corruption allegations, passed the latest rights-conferring law this month, guaranteeing more than 800 million Indians cheap food grains and adding more than $6 billion to the annual food subsidy bill. The new law has roiled economists because it comes at a time when India’s economic growth has been the slowest in a decade, the rupee is at a historic low compared with the U.S. dollar and foreign investors are no longer lining up.
Critics say that many of the new rights are simply a euphemism for expensive handouts meant to please voters. Others say that if bureaucratic attitudes and efficiency are not improved, the rights are mere window dressing on a broken social-services system.
“In other countries, they actually provide food, jobs and pension. In India, we talk about mere rights to all of them. Who are we fooling?” said Surjit Bhalla, chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging-market advisory firm in New Delhi. “All these so-called rights amount to throwing away money and breeding corruption. These rights are nothing but populism and welfare.”
But activists say the new laws are changing Indians’ relationship with the government and making them more assertive, even if there are no instant results.
“People are no longer going with folded hands and groveling in front of officials,” said Ranjan Kumar Mohanty of People’s Culture Center, or Pecuc, a nonprofit group working on rural community development in Odisha. “They are demanding their rights, not asking the government for charity.”
Phulomani Baskey is a 35-year-old mother of two school-age children in Dalki Sahi. “For so long, we just accepted it as our fate that there was no school nearby,” she said. “But when we heard that the government has guaranteed to build one if we demanded, we decided to write letters.” She said the village’s demand “is stuck in the endless paper-and-pen process of bureaucrats.”
On a recent day, only six of the 45 children in Dalki Sahi walked to school, four them barefoot. The school they reached after their long walk is woefully short of teachers and classrooms, and it had no girls toilet.
“Since the new law, I have received dozens of such demands for new schools and improvements in existing schools,” said Dharanidhar Das, a school inspector. “It scares us when ordinary people walk in talking about their rights. We have to respond. There is no running away now. But it cannot happen overnight.”
In March, education officials from several state governments, including Odisha, wrote to New Delhi saying they did not have enough resources to build new schools or improve existing ones and asking for more time or the easing of some requirements as they try to implement the three-year-old law.
India’s new push toward entitlements began with the Right to Information law, passed in 2005, which increased government accountability.
“The Right to Information law gave people a solid taste of what a right is,” said Nikhil Dey, an advocate of India’s rights program and a member of a farm and factory workers group. “. . . Now the genie is out of the bottle.”
In the past three years, 14 states have also enacted laws that guarantee citizens a right to timely public services.
Varun Gauri, a senior economist at the World Bank in Washington, said India’s move toward guaranteeing new social rights is part of a growing global trend visible across countries such as Brazil, Colombia, South Africa and Indonesia.
“By saying you own these rights, what you are really saying is that there is someone in this vast bureaucracy who is accountable, who has an obligation,” Gauri said. “It avoids the dole language by saying people have dignity. People are not saying, ‘Give me this.’ Instead they are saying, ‘Make it a fair playing field so that I have a chance.’ ”
Singh’s Congress party has discovered that the rights-based approach also appears to bring political benefits.
The popular rural job law that Singh launched eight years ago guarantees 100 days of public work a year to anyone who demands it. The law set a standard minimum wage across India, kept people from slipping into poverty and — most importantly, political analysts say — helped the Congress party win a second term in the 2009 elections.
But critics say the program has created an industrial labor shortage and made people unproductive by giving them easy money for unskilled manual work. Last year, the government spent more than $4.9 billion on the program.
Some Congress party members privately say the new food security law will also be an election game-changer.
But some rights advocates are cautious.
“Passing these rights laws is politically attractive,” Dey said. “But it is also tricky because it can come back to bite you if you just raise people’s expectations without delivering efficiently.”