The higher judiciary in india are given to quoting pronouncements of American judges and jurists,to the chagrin of Hindu revivalists who consider this an undesirable deference to Western ideas of law.They would prefer references to ancient Indian Dharma shastras like Manu Samhita to give a native stamp to our laws.
But honorable judges remained unfazed,leaving the passionate nativitists fuming.As far as questions of civil rights are concerned this was an apt response as in such matters both the American and the Indian constitutitutions draw on the same jurisprudential heritage.But on the question of social justice the Indian constitution deviates significantly from the Western model.
This may be partly traced to the influence of Gandhian ideas as his influence on the Indian political elite was at its peak then. But on the question of labour rights the Constitution seems firm and clear enough, thus enabling the passage of the most progressive labour laws which were only recently overturned. The 48th chapter of the Constitution entitled DIRECTIVE PRINCIPLES OF STATE POLICY has an unmistakable socialist character.Thus the Constitution itself is a meeting point of contending classes with different claims on the powers assigned by it.
Hence the honourable judges,while invoking its foundational principles are duty bound to uphold this concept of social justice and that of legitimate rights of the working class and the poor.But on certain occasions they seem completely unaware of such concepts.Then unconsciously they overlook the balance of class interests embodied in our Constitution.
Consider their recent outburst against the massive and frequent conferment of freebies and hand-outs by Centre and State governments at times putting resources of the government under severe strain. CJI seems to have expressed it by proposing a nation-wide body of tax-payers to put a stop to such financial profligacy by monitoring such vote- catching wasteful generosity.
This is indeed an urgent response provoked by reckless extravagance of parties in government seeking to outbid one another by showering dollops of such gifts out of a depleted treasury.Such largesse does not create jobs nor does it tone up the economy.But it cannot be laid down categorically that all such economic relief is undeserved and wasteful.At the time of introduction of the neoliberal model in our economy and the start of a radical makeover of the economic system according to its tenets,it was already known that this transition brings in its wake terrible poverty for large segments of the population, precipitate fall in employment and considerable social distress.The HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT of UNDP of 1998 prepared by Mahbubal Haque gave clear warning about such perils as well as about exponential rise in crimes and anti-social behaviour.But hosannahs to its positive potential was the rule in India in those days.Still,the Government of India did talk about the need for a ‘safety net’ and the Manmohan Singh did introduce the MGNREGA.Incidentally and curiously,the Centre has been curtailing its MGNREGA budget over recent years while allowing state governments to shower such freebies on the people in season and out.
Such a propensity to squander public money naturally provokes disgust and outrage.The SC shares such feelings and is disturbed enough to propose such a drastic measure.But such a measure will require constitutional support.The Constitution does not provide for such a supervisory body apart from CAAG to watch over and audit such expenditure voted by legislature and disbursed by the executive.
However the question is moot as to who will find a place in the proposed tax payers’ council.It will unequivocally include payers of direct taxes,right from the fabled corporate super-rich to the most insignificant office-worker and the owner of the corner-shop.Should they alone or people elected by them alone meet the criteria of a tax-payer?What about the vast numbers of street vendors, desperate housewives, struggling farmers and people like them who pay taxes on matchbox,salt, sugar,milk,vegetables and nowadays umpteen fees for securing numerous government services?Will they too qualify to send representatives to the proposed tax-payers’ body? What about Trade Unions and farmers’ bodies?Their opinion may differ markedly from those in highest income brackets.
More.Do they alone receive the benefit of state largesse?What about lakhs of crores of rupees handed down to the corporates year after year as ‘revenue forgone’? There is not a whit of evidence that such state liberality has ever incentivised these beneficiaries to invest more widely and create more jobs.Why has not the SC come down heavily on such wastage?Is that not in tune with the spirit of the Constitutiin?
The ‘five guarantees’ in the Congress manifesto and slogans in the recent Karnataka elections will reportedly cost fifty thousand crores. Rahul Gandhi is said to have ensured that the amount was affordable for the state government.However the amount will only enable the beneficiaries to scrape through the lean years,and not revitalize the economy.Thus the SC does seem to have a valid complaint in this catch-22 situation.
Actually the need of the hour is to face squarely the unpalatable truth,i.e.the ultimate unviability of the neoliberal model of economy,the gross poverty and grim unemployment it has generated.It should be reviewed and until replaced by a more efficient and beneficial model of running the economy,its leaks must be plugged and fresh initiatives to draw in more and more people into productive and profitable occupations and engender more growth points must be thought out and executed.Low-priced manufactures for a domestic market beyond the periphery of the 15% affluent middle class and foreign markets could be a possibility.There could be determined efforts to insulate prices of daily consumables from vagaries of world market free from the shackles of neoliberal thinking.Other partners than those favoured by World Bank,the IMF and WTO have to be sought out and cultivated.I am no economist.But the ravages of the world market are too plain and grievous not to shake human conscience.And the economy cannot be allowed to function like a run-away train but sorely needs a driver.The state too must recover some economic activism and not fritter away its energy and resources setting packs of investigating hounds against everyone who appears in the eyes of rulers an obstacle to their smooth and pleasant ride.
One wishes that in view of the undeniable crisis of the economy causing such poverty, unemployment, suffering, despair and outbreak of heinous crimes the SC had prodded the government to do something about them. Incidentally this is also my personal appeal to Rahul Gandhi and all those who feel the vast distress and disruptions in society to rouse themselves and ponder and plan a re-orientation of the economy.Merely calling halt to crony capitalists and hoping the economy and the market are going to self-correct are clearly not the options on hand.The Constitution too obliges those who aim at reins of government to think otherwise.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator