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Determinants of human dignity, social justice for disadvantaged, vulnerable sections


By RR Prasad*
Development is essentially a process of change initiated with an objective of improving the quality of life. For certain sections of society, who are considered as weaker sections, the process of change would aim at bringing them into the mainstream of socio-economic system. Left to itself the process of change even if initiated by an external stimulus, would not be sustainable for these sections. Therefore the key objective of development must be for building inclusive societies, minimizing inequality in income, status and opportunities for its people. This strategy should be directed to secure distributive justice and utilization of economic resources to subserve common good.
In the outcome document of the 2012 Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development entitled “The Future We Want,” decision-makers committed themselves to achieve sustainable development by promoting “sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth”, creating greater opportunities for all social segments of society so as to reduce inequalities. Social inclusion of the socially excluded, deprived and disadvantaged groups must be the key outcome of the sustainable development strategies.
The disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized social groups continue to remain excluded. In the Indian social system, there are still huge sections of people who remain deprived of their basic human needs for a decent living. They are known by various labels such as destitute, marginalised and even vulnerable but the identifying character is their inability to maintain a basic minimum living standard. The disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized social groups continue to remain excluded.
There is a moral imperative to address social exclusion. Sincere efforts and creative ventures to empower the poor and the excluded are required so that they can claim their rights and improve their lives. Left unaddressed, the exclusion of disadvantaged groups can also be costly. And the costs — whether social, political, or economic—are likely to be substantial.
A key principle of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is ‘to leave no one behind’: no goal is considered to be met unless it is met for everyone. These SDG 2030 commitments are unlikely to be realized without policies that ensure that the socially excluded among the poor, those who are hardest to reach, are part of the transformations aimed at by the SDGs. Our goal should be to evolve and institutionalize such social inclusion initiatives that combat social exclusion by involving, engaging and bringing socially excluded people to the forefront to ensure their holistic and equal participation in accessing social, cultural, political and economic resources.
India has a strong legal framework for Human Rights. Development Planning in India did not just derive from legal rights but from a combination of different interpretations of political and administrative systems, ideologies and welfare approaches: the Soviet model; Gandhian principles; and the Westminster model. Thus, India’s Development Planning was a hybrid. This hybrid, although it aspired to combine the best features of different models, faced major difficulties.
The problem was not that several models were used but the fact that people with little experience of these models did not manage to contextualize them, and they were often applied on an ad-hoc basis. For example, the government assumed it knew about providing welfare but ignored the fact that a Welfare approach needs to be based on a notion of people’s rights rather than the benevolence of a ‘Mai-baap Sarkar’.
In the Indian context, the implementation of that model failed. A wide gap was created between rich and poor and the approach emerged as an overly-complex model that failed to improve the situation for poor people across the country. The above hybrid was followed by a shift from Welfare Planning to Development, which was externally-constructed, rather than indigenous. The Basic Minimum Services Programme was introduced in the 1970’s through the Fifth Five Year Plan (1974-1979). This programme also failed since it did not ensure people’s access to the basic services and people were not given sufficient priority in the planning process.
Due to the failures of the welfare model, the development scenario transitioned towards a rights-based approach to development. The inclusion of human rights into development discourse has also brought along a certain language of rights. This brings a moral resonance to development rhetoric and makes it hard to avoid in today’s discourse. Rights are defined as entitlements that belong to all human beings regardless of race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class; all humans, therefore, are rights holders, and it is someone’s duty to provide these rights.
Human rights have to be based on principles of dignity and freedom. Unfortunately today, “both are severely compromised” because a lot of human beings cannot meet their basic needs of food, peace, freedom, and education. In the name of human dignity, every person should be able to enjoy the main economic and social rights such as the right to work in a safe environment, the right to social security, the right to own property, the right to education, the right to food, and the right to health. These rights do not guarantee that every citizen will have all of these, but they do guarantee that every citizen will be given the opportunity to have all of these basic rights.
Perhaps there is a now an urgent need to formulate the common determinants of the human dignity along with the measurable outcome indicators which are to be monitored on a real-time basis in the pattern of the ‘Aspirational Districts’. A new and more holistic measure of human dignity will be an estimate of the minimum economic cost for a household to fulfill eight basic needs: food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, health care, education, and social security. In order to enable and empower the disadvantaged sections of the society access these basic needs in an equitable manner, the need will be to calculate the minimum monthly income for the level of consumption required to meet these needs; assuming that infrastructure and access points are available at an efficient cost. This measurement of the minimum economic cost can perhaps form the basis for a new national vision of India for a dignified level of living, especially for the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups/sections.
We may perhaps introduce a targeted or non-universal programme for giving assured basic income to persons of only the vulnerable groups belonging to the disadvantaged social groups communities such as SCs, STs, Other Backward Classes, Economically Backward Classes, Nomadic, Semi-Nomadic and De-Notified Tribes and Safai Karamcharis. Vulnerable groups among the above mentioned social groups are those groups whose resource endowment is inadequate to provide sufficient income from any available source and have some specific characteristics that put them at higher risk of falling into poverty than others.
Policy options to tackle social exclusion would require giving greater attention to the social, cultural and political dimensions of policies along with their technical and economic dimensions. A comprehensive policy will be required for the collection and dissemination of information and appropriately disaggregated data on all the disadvantaged and socially excluded groups in order to track their progress—or their failure to progress—as a result of development efforts.
It is also socially imperative now to measure access to social justice and the opportunities which India provides to its disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Since social justice is a central constitutive element of the legitimacy and stability of any democratic nation, the Social Justice Index will have to be designed to measure on a regular basis the progress made and the ground lost on issues of social justice for each of the recognized disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of India. This would require identifying common dimensions and indicators of social exclusion impacting human dignity with special reference to the disadvantaged groups for India as a whole and disaggregated at the state and Union Territory levels.

*Professor (Retd.), National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad

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