Should the Constitution be blamed for economic disparity?

Close to Budh International Race Circuit at Noida in Uttar Pradesh nestle two volatile villages. Bhatta-Parsaul where farmers a few months ago protested land acquisition for the private house construction.

In the vicinity of the F-1 track the Provincial Armed Constabulary chased the agitating farmers and allegedly molested and raped their women. The race blitzkrieg dazzled but could not, in the least,  cut off the contrasting air at Bhatta-Parsaul. If  F-1 and cricket represent the rich flavour, Bhatta-Parsaul reflects the other side – hockey and kabaddi – the sports disciplines at the receiving end of social inequality.

The levels of glaring contrasts and disparities in the country have from time to time revived debates about the yawning gaps between the rich and the poor and the failure of the constitutional aims and aspirations. The anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare also resurrected a debate on the efficacies of institutions and need to make drastic changes in them. Arvind Kejriwal, one of the chief aides of Hazare, even suggested that since people were above the Constitution, they have a right to change it.

The Constitution as adopted on November 26, 1949, envisaged not only a democratic form of government but also a democratic society, infused with the spirit of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. It promised equal opportunity of livelihood to all men and women irrespective of caste and creed. These goals and most others are distant dreams.

There is little doubt that “sovereignty of the people” can change the framework of the constitutional mechanism as the preamble to the Constitution says “We, the people of India, adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution”.

The voices for changing the Constitution or even adopting a presidential system are not new.  The NDA government even set up a national commission on February 22, 2000, to review the working of the Constitution with Justice M N Venkatachaliah at its head and it submitted its report on March  31, 2002.

Controversial review

The controversial review was to examine the experience of the past 50 years while not tampering with the Constitution’s “basic structure”. It was argued by the NDA that since the Keshavanand Bharati case in 1973 did not mention parliamentary form of government as a feature of the basic democratic structure of the Constitution, so an alternative to it could be probed by the commission.

The  commission, however, did not choose to re-write the Constitution. Of the 249 recommendations the commission made, 58 involved amendments to the Constitution, 86 legislative measures and the rest involved executive action.

The commission sought to end political instability by providing for the election of the leader of the House, along with the speaker. The person so elected may be appointed prime minister or chief minister, it recommended.

Similarly, it suggested that for a motion of no-confidence to be admitted against a government, at least 20 per cent of the total number of members of the House should give notice and it should be accompanied by the proposal of an alternative leader, to be voted on simultaneously with the no-confidence motion.

The commission’s report, largely an academic exercise, is gathering dust since 2002.

This, however, did not silence the rising demand for major structural changes in the country’s key institutions and their functioning so that they are held accountable to the people. Civil society’s agitation apart, there are several peaceful or violent (Naxal etc) movements pointing to the continuous neglect of a sizeable population by the state.

A good 63 years after independence, the country has islands of prosperity coexisting with those who are  barely able to put their body and soul together and defined in various categories as  BPL, APL etc.

The per capita income, health, hygiene, malnutrition of children, availability of drinking water, medical facilities, declining male-female ratio, an unnerving suicide rate, gender inequality and all other conceivable indicators of human development have not, in the least, justified the  high hopes with which the Constitution came into effect on January 26, 1950. The factfile says that we have fared worse than even sub-Saharan African states.

The irony is that the unacceptable situation is easily explained away by economic jargons, or better, by the gift of gab. The arbitrary definition of above poverty line (Rs 32 daily expenses sufficient for urban and Rs 26 for rural) by the Planning Commission is self-explanatory in defining its mindset.

The fact is that the Constitution itself has little to do with emerging the “economic superpower” having one of the largest  poor population in the world. Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has admitted to the failure of governance in ensuring equality of development. The Planning Commission itself has, from time to time, come under attack from the UPA leaders.

It would be good to recount what the Constitution Drafting Committee Chairman B R Ambedkar said about the constitution: “If things fail, we cannot blame the Constitution, it is because our men are bad.” It is time to have a hard look at those governing us — here, there and elsewhere.

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