Protectors or predators?

the unnao horror

Serial crimes of the kind witnessed in the now infamous Unnao case should prick the conscience of citizens across the country to rise and defeat such crime syndicates. This is not merely about the reprehensible actions of an elected representative of the people, nor any more about the moral compass of the ruling elite in the state of Uttar Pradesh. We need to recognise that this set of events is the chilling manifestation of a predatory state.

The recent order of the Supreme Court by which it transferred all five linked cases out of UP to Delhi, and assigned to the Central Reserve Police Force the task of providing security to the rape victim and her family is a stinging rebuke of the state and its machinery and lays bare
the kind of society we are morphing into.

The Chief Justice of India reportedly demanded to know ‘what was happening in this country?’ — one in which women and children are unsafe, where law-abiding citizens live in fear, where the decline of the state apparatus is pernicious, where those who are meant to serve as the guardians of the law — as its makers and enforcers — turn predators.

The impact of the pattern of development — Uttar Pradesh representing a classic case — on the distribution of political power in society creates incentives for a state to become ‘predatory’, and results in the near complete collapse of the Rule of Law. Typically, inefficiency combines with rent-seeking to reinforce predatory behaviour with untrammelled benefits to holding political power. The political elite begins to represent an encompassing interest; it considers the state its personal preserve, to have and to exploit and lurches towards perverse practices that signify the unwillingness to enforce or maintain the rule of law.

What we really need to understand is why, regardless of the political ideology of the governments in power, many of our public governance institutions fail in enforcing the rule of law and why several others are in perilous decline; why socio-economic relationships shaped by these institutions are resulting in exclusion; why there is a pervasive sense that not all citizens are equal; and why some states are progressive while others are predatory. Economic development and political power cannot be separated. The greater the inequality, the lesser is the democracy and the greater the predatory behaviour.

One lesson from Unnao that screams for attention is the need for social mobilisation and collective citizen action to hold the state to account. It is a fallacy to assume that democratic conditions automatically maintain themselves. It is when democracy falls on hard times that collective citizen action works best to stop political power being exercised arbitrarily. This is especially true for the states because in the constitutional scheme, ‘police’ and ‘law and order’ are state subjects. It is incumbent on the states to uphold the rule of law.

When the state is engaged in making laws, allocating scarce resources, enforcing contracts, assigning rights to public goods or common property resources, it still acts through individuals — the politician, bureaucrat, contractor — who are required to act conscientiously, as the representatives of the public. The absence of the mobilisation of citizens and the low degree of the organisation of the public, represent conditions under which the social accountability process is unable to exert pressure to ensure they act in public interest.

A feature that stands out about public governance in India is the distance between those that govern and those that are the governed. The Indian state, regardless of the government and its ideological underpinnings, has been characterised by a power coalition in which personal relationships — who one is and who one knows — form the basis for social organisation.

This de-facto nature of the Indian state has, over time, resulted in a limited access society in which there is little or no participation by citizens in the polity; opaque or less than transparent institutions structuring decision-making processes; the absence of impersonal economic and social rights; and often, the widespread use of coercion and/or violence to appropriate resources and goods. This has undermined the rule of law, created the moral hazard, and promoted adverse selection in public governance.

The effects are visible: rent seeking that distorts allocation of services to citizens; limiting the citizen’s access to organisations; and constraining the growth of social capital and collective action for the common good. This, in turn, has slowed the development of modern politics and a progressive society, precluding the growth of strong community-based organisations that can exert pressure on government.

Recent events typified by the Unnao case suggest that the human costs of this model of a limited access society are unconscionable. The necessary condition to reverse this is to enable the development of social capital by enhancing community agency and mainstreaming gender in development praxis. The evidence from the ground from more developed states in the country suggest that social accountability has to be a process of sustained engagement.

The first principle for the social accountability process to succeed is to adopt a participatory approach that meets two necessary conditions: raising awareness combined with informed advocacy and fostering community agency and the ability of citizens to speak truth to power. But this alone will not do. The sufficient condition is met only when the process generates actionable knowledge on which ‘the public’ can act and when we invest in sustained capacity building in the community.

Simply put, there are no short cuts. Governments and civil society need to work together to effect a paradigm shift that will seriously challenge the political elite and help enforce the rule of law. If we are to progress towards a just and humane society, we must undertake social mobilisation with a renewed sense of urgency to enhance the ability of the community to vanquish the protectors that turn predators. Until then, thank the Supreme Court of India.

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre)

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