Evidence over the last seven years supports the assertion that entitlements work well only when those who are entitled are also empowered
The evolution of Indian society post-pandemic has been analysed by many authors over the last several decades. Many of them have also expressed concerns regarding several social ills that have plagued our society.
In 2013, during a discussion, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen talked about the problem of open defecation. Fast forward to 2021 and the problem has been largely resolved. The same discussion also talked about lack of electricity or modern cooking fuel — each of which has been addressed since 2014.
These achievements are not small as they are ensuring a minimum standard of living for all where necessities which were deemed as for the urban elites are now reaching even the remotest of villages.
While distributive justice has been a feature of our public policy, there is also a silent push towards a more progressive legislative agenda. This has been supported by the judiciary with its decision to strike down Section 377 in what was a historic judgment.
The legislative agenda has indeed been progressive given its focus in strengthening the rights of various stakeholders. Let us begin with the banning of triple talaq, a practice which was prevalent across the country even though most Islamic countries had banned the same. By overturning the Shah Bano judgment, the legislative aided by the executive effectively denied a proper procedural divorce to Muslim women in India.
There was a demand by several stakeholders to correct this historic injustice — and eventually, a law banning the practice was passed by both the houses of Parliament.
Another progressive legislation is the 2020 amendment to the 1971 Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act. The amendment raises the upper limit of MTP from 20 to 24 weeks for women, including rape survivors, minors’ victims of incest, etc. Moreover, now any woman or her partner can medically terminate a pregnancy, which is a departure from the erstwhile law with the provision only for a married woman or her husband. The amendments in many ways are forward looking as they address issues such as failure of contraceptives, issues regarding maternal mortality, and also ensure that women don’t need to seek any permission from courts in order to terminate a pregnancy.
The progressive drift is not just with regards to the legislative or the judicial agenda, but is also very much a part of the executive branch in India. Menstruation, a topic that was a taboo and often avoided, was mentioned by no less than the prime minister himself in one of his Independence Day speeches. The speech was geared towards ensuring greater acceptance of a natural biological phenomenon and spreading greater awareness regarding hygienic practices.
As a matter of fact, the progressive outlook is not just restricted to social issues but is also manifested in the economic policy decisions of the government. Take, for example, Jan-Dhan Yojana which is the world’s largest financial inclusion programme till date. Jan-Dhan enabled what is the world’s largest accidental insurance programme and the largest voluntary pension programme. That it was subsequently combined with Direct Benefit Transfers for subsidy and income support further makes it an enabler of what is the world’s largest poverty alleviation or subsidy support mechanism. The government has already made gains of Rs 2.22 lakh crore by reducing leakages due to implementation of the DBT.
The world’s largest health insurance programme — Ayushman Bharat — is also another example of progressive policy interventions. The programme allows patients to pick a public or a private healthcare facility and provides them with insurance cover up to Rs 5 lakh for in-patient treatment. Then there is the world’s biggest affordable housing programme — the PM Awas Yojana — under which over 2 crore houses have already been constructed and handed over to beneficiaries.
A lot of these interventions find their parallels with the progressive discussion on affordable housing in key urban metropolises in advanced economies. Similarly, the liberal discourse on expansion of public healthcare insurance essentially would lead to something of the form of Ayushman Bharat in their respective country.
Despite such interesting parallels, many who champion such progressive causes have failed to acknowledge the developments in India since 2014. Their reluctance to acknowledge, however, does not change the fact that for the first time more than 40 percent of Indian households in rural areas have received a tapped water connection — or that women now spend less time gathering wood to cook food thanks to the Ujjwala scheme.
Each of these interventions have meant real tangible empowerment of the forgotten, more so for women, which partly also explains their increased participation in the political process.
The progressive drift in India’s social discourse also gives us much food for thought as far as the debate on entitlements versus empowerments is concerned. Evidence over the last seven years supports the assertion that entitlements work well only when those who are entitled are also empowered. India’s experience, therefore, provides a good template for many other less developed countries that are looking for good policy interventions to aid their development.
Karan Bhasin is a New York-based economist. Somya Luthra is a student of law. Views expressed are personal.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.