Over the past few years, two features of the Indian political landscape have stood out: unprecedented levels of corruption and the efflorescence of socio-economic rights - from information to education, and from food to employment. Last year, the Supreme Court even recognised the right to sleep. The same government that has actively connived in corroding India's public institutions - epitomised by the sorry state of the apex institution of the executive branch, or the Cabinet - has sought to pass supposedly progressive legislation, carrying the torch for the rights revolution. Is this just a paradox or, paradoxically, is it causal?
The most seductive aspect of "rights" is that they are indeed right in many of the goals they aspire to. So the differences are less about ends per se than means. Consider the legislation on the right to food. Surely a society that tolerates widespread hunger and malnutrition has much to answer for? But does passing such a law address this troubling issue? While questions have been raised about its fiscal costs, there are other equally disconcerting questions.
There is now abundant evidence - from the government's own data - that the critical challenge is malnutrition, rather than hunger, and that cereal consumption has been falling in the food consumption basket. The food security Bill does little to address the former and insists that India's poor consume more of what they want to move out of. The paternalistic approach at the micro level is paralleled at the macro level, by insisting once again on a one-size-fits-all strategy that violates federalism. Some states, such as Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, have had a well-functioning public distribution system - they might want to do something else with these resources, but towards the same end. The likelihood that a state like Uttar Pradesh will be able to deliver this programme is less than finding an iceberg in the Thar desert. But Big Brother (or Sister) knows better.
There are very few concepts in economics that are non-intuitive, but an important one is opportunity costs. Any substantial social programme will necessarily have large fiscal implications. So the question is whether those resources could better deliver the same goals but through different means. It is possible that in parts of India malnutrition is the result of morbidity (of course, it can also be the cause), and that investing in clean water and sanitation would bring down morbidity levels - which, in turn, will reduce malnutrition. Why not allow different states in India to tailor the means that best address the source of malnutrition in their respective states? It is interesting how the same activists who love the principle of decentralisation embrace centralisation when it comes to their own pet causes.
The long-term implications are even more troubling. There is a broad consensus that India will face a severe water crisis in the next few decades. That means the country should move away from water-intensive crops such as rice to less water-intensive ones. Insisting that rice be given at a fixed low price (having a fixed price on a food item rather than applying the principles underlying the pricing of that item in a legislative Bill is the hallmark of appalling legislation) only ensures that in the name of food security India will be exchanging such security with greater water insecurity. But maybe that can be addressed by a right to water Act?
Rights matter only if they can be enforced. And who will enforce them? A public administration that has been severely undermined by the very political forces that self-righteously pass these laws? Or the courts - an institution that is currently burdened with approximately 30 million cases and in whose portals the average life of a lawsuit exceeds 10 years? Were this to only imply a mockery of the concept of rights, that would be bad enough. But it has far more pernicious institutional effects.
Any observer of the Indian judicial system would marvel at its activism and social conscience - and its abysmal ineffectiveness when it comes to convicting the rich and powerful, the very actors whose actions have been responsible for the plight of India's poor. The ease with which the courts impinge on the executive branch's prerogatives is a sad reflection of the state of affairs of both branches of government. When it comes to choosing between moral posturing and convicting the powerful, the Indian judiciary has unfailingly erred in one direction - it pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird (to quote Thomas Paine).
Arguably this is even more true of India's progressive activists. By insisting on expanding the domain of rights, they have given this government ample cover to camouflage the deep institutional damage that will be its most lasting legacy. Note how all the talk of scams and scandals has been pushed out by the debates on the food security Bill. In an earlier episode in the mid-1970s, even as Indira Gandhi set about undermining Indian institutions (including her own party), her rhetoric and actions appeared more progressive than ever. For many self-styled progressives (including the CPI), what better proof was there than a constitutional amendment (the 42nd) making India a "socialist" republic? Even after three decades, India's institutions - and the Congress - have not recovered from that destructive phase.
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, there is nothing like appearing to care for the poor to divert attention from the arduous, painstaking task of building public institutions that are critical to implement the provision of public goods for the underprivileged. Instead, progressive legislation has become a substitute for building the state's implementation capacity to do even the most basic of tasks. Indeed, it is undermining it - if you can barely do three things well, adding five more will undoubtedly ensure that everything is done poorly.
We will not take the multiple steps aimed at sharply increasing employment to give poor people a chance through expanded opportunities. Instead, we will create an employment guarantee scheme. And when a few years later the inevitable happens - the programme flags, corruption increases - we will become indignant and move on to the next "right". We will not address India's shameful record on primary education by asking the most basic question: why should people pay public school teachers four or five times more than what private school teachers get, and not fire them if they don't even show up? Whose rights matter more - those of the child or of public employees? But firing public employees for egregious dereliction of duty? That's sacrilege - or, even worse, "neoliberal". If you are progressive, you will insist on a Right to Education Act, some of whose provisions appear tailor-made for a "right-not-to-learn Act".
There is an old stratagem illustrated by the Chinese saying, "deceive the heavens to cross the ocean". The rush of seemingly progressive legislation by the current government is not surprising. It is causally related to the unprecedented corruption and undermining of institutions that have been the hallmark of contemporary India - and whose long-term implications for India's future are deeply troubling. India's progressive activists, who have been carrying the cross for the "rights" movement, must take a moment to reflect whether their actions have provided cover for this government to deceive the heavens and cross the ocean. Unless, of course, they believe that passing a right to happiness Act will address all these concerns.
The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania