Government

Even Under Attack, India's Democratic Institutions Are Pushing Back

Since 2014, there has been a worry that India's democratic institutions are weakening. So, here's a list of instances when the government had to reverse decisions because of pushback.

Since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, there has been a growing worry about the weakening of democratic institutions.

In 2017, India fell three spots to 136th on the World Press Freedom Index, amid fears of the government strong-arming the media. When four Supreme Court judges held a press conference in January 2018, it raised alarm bells regarding the independence of the judiciary. Recently, Urjit Patel’s resignation as RBI governor has cast aspersions on the RBI’s autonomy. Given the government’s attempts to subvert Indian institutions, India’s democratic machinery may to some, seem to be collapsing.

At this embattled juncture, it worth to recount the instances when the government had to go back on its decisions. These reversals (sometimes within days) have been the outcome of democratic pressures exercised through public outrage and protests, constructive media involvement and the courts’ interventions. India’s democratic institutions continue to put up a fight and are making a dent too.

Amendments to NREGA

In mid-2014, soon after coming to power, the Modi government proposed an amendment aimed at restricting the NREGA to the country’s 200 ‘most backward districts’. The labour-material ratio was also planned to be reduced from 60:40 to 51:49.

Seeing this as a dilution of the Act, in October 2014, 28 leading economists wrote to Modi. They cited the steady decline in corruption, support to women, Dalits and Adivasis and creation of productive assets under the NREGA as reasons to oppose the proposed amendment.

The government had to reconsider its ill-advised move and the proposed amendments were quietly withdrawn without even being introduced in parliament.

Constitution of National Board for Wildlife

In July 2014, the Modi government constituted the National Board for Wildlife with just one nominated NGO – Gujarat Ecological Education and Research Foundation – and only two experts. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 requires nomination of five NGOs and ten eminent experts. Moreover, the board, in its first meeting, cleared more than 130 pending projects.

More than 50 organisations and individuals wrote to PM Modi, urging cancellation of the appointment. Hearing a petition filed by a conservationist, the Supreme Court criticised the government for prima facie violating the law and barred the board from taking fresh decisions. Shortly after, the government decided to reconstitute the board.

Amendments to LARR

In December 2014, the government promulgated an ordinance amending the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettment (LARR) Act, 2013. It introduced the LARR (Amendment) Bill, 2015, which created five special categories of land use to be exempted from requiring consent and conducting Social Impact Assessments.

The introduction of the land Bill was met with protests (by Anna Hazare and farmers’ and civil society groups) and a walkout by the Congress. The NDA allies Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and Swabhimani Paksha also expressed opposition to the Bill.

Pending approval by the Rajya Sabha, the ordinance had to be re-promulgated thrice. Finally, in August 2015, ahead of elections in Bihar, Modi announced the lapse of the ordinance.

Ban on sale of cattle

In May 2017, the Ministry of Environment and Forests notified rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act banning sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets (ostensibly, to regulate cattle trade and prevent cattle theft).

Political reactions against the ban were strong. States such as West Bengal, Kerala and Meghalaya saw the rules as infringing upon their jurisdiction. Protests in the form of ‘Beef Fests’ were held in Kerala and Karnataka.

The ban was deemed to have been imposed on ideological grounds, detrimental to the cattle trade economy and was alleged to be a dog whistle to cow vigilante groups.

In July 2017, the Supreme Court expanded a stay imposed by the Madras high court into a nationwide bar on the rules. Following consultation from states, in April 2018, a fresh set of draft rules were brought in to scrap the ban.

The Centre had to go back on its plan to ban sale of cattle. Credit: Reuters

FRDI Bill

In August 2017, the government introduced the FRDI Bill in the Lok Sabha. The Bill sought to create a framework for resolving bankruptcy in banks, insurance companies and other financial establishments. For this purpose, it proposed creating a ‘Resolution Corporation’ and provided for the controversial bail-in clause (saying that in the event of a failure or insolvency in a bank, depositors would have to bear part of the burden of resolution).

The Bill faced criticism from several opposition parties (Trinamool Congress held protests outside the parliament). The All India Bank Employees’ Union and industry body Assocham opposed it. On social media, hashtags like #NoBailIn trended, signifying citizens’ opposition.

Despite vociferous attempts by the government to counter this opposition, public concerns over security of bank deposits did not die down. The government withdrew the Bill citing need for a comprehensive re-examination.  

DBT in PDS (pilot in Nagri, Jharkhand)

In October 2017, a pilot of direct benefit transfer (DBT) in the public distribution system (PDS) was launched in the Nagri block of Jharkhand.

A survey across 13 villages in Nagri conducted in February 2018 by the Right to Food Campaign found that the experiment had increased difficulties in accessing rations. An overwhelming 97% of the respondents wanted to revert to the old system. The survey’s findings prompted the organisation of a padyatra from Nagri block to the governor’s residence in Ranchi by the Ration Bachao Manch (a coalition group of five opposition parties) and civil society groups like the Right to Food Campaign and All India People’s Forum.

Responding to criticism, in August 2018, the experiment was withdrawn.

Workers hold banners with details of delayed wage payments under MGNREGA, most caused due to Aadhaar errors, in Lohardaga, Jharkhand. Credit: Nitish Kumar Badal

Workers hold banners with details of delayed wage payments under MGNREGA, most caused due to Aadhaar errors, in Lohardaga, Jharkhand. Credit: Nitish Kumar Badal

Orange jacket passports for ECR

In early 2018, the government announced its decision to stop printing the last page of the passport, which contains family and address information along with Emigration Check Required (ECR) status. The status was now to be signified with an orange-coloured jacket. It was seen as segregating people with low education and economic status.

The Congress termed it as equivalent to creating a new caste system. The Kerala high court considered it a violation to the fundamental right to privacy and dignity, issuing a notice to the MEA on a PIL filed against the decision. Articles were also written across newspapers in the Gulf criticising the decision. And hence, in just over two weeks, the MEA announced withdrawal of the proposed changes.

Social Media Communication Hub

In April 2018, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting put up a ‘Request for Proposal’ to set up a Social Media Communication Hub to monitor online social media data. It proposed a “social media analytical tool” that would deploy 360 degree monitoring to create digital profiles of citizens (bid document said the tool should be able to “listen” to email).

The government hoped to enable predictive analysis to mould public perception in a ‘positive manner for the country’.

The Internet Freedom Foundation sent a legal notice to the ministry asking for withdrawal of the tender. Hearing a PIL filed by Trinamool Congress MP Mohua Moitra, the Supreme Court observed that the decision to create the hub will be “like creating a surveillance state”. Following this, the request for proposal was withdrawn.

Guidelines on fake news

In April 2018, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry announced that in an attempt to tackle fake news, it had amended the guidelines on accreditation of journalists. Now journalists against whom complaints of fake news had been registered would have their accreditation suspended till the complaint had been heard.

The guidelines faced political and media outrage on various grounds such as violation of freedom of press and lack of a clear definition of “fake news”. Overwhelmed by the outrage, the guidelines were withdrawn within 24 hours under orders from the PMO itself.

Online NEET

In July 2018, HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar announced intentions to conduct the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) online and twice a year from 2019.

The announcement faced criticism from the Tamil Nadu government. DMK working president M.K. Stalin accused the government of conspiring to make medical education out of the reach of rural students who do not have access to computers.

The health ministry also wrote to the HRD, raising concerns about additional pressure on students and stating that the public announcement was made without “formal consultation” with them. After both the ministries met, the HRD ministry agreed to continue with the offline mode, at least for 2019.

File photo of students queueing outside an examination centre to appear in NEET 2018. Credit: PTI

This is only a partial list of the reversals that have been forced by public pressure exerted through various means – public mobilisation, pressure on political parties, media and the judiciary.

For a whole host of issues, struggles have seen some tangible results and are ongoing. An excellent example of this is the case of constitutionality of Aadhaar, where the Supreme Court upheld constitutionality but struck down Section 57, the clause allowing private entities to demand Aadhaar.

Another is the case of the proposed amendments to the RTI Act, where protests forced the government to defer introduction of the Bill.

The document below has more details about such cases, but even that is far from complete. Almost every questionable policy measure has been resisted and for many, such as demonetisation, the government has managed (sometimes through alleged authoritarian means) to push through.

Importantly, the collective energy of India’s democratic machinery that has gone into pushing back against these measures could have been utilised to pursue positive social change. Unfortunately, now, it finds itself deployed in defence against the government.

Modi Government Pushbacks.pdf by on Scribd

Meghna Yadav is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. She would like to thank Reetika Khera (IIM, Ahmedabad) for her thoughtful inputs.

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