New Delhi: A group of eminent citizens have made an attempt to trigger discussions around the “substantive issues” political parties should be raising ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In a document released on Tuesday, titled “Reclaiming the Republic”, they have put forth 19 policy and legislative measures in the form of actionable programmes.
The document was released at a meet addressed by former Law Commission chairperson Justice (retired) A.P. Shah, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, civil rights activist Harsh Mander, academician and economist Prabhat Patnaik, RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj and psephologist-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav. Others who attended the event included former Planning Commission member Syeda S. Hameed and journalist and activist Vipul Mudgal.
The speakers said the ideas in the document would be shared with political parties, and several parties have agreed to participate in a meet planned on the subject later this week.
`Fundamental rights facing an existential threat’
Speaking about the initiative, Justice Shah said that fundamental rights of Indian people are under existential threat, dissent is being curbed and freedom of speech stifled. With the independence of institutions being challenged and the loyalty of people to the country being tested on new grounds, he said the need to revive and promote the idea of the “real” India was felt.
The document, he said, proposes doing away with “antiquated and draconian laws” that threaten liberty and place unbridled powers in the hands of the forces. The document called for the repeal of Section 124A (sedition) and 499 (criminal defamation) of the Indian Penal Code, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the National Security Act. It also sought amendments to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, as well as the existing laws on blasphemy.
`Judiciary languishing due to lack of transparency’
Justice Shah said the judiciary was also languishing due to the lack of transparency and backed the demand made in the document for taking away the powers of criminal contempt. Likewise, he said, while civil defamation was okay, criminal defamation – which can be used as a tool to threaten and intimidate the media – needed to be done away with.
Patnaik talked about economic reforms, and how document aimed at providing a roadmap for reviving the economy. He said it was a paradox that while India claimed to be one of the fastest-growing economies, it also remained “one of the hungriest countries in the world” with an “unprecedented level of economic depravation”.
Ways to make India a ‘welfare state’
The economist said the document has suggested a move towards making India a truly “welfare state” by providing universal basic services and social security for all citizens. He said the document has sought a “basic minimum real income for everyone” with at least 150 days of guaranteed employment during the year.
The document demanded that there be “universal public provision of good quality social services including education, health, maternal care and early childhood care; universal access to food security through Public Distribution System (PDS), universal pension for the aged at half the minimum wages and special provisions for specially disadvantaged groups.”
Patnaik said it has been calculated that all these measures would require about 5% of the GDP and that these resources could be raised by imposing 20% inheritance tax; wealth tax in rising slabs for wealth above Rs 10 crore; and corporate social tax linked to turnover and not profits.
‘There is an issue with quality of judges’
Bhushan spoke about judicial and electoral reforms. He said the judiciary needed reforms and was not accessible to the poor. Stating that people had to wait years for justice, he said there was also an issue with the quality of judges.
The senior advocate said the document has suggested a fully independent body to take complaints against judges and investigate them. He said the government’s power to give post-retirement positions to judges also needs to be curbed.
Reducing influence of money in elections
On electoral reforms, Bhushan said there is a need to reduce the influence of money power in elections. The document demands that the Electoral Bond scheme be reversed and other recent “regressive” changes to the laws – that allowed foreign funding and corporate donations – on electoral funding be annulled. It also seeks a comprehensive law for election financing reforms and the setting up of a National Election Fund for state funding of polls.
The lawyer said demonetisation was said to be aimed at reducing the cash flow and the Centre would do well to curb the use of cash in elections. He also pointed out that the Central Information Commission’s directive that all national political parties submit their accounts has not been complied with.
`Health spending should be at least 3% of GDP’
Mander talked about how the document focused on protecting the rights of all citizens, in particular Muslims, tribals, scheduled castes and the underprivileged. He said the large number of sewer deaths remained a stark reminder of the ills that still plague the society. When it came to health, he said, India had one of the lowest GDP spending. The document demanded that this be increased to at least 3% of GDP.
Government slammed for curbing transparency movement
Bhardwaj talked about transparency laws and how there was an urgent need to appoint the Lokpal in a transparent manner. With everyday corruption in ration and pension distribution, health and school admission being a cause of concern, she said a grievance redressal law was needed immediately. She said it was introduced in parliament but never passed.
She also called for implementing the Whistleblower Protection Act, which was passed in February 2014, saying laws were needed to empower people to fight corruption.
Bhardwaj also accused the government of diluting laws against corruption and noted that amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act were a case in point. She said through these sanction for investigation and prosecution has been made mandatory.
New deal aims to free farmers from indebtedness
Yadav talked about how the document offered a “new deal” for farmers comprising an assured income, freedom from indebtedness and sustainable farm practices. He said it has demanded statutory assurance of remunerative prices (at least 50% on cost of cultivation); one-time comprehensive loan-waiver and setting up of a National Debt Relief Commission; timely and effective relief from disaster related distress; reduction in the cost of inputs; and removal of all legal and vigilante-imposed restrictions on cattle trade.
As for education, the document has demanded the implementation of Right to Education in the right spirit. It also demanded spending at least 6% of GDP on education, with 1% going to higher education.