The making of a real democracy

Good governance and justice for all requires that those who govern continuously listen to the people, writes Arun Maira

Representative image of the Supreme Court
Representative image of the Supreme Court

Arun Maira

The Supreme Court is raising fundamental questions about the rule of law in a democracy. In a true democracy, every human being, whether they have one crore or none, a formal higher education or not, has an equal vote, and all voices must be heard while framing laws. In a true democracy, tribals who own no property, who do not have even a primary school education, must get justice when their rights, and the natural environment on which they depend for life and livelihood, are trampled upon by corporations for profit. While the country’s GDP grows and economic efficiencies (apparently) improve, the tribals’ wellbeing suffers.

The Supreme Court has reignited a debate about capitalism versus socialism. Its curative intervention reversing the decision of an arbitration tribunal in the dispute between the privately owned Delhi Airport Metro Express (DMAE) and the public sector Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) — which had already been reviewed by the court earlier — has upset corporate lawyers. Meanwhile, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court is re-examining its 1978 interpretation of Constitutional rights to private versus public property.

In capitalist governance, each dollar gives an additional vote. In a democracy, every citizen, millionaire or pauper, must have an equal vote. The conflict between capitalism and democracy is a conflict between two fundamental principles of governance: a conflict between property rights and human rights.

The capitalist approach to PPPs (public-private partnerships) results in infrastructure which primarily serves the rich. It creates freeways — which common people riding on two-wheelers are forbidden to use and which pedestrians cannot safely cross — to make travel quicker and safer for rich people.

The rich resist tax increases to fund infrastructure for public use. They build gated communities for themselves, within which they pay for their own private security services and 24/7 power and water supply. They lose sight of the needs of people living outside their walls. It must be noted here that laws of inheritance of private property are founded on the primacy of property rights, rather than basic human rights.

Property rights or natural rights?

The Court’s recognition of the fundamental right of all citizens to be free from the adverse impacts of climate change (in a plea by environmentalists to protect the great Indian bustard from encroachment upon its habitat by companies building wind and solar farms) takes the law further into unchartered territory. Laws based on the primacy of private property rights are antithetical to human rights and to environmental sustainability.

In capitalist economies, natural capital is the property of the owner. Kings and landlords owned the land, the water and forests, and all the creatures (fish, animals, birds) on their private estates. They also owned the produce of all the human beings (serfs or slaves) who worked the land. Owners who lived on their estates and interacted with the people watched their workers suffer and their crops grow.

While they at least had a sense of how the system worked, absentee landlords cared only for profits, regardless of the damage to the land by droughts, fires and floods, regardless of the blood, sweat and tears of their workers.

The development of commodity markets — in which animals, farm produce, timber and minerals could be bought and sold with money at prices determined by traders — converted natural capital into financial capital. Financial markets created a new class of capitalists, even further removed from reality than absentee landlords. These gauged the state of the world from charts of price movements on commodity exchanges and stock markets.

When labour went off the land and into factories, workers were paid for what they were able to produce in a given time. Their skills and labour became purchasable commodities for owners of enterprises.

Property rights are an ancient principle of economics and jurisprudence. Human rights were recognised much later in the wake of often violent political movements to abolish slavery, pay fair wages and provide safe working conditions for workers. Gig work is the 21st-century way to convert labour into a commodity again: workers on demand, payment only for the work done and no social security. Good for business owners, but bad for humans.

The essence of democratic governance

Good governance cannot only be a government of the people (elected by them), or for the people (providing them welfare). It must be by the people too. The rule of law and speedy justice makes some countries attractive both for financial investors and common citizens. However, investors and citizens have different needs, and therefore different interpretations of law.

Good governance and justice for all requires those who govern to continuously listen to the people. Moreover, citizens with diverse needs must listen to each other to come to a consensus about the type of society they want to create for themselves. Courts and experts within their narrow specialisations cannot do this for them.

On top of the pyramid of democratic governance are constitutionally created institutions — presidents, elected assemblies and courts. At the bottom is the open public sphere of social media, civil society, street protests and petitions for justice presented from below to the institutions above.

This public sphere has become noisier and more divided (and divisive) with social media and online platforms. The institutions on top are too far removed. They are unable to understand and address the many complex problems faced by the public sphere: climate injustice, concentration of power, inequitable growth, etc.

What democracy needs is a strong middle layer to hold democratic governance together. In the middle of the pyramid there must be processes for democratic dialogue amongst citizens, in which they listen to each other’s views, and begin a process of pre-digestion to convert contentions into consensus.

The overloaded institutions on the top need this pre-digestion to enable them to comprehend the contours of the complex problems they are expected to find solutions for, and to take decisions on behalf of all the people, in the manner that only they are constitutionally empowered to.

Arun Maira is a former member of the Planning Commission and author of Shaping the Future: A Guide for System Leaders

Article courtesy: The Billion Press

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