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How PM Modi Has Weakened the Rights-Based Laws of the Previous Decade

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How PM Modi Has Weakened the Rights-Based Laws of the Previous Decade

The BJP government has weakened a suite of progressive laws that were enacted by the previous Congress-led administration.

How PM Modi Has Weakened the Rights-Based Laws of the Previous Decade

A group of young children who have no access to online education study at a house near Sudhmahadev, Jammu and Kashmir, India, Sunday, Aug.1, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Channi Anand

Since coming to power in May 2014, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has diluted the provisions of several progressive laws that its predecessor, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, had enacted between 2004 and 2014.

In August 2023, it amended the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 through a new legislation, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act. The amendment removed the safeguards the law provided against granting exemptions.

The RTI Act was a powerful tool in exposing corruption and ensuring good governance. It was a useful law to hold the powerful answerable. But, perhaps, it was too hot to handle for those in power.

According to the original legislation, information that relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause an unwarranted invasion of the individual’s privacy, could be refused.

However, there was a rider. Information could be provided if the authorities were satisfied that “the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.”

The recent amendment removed the rider, which, according to a statement issued by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, “will fundamentally weaken the RTI Act.” This was not the only instance of the BJP government weakening the RTI. In an earlier article for The Diplomat, I argued that the Narendra Modi government was hastening the “slow death” of the RTI. The space for exemptions has expanded since.

Recently, the Modi government not only exempted the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), the national nodal agency for responding to computer security incidents, from the ambit of the RTI Act, but also refused to divulge information regarding the discussions leading to the decision.

“An institution such as the CERT-In, whose actions or inaction is consequential for the status of cyber security and individual privacy in the country, must remain under the purview of the Act,” the Internet Freedom Foundation said in a statement.

But access to information is not the only right that has shrunk during the 10 years of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist rule.

The Modi government has diluted or weakened the provisions of several of the eight rights-based laws put in place during the previous decade of UPA rule. They include the RTI Act, 2005; the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005; the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006; the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008; the Right to Education Act, 2009; the Land Acquisition Act, 2013; the National Food Security Act, 2013; and the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act, 2014.

These pieces of legislation were the fruits of decades of mass movements and civil society activism. While provisions of some of the laws have been diluted through amendments, others have seen poor implementation.

One of the UPA government’s flagship schemes was the MGNREGA, a guarantee of a minimum income for at least 100 days a year to every rural household while building rural infrastructure like roads and canals.

“An Act like MGNREGA seemed quite exceptional as it came in the face of a strong resistance from those who otherwise wanted a limited role of the state in the economic activities of the people at large,” wrote Rakesh Kumar Singh in a paper presented at the Indian History Congress’ 2017 edition.

However, the Modi government has been weakening the scheme, allege activists.

The government “unleashed an unprecedented attack” on three fronts, economist Jean Drèze alleged in 2023, pointing to the underfunding of the scheme, the introduction of a digital attendance system, and the restriction of payments to bank accounts linked with Aadhaar cards, which many rural people do not have. The budgetary allocations announced in 2023 were the lowest ever in terms of share of GDP, Drèze alleged.

Besides this, there is the issue of delayed payments. The authors of a 2018 research paper, who analyzed over 9 million transactions for the financial year 2016-17 across 10 states, found that only 21 percent of the payments were made on time. The calculation of compensation was also flawed.

On February 15, several thousand MGNREGA workers from the eastern and central Indian states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh gathered in Jharkhand for the National Jan Sunwai (Public Hearing) on MGNREGA, which was organized by MGNREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a collective of workers, activists and academics, and Jharkhand MGNREGA Watch, a network of organizations and individuals. Attendees, including Congress leaders, raised all of the aforementioned issues.

The rights of tribal people over forest resources that were recognized by the FRA 2006 have also been undermined. Under this legislation, the consent of forest dwellers was necessary for acquiring their land for projects.

However, in 2017, the mining ministry decided that forest land leases could be issued without necessary clearances but actual work could begin only after obtaining the clearances. The clearance includes consent from the Gram Sabha or village council. In 2019, the government also issued a circular allowing Stage I or “in-principle” approval for other projects without the need to obtain consent from forest dwellers. Although the tribal affairs ministry protested this move by the forest ministry, saying it violated tribal rights, it had no impact.

Tribal leaders alleged that giving in-principal approval means pressurizing the community to give their consent. Further, a 2023 amendment to the Forest Conservation Act made forest clearance even easier.

The government has also tried to dilute the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, commonly referred to as the land acquisition law, which civil society organizations had welcomed as “a step in the right direction” despite certain deficiencies.

The law was enacted amid a series of intense and often violent movements in different parts of the country, especially the eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha and the western Indian state of Maharashtra, against land acquisition for industrial projects.

Since coming to power in 2014, the Modi government has made repeated attempts to dilute the provisions related to the consent of landowners in the government’s bid to facilitate infrastructural projects – first with an ordinance in 2014 and then with a Bill in 2015. When the Bill could not garner majority support in parliament, the government said that “states cannot indefinitely wait for… consensus” and that some of them want to enact their own land laws to spur development. The federal government would approve such state laws, it said.

Soon, BJP-ruled states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan made their own laws, doing exactly what the Modi government wanted to do nationally, and the federal government allowed those laws.

In 2021, the Niti Ayog, the top government think tank, recommended curtailing coverage under the food security law to save on subsidies. The 31 percent decrease in the government’s budget for food security last year compared to the revised budget for the previous year, evoked protests from civil society organizations.

A landmark legislation of the UPA years was the Right to Education Act, which mandates free and compulsory education to children in the 6-14 years age group. In 2017, the Modi government wanted to dilute the no-detention policy under this law. After several states opposed it, the government allowed them to pursue their own policies.

However, the Modi government has not rejected all of the UPA’s legacies. In 2008, the UPA government amended the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 (UAPA) to make its provisions more stringent. The amended law had come under strong criticism from civil society and human rights defenders because it increased the scope for violation of human rights in the name of investigations. The provisions made getting bail extremely difficult, even without sufficient evidence.

The Modi government toughened the UAPA’s provisions with the 2019 amendment, allowing the government to not only designate organizations but also individuals as terrorists, and attach their properties. The powers of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a counter-terrorism law enforcement agency controlled by the federal government, were strengthened and its scope expanded. Besides, the use of the law became more rampant.

“The NIA, which was justified in 2008 as a necessary infringement on federalism for a limited purpose, is now becoming a larger encroachment on federalism,” lawyer Sarim Naved wrote in 2019.

Several public intellectuals, human rights defenders, and civil society members were jailed for years after being charged under the UAPA in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. The matter was initially being probed by the state police in the BJP-ruled state of Maharashtra but soon after an opposition government took charge in the state, the Modi government handed over the investigation to the NIA.

It is evident that Modi’s BJP knows what Congress legacies are to be carried onward and what discarded.