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India's New Rights Agenda: Genesis, Promises, Risks

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Since 2004, India has introduced a series of progressive national bills that enact a right to new civic entitlements, ranging from information, work and education to forest conservation, food and basic public services. What explains the emergence of these laws? How are the rights conceived by these acts conceptualized, operationalized and pursued? What are the promises, challenges and risks—legal, political and economic—of enshrining socioeconomic entitlements as formal statutory rights? This paper engages these questions. In part 1, I argue that three slow-burning processes since the 1980s, distinct yet related, catalyzed India's new rights agenda: high socio-legal activism, rapid uneven development and the expanding popular foundations of its federal parliamentary democracy. Significantly, all three processes exposed the growing nexus between political corruption and socioeconomic inequality. Equally, however, each raised popular expectations for greater social justice that were only partly met. Part 2 of the paper evaluates India's new rights agenda. The promise of these new laws is threefold: they breach the traditional division of civil, political and socioeconomic rights, devise innovative governance mechanisms that enable citizens to see the state and provide fresh incentives for new political coalitions to emerge across state and society. Several risks exist, however. Official political resistance from above and below, the limited capacities of judicial actors, state bureaucracies and social forces and the relatively narrow base of many of these new movements endanger the potential of these reforms. The paper concludes by considering several imperatives that India's evolving rights movement must confront to realize its ambition.


Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 2013

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