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‘Civil society can influence government policies’

Jul 27, 2008

Professor Babu Mathew, one of the key architects of South Asian People’s Assembly, spoke to OneWorld South Asia on the sidelines of the People’s SAARC, recently organised in Sri Lanka. He speaks his mind eloquently on issues of militarisation, nuclearisation, human rights situation and other pressing matters in the region.

Professor Babu Mathew has had a long career in public life. He is presently serving as the Country Director of ActionAid India. In his capacity as a member of the Steering Committee of South Asian People’s Assembly (SAPA), he has played an instrumental role in organising and giving a vision for the future to People’s SAARC, as it is referred to in popular parlance.

This interview was conducted on the sidelines of the SAPA held in Colombo, Sri Lanka from July 18-20.

Here are the excerpts:

OWSA: You say that the governments of South Asian countries have not done enough to solve the problems of food, clothing, shelter, education, health, etc. despite the rhetoric. How do you think will it be possible to force these governments to change their priorities?

Babu Mathew: I don’t think we should have any illusion that we can all of a sudden bring about changes in our respective governments just because we started this process.

I think what must be recognised is that the kind of work we are engaged in our respective countries must be strengthened. Coming together at South Asia level strengthens these formations differently and widens the perspective of activists.

For example, we see that the problems we face in one country are very similar to those in other countries. We also come to know that there are similar causes for many and that there are different struggles going on in different parts of the region. And when we link these up, we have a better chance of communicating what we stand for. So it’s not as if we expect changes the next day. It is seen as part of a process of seeking alternatives over a period of time.

OWSA: Do you think civil society organisations in each of these countries are strong enough to influence government policies?

BM: When we come together, I think there is a process by which we contribute to the creation of public opinion. Governments also have different ways in which they ascertain public opinion, especially those that have semblance to democracy. They tend to pick up these signals. It depends on the strength of a particular movement at a given point of time and the nature of issues that are taken up. So, I do think that we can influence government policies.

OWSA: In the press conference after the preparatory meeting for People’s SAARC, you spoke about militarisation and nuclearisation. How do you think this can be stopped?

BM: We are not expecting a sudden stoppage. It’s a question of contributing to public opinion and increasing public awareness. The kind of military budgets that are set aside in all South Asian countries is such a shame, especially when there is a shortage of budget for basic needs.

We all know that health, education, housing, etc. in South Asia require much more allocation. Whenever we approach our respective governments they say there is not enough money, but when it comes down to armament competition they are able to find the budget. So I think it is a question of telling people that it is not because of lack of resources but lack of political will.

OWSA: Even as the SAPA is raising this issue, we have a nuclear deal debate going on in India. How do you see that?

BM: We see that as a very huge setback to the great democracy. That is largely because the executive power vested in the government of India is being misused. It’s a great tragedy that President George W. Bush, who is probably most hated all over the world, is a model here and he is the one with whom the Indian Prime Minister is trying to clinch an agreement. So it’s a tragedy for the government and the Congress party; it’s a tragedy for the Non Aligned Movement; and it’s a tragedy for everything that post independent India stood for.

OWSA: How do you look at different kinds of movements in the region that use violence to achieve their goals?

BM: We stand totally against those movements that use violence. It is unfortunate that such movements have not realised yet the amount of disservice they are doing to the people’s cause. It gives an excuse to the state to become even more militaristic. Because of the violence that emerges from people the state gets an excuse to arm itself more. So it is really destructive of civil and political rights.

OWSA: We all know that the situation of human rights is pathetic in the region. How does SAPA address this issue? Do you have any specific recommendations emanating from this process?

BM: I think spreading consciousness about human rights, making people understand what the human rights regime is, looking at international standards, popularising them, educating people, and holding governments responsible in respect of those standards will be some of the things that we would like to work on.

The most specific thing I would recommend is an optional protocol in respect of socio- economic and cultural rights, which is now in process. We must push for its acceptance in the UN General Assembly and its ratification by all South Asian countries.

With editorial inputs from Rajender Singh Negi.

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