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An opportunity for change

Jun 05, 2009

The clear verdict in Indian elections is a clarion call for good governance and stability. The UN Millennium Campaign and Wada Na Todo Abhiyan believe that after years of fractured mandate, it is now an opportunity for the government to move ahead on MDGs and deliver on its promises.

In the past eight months, India has had a series of State Legislative Assembly elections, ending with the recently concluded mammoth exercise of the Parliamentary elections, where 700 million people cast their ballots. While the results of the Parliamentary elections were in favour of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, many State elections were won by other parties and coalitions.

However, whichever party won the most votes, the verdict overall has been clear – voters cast their ballots in favour of stability, transparent and accountable governments, delivery of the development agenda and inclusive policies.

This series of clear verdicts after many years of coalition politics has significant impact on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The onus is clearly on the governments, both local and national, to deliver on their promises of good governance, crucial to the attainment of the MDGs.

Hunger is indeed one of the most pressing issues of human security in the sub-continent

The world has crossed the half-way mark on the period of the Millennium Declaration when 189 countries around the world signed up to achieving the MDGs. While India has made remarkable progress on achieving the goals, it still faces crucial challenges in meeting key development targets.

As a signatory to the Millennium Declaration, India’s progress in meeting the MDGs is crucial if the world is to do so. The Government of India’s Report on its progress towards achieving the MDGs published during the UN High level Event on the MDGs in September 2008, says that India has made significant progress. Flagship programmes instituted by the government, such as the National Rural Health Mission, The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, have been important factors in the advancement of MDGs.

But despite this progress in the aggregate, with one-third of the total population living below the global poverty line, India continues to be home to nearly a quarter of the world’s poor. The presence of more than 200 million malnourished people and half the world’s malnourished children in India makes it evident that hunger is indeed one of the most pressing issues of human security in the sub-continent. India’s child and maternal health parameters are not encouraging and is amongst the lowest expenditure on public health (by percentage of GDP) in the world.

The new government takes charge in extremely challenging times marked by a financial crisis, increase in food prices and a growing threat of terrorism

Despite the progress, historically excluded communities such as Scheduled Tribes/Scheduled Castes, De-Notified and Nomadic Tribes, women, religious minorities and the disabled continue to face discrimination and remain marginalized and unable to access key basic services. 

The new government takes charge in extremely challenging times marked by a financial crisis, increase in food prices and a growing threat of terrorism within and outside the borders of India. Despite the challenges the new government is likely to face, the people’s verdict is clearly for good governance and stability, which is crucial if India is to make progress made towards the MDGs.

The new mandate also makes clear that people voted for pro-poor and progressive initiatives taken by the previous government such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and other schemes such as the National Rural Health Mission, the Right to Information Act and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

While none of the schemes are without their problems, the policies themselves signal a way forward for poverty alleviation. The verdict is clearly in favour of better governance to ensure that the policies are implemented, that bottlenecks in service delivery are removed and that the services reach the people for whom they are intended.

This is a good opportunity for the State and national governments to re-evaluate their structures of governance to ensure more inclusion in policies and service delivery so that the poorest of the poor, the marginalized and excluded and minorities are ensured of livelihood opportunities and basic services and also to ensure that their entitlements under the various schemes reach them. 

Considerable gaps exist due to unequal economic growth, income inequalities, systemic mismanagement and inefficient delivery mechanisms

MDGs and Good Governance

Eradicating poverty and hunger, ensuring universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and achieving environmental stability constitute the pillars of the MDGs.

Today, the reality is that considerable gaps exist due to unequal economic growth, income inequalities, systemic mismanagement and inefficient delivery mechanisms.

While constant and high economic growth, accompanied by carefully designed and targeted pro-poor policies, are crucial for attaining the MDGs, effective decentralization, efficient and corruption-free delivery of services and respect for human rights, rule of law and accountability i.e., good governance, is the operating phrase for the success of MDGs.
Good governance is synonymous with democratic governance.

Democratic governance is possible when democratic values and norms are ingrained into the society and its institutions along with the procedural requirements of fair and free elections as well as peaceful turnover of power. A strong civil society, respect for human rights in general, and minority rights in particular, accountable and transparent public administration, decentralized local governance, separation of powers and an impartial judiciary, along with macroeconomic stability, high economic growth and declining poverty are among the core dimensions of good governance.

People can carve out a space to ensure that they hold the government to account by becoming active citizens even between elections

These features of good governance, including the principles of the MDGs, cannot exist without the accompanying values of freedom, solidarity, tolerance, and respect for the environment and shared responsibility in international development, security and peace. The MDGs and their associated norms and values are the quintessential means of building trust in government and government institutions.

The importance of good governance and the strengthening of trust in government become increasingly salient in the context of the MDGs.
People have an important role to play in ensuring that good governance happens. People can carve out a space to ensure that they hold the government to account by becoming active citizens even between elections.

By raising their voices against corruption in all forms, by using progressive laws such as the RTI, by becoming aware of and accessing their entitlements, people can ensure that governments and government systems become more responsive, more accountable and more transparent.

Supporting the Citizens to question the politicians and demand a pledge towards the fulfillment of MDGs

The United Nations Millennium Campaign supports Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA), a coalition of NGOs across India that works towards building governance accountability to end poverty and social exclusion, with an emphasis on the right to education, livelihood and health.

WNTA believes that sustained intervention at the national and state level with the institutes of governance will create spaces for the poor and make their voice heard. It is one of the largest campaigns on governance accountability in India and monitors the government’s progress against its own priorities and goals.

In the run up to the elections, the coalition has been actively engaged with all political parties in order to ensure that a progressive agenda set within the framework of MDGs, is carried forth by the new government.

The All India People’s Manifesto was a first-of-its kind effort to create a national agenda through a localized process of consultation and dialogue. It emerged out of consultations with over 400,000 people across the country. Local groups, civil society organizations across parliamentary constituencies came together to create a 10-point development agenda which was presented to all the main political parties and several MPs as a charter for their election manifestos and as a roadmap in the post-election phase.

The charter was developed through a participatory process. Public meetings were held in village clusters to identify prevalent needs and concerns of a constituency. The demands were then heard at a Lok Adalat presided over by representatives from all sections of the society, political figures and experts who prioritize the requirements.

To encourage direct participation of citizens WNTA has an active You Tube site where citizens voice their demands through uploaded videos.

The following observations were made when a review of the commitments made by political parties through their Election Manifestos were benchmarked with the demands of the All India People’s Manifesto:

  • A late release of the manifestos indicate that the political parties are not serious about ensuring an extensive debate and civic engagement
  • No party has talked of enacting law to protect citizens’ right to quality, affordable health services or adoption of the Right to Education Bill
  • While the National Food Security Act declared by the Congress offers hope in times of the global crisis, more comprehensive steps to expand the PDS systems and ensure essential commodities beyond the monthly rice subsidy would have been more effective.
  • There has been a strong emphasis on strengthening the role of Women Workers across parties, along with all parties committing to the enactment of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Wada Na Todo will continue to use the All India People’s Manifesto to benchmark the government’s progress during its term of office. The UN Millennium Campaign will continue to support its civil society partners and citizens to engage with the government and ensure that it delivers on the promises that have already been made. Significant steps have been taken towards creating a people-friendly policy framework and budgeting.

But now is the time to deliver, to put in place an accountable governance process that will ensure delivery of basic services and a just and equitable society. Through sustained advocacy engagements and milestone campaigns like Stand Up Take Action, End Poverty NOW!, on 16th, 17th, 18th of October, the UN Millennium Campaign will continue to support people to stand up against poverty and remind the government of its promises.

The writers are with the UN Millennium Campaign, India. The views expressed are personal. The writers can be contacted at millennium.campaign.india@un.org.in

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