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Capitalism versus Caste
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Essays Capitalism versus Caste
Praveen Kishore

Capitalism Versus Caste


The content of the following article is a response to the Times of India Article namely “Capitalism versus Caste’ by Chandra Bhan Prasad and Milind Kamble. It can be easily envisaged that above article is concerned with the discriminatory character of caste system and the concern for its abolition without which emancipation of Dalits seem to be impossible. The article is also related to the different views regarding caste system viz. Cultural-particularistic, cultural universalistic, structural particularistic and structural universalistic. Mr. Bhan and Mr. Kamble, deliberately or undeliberately, have taken the structural universalistic view propounded by prominent Marxist sociologist A.R.Desai.

Desai explains that caste system is a product of feudal mode of production and with the industrialization of Indian society, one should read also proliferation of Capitalism, caste system will be replaced by class system of stratification. This is what Mr. Bhan and Mr. Kamble have expressed in their article. But here, one need to ask two questions pertinently; First, can we abolish caste system and second, is everything with capitalism is good for human society in general and Dalits in particular. An affirmative answer to these two questions suffers from various limitations. The view is based on certain misconception regarding character of caste system, its indegeneity and its historicity.

The first systematic analysis of caste system has come out from the Indological interpretation of Indian society by Western intellectuals who were mesmerized by the existence of a civilization contradictory to the contemporary west of 19th century Europe. Western society was painted as perfectly equal and dynamic and Indian society as perfectly static, discriminatory and represented institutionalized inequality. There is no denying of the fact that caste system has inflicted great wound on the Indian society, one can say it has done irreparable damage to the social organization of  Hindu social organization. It has done great injustice to the people at the lower rank of the society, particularly Dalits, but it is also a fact that caste system has not been same in all its history. In other words, the character of caste has not remained same and static throughout its history. Its antecedent Varna system during Vedic period was a functional categorization rather than ascriptive demarcation. This view is also  endorsed by prominent sociologist C.H.Cooley who stated “During Vedic period Varna was like open class system”. It was only during Sutra period it started closing to the extent of extreme discrimination in the form of practice  of untouchability. After establishment of British rule, contact with the modern west, this discriminatory and inhuman practice started getting voice for its abolition. Out of the various options, one was that of Dr.Ambedkar’s view that caste system is inherently hierarchical and without its abrogation Dalits would never be emancipated. It would be a misadventure on my side to say anything on what Dr.Ambedkar gave a view as it is impossible for me or majority among us to match the erudition and experience s of him, but, I am also not able to restrict myself from asking one question: can we abolish caste system. The system has its history of almost 5000 years old and after going through various historiosophical analyst like Russian Nikolai Danilevsky, German Oswald Spengler and English Arnold Toynbee, one has to believe that Indian civilization is an indigenous one, and it is practically impossible for any heterogenetic factor to completely replace an indigenous civilization.

We have been trying to abolish the system for almost 300 years and it had been anticipated that with proliferation of scientific education, industrialization and adoption of capitalism, caste system will be abrogated. But, the scrutiny of the empirical reality, forces one to come to the conclusion that caste system is not getting abolished but its character is changing. To refer to two prominent sociologists Prof. Yogendra Singh and Prof. Rajni Kothari, according to Y.Singh Hindu society is undergoing through the process of fundamental democratization i.e. caste system is still operational in personal domain but not in secular domain and Secularisation of caste i.e. caste is taking secular character. One example can be cited by referring to matrimonial columns in newspapers including English dailies whose readers are supposed to belong to educated and elite section of the society. This match making is not only limited to Hindus but also to people of other religions viz. Muslims, Christians who donot recognize any form of inequality among its believers.

It is impossible to guess what will happen in the distant future, but the developments in the last 3-4 centuries clearly indicates towards the futility of exercises to eliminate caste system completely. Instead one should attempt to concentrate on the removal of the ills of the caste system, specially untouchability, grant of privileges and disprivileges on the basis of birth, discrimination and exclusion of castes in economic and political domain and provide equal opportunities of individual advancement and establish political as well as economic democracy. It has been rightly stated by an English anthropologist J.H.Hutton, everything associated with caste is not bad and if there is an wound in a finger we don’t cut the finger itself rather try to heal the wound.


The second limitation of the article is projection of an extremely laudatory view of capitalist mode of production itself. Most of the Dalit ideologues including Mr.Bhan and Mr. kamble, are over influenced by western civilization and see it as a repository of perfect humanity and egalitarianism. No doubt modern West does not incorporate in its fold, at least theoretically, any form of institutionalize inequality and discrimination, but at pragmatic level it is not so. Prominent sociologist Andre Beteille states that there are various nodes of inequality extant in Western society too. There is discrimination on ethnic and racial basis and this discrimination takes an ugly face during the period of economic downturn. The violence against Indians in Australia in recent past is symptom of such tendency. Till date West was acting as metropolitan centre for the world economy, therefore able to harvest economically rich dividend for its citizens. But with the shift of this centre towards Asia the situation may not remain same there. Definitely the nature of discrimination may not be same as during feudal period but will be. So emphasis should be on economic growth, not on the debate between individualism versus collectivism.

The second aspect of this limitation is that everything associated with capitalism is not good but there are dark spots too. Western thinkers Marx and even Weber has pointed towards the dehumanizing nature of capitalism. Capitalism promotes unbridled individualism and materialism which is not only detrimental at societal level but personal level too. At societal level it helps in concentration of capital in a few hands pushing the marginalized section of the society further towards periphery sans collectivism. A genealogical analysis of the people belonging to lower class and its correlationship with the past cultural structure and social groups can throw more light on the issue.  Mr.Bhan nad Mr. Kamble have cited some of the examples which are definitely laudable, but at the same time it is also a truth that with the rise of capitalism the measure of inequality Gini Coeeficient is also rising in India, marginalisation of farming community is taking place leading to farmers suicide of an unprecedent level, tribal people are getting alienated from the process of development due to predatory approach of capitalists and thereby giving rise to naxalism. Since 1990s, when we started moving towards liberalization and capitalism, problem of Naxalism is on rise and at present it covers more than 200 districts covering more than 8 major states in India. It has impressed on out Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to utter that Naxalism is the greatest threat to internal security. We are gradually sitting on a volcano that may erupt any time.

At personal level, capitalism promotes individualism and materialism. This unbridled individualism and materialism is pushing human being towards more isolation and stress. This isolation and stress is inflicting wound on the social fabric of our society by breaking community sentiment and mental health of the people as well. The height of consumerism is giving rise to stress induced diseases like depression, schizophrenia and so on.

In conclusion I can say that it will be a gross mistake to look at West and particularly capitalism as savior of humanity and a means of removal of all ills of society. In the long run it may prove to be Frankein Monster. And on the other side, to see everything associate with East and Catse system as degenerate and base. The two should not be seen as paradox rather should be viewed as parallax and we should try to synthesize the better side of both for a better future of humanity. Materialsm should not be the goal of society rather means to reduce human problems and achieve happiness and self satisfaction.

In the last, Reference of the view of Mahatma Gandhi becomes very relevant in this context when he says that capitalists should not be the owner of means of production rather trustee of it. The concept of private property is the character of west, it never existed in India. Even the King did not own the land as their personal property. He also said, caste system is an aberration of the functional equivalent of the class system that is Varna vyavastha.


Human Rights: Facts and Prospects
Praveen Kishore

Human Rights: Facts and Prospects in India

Historical background – foundational document


Although ideas of rights and liberty have existed in some form for much of human history, they do not resemble the modern conception of human rights. According to Jack Donnelly(Author of the book “Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice”), in the ancient world, "traditional societies typically have had elaborate systems of duties... conceptions of justice, political legitimacy, and human flourishing that sought to realize human dignity, flourishing, or well-being entirely independent of human rights. These institutions and practices are alternative to, rather than different formulations of, human rights"


The most commonly held view is that concept of human rights evolved in the West, and that while earlier cultures had important ethical concepts, they generally lacked a concept of human rights. For example, McIntyre argues there is no word for "right" in any language before 1400. Medieval charters of liberty such as the English Magna Carta1 were not charters of human rights, rather they were the foundation  and constituted a form of limited political and legal agreement to address specific political circumstances. Magna Carta –(Latin for Great Charter) originally issued in the year 1215, was the first document that required king Jon of England to proclaim certain liberties and accept that his will was not arbitrary – for example by explicitly accepting that no “freeman” could be punished except through the law of land. It was also an attempt to protect the privileges of the feudal barons.


One of the other oldest records of human rights is the statute of Kalisz (1264), giving privileges to the Jewish minority in the Kingdom of Poland such as protection from discrimination and hate speech. 


The basis of most modern legal interpretations of human rights can be traced back to recent European history. The Twelve Articles (1525) are considered to be the first record of human rights in Europe. They were part of the peasants' demands raised towards the Swabian League in the German Peasants' War in Germany. In Spain in 1542 Bartolomé de Las Casas argued against Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in the famous Valladolid debate, Sepúlveda mainted an Aristotelian view of humanity as divided into classes of different worth, while Las Casas argued in favor of equal rights to freedom of slavery for all humans regardless of race or religion. In Britain in 1683, the English Bill of Rights (or "An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown") and the Scottish Claim of Right each made illegal a range of oppressive governmental actions.


Two major revolutions occurred during the 18th century, in the United States (1776) and in France (1789), leading to the adoption of the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen respectively, both of which established certain legal rights. Additionally, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 encoded into law a number of fundamental civil rights and civil freedoms.


            We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.   United States Declaration of Independence, 1776


These were followed by developments in philosophy of human rights by philosophers such as Thomas Paine(1737 – 1809), John Stuart Mill(1806 – 1873) and G.W.F. Hegel(1770 – 1831) during the 18th and 19th centuries. The term human rights probably came into use some time between Paine's The Rights of Man and William Lloyd Garrison's 1831 writings in The Liberator, in which he stated that he was trying to enlist his readers in "the great cause of human rights".


In the 19th century, human rights became a central concern over the issue of slavery. A number of reformers, such as William Wilberforce in Britain, worked towards the abolition of slavery. This was achieved in the British Empire by the Slave Trade Act 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. In the United States, all the northern states had abolished the institution of slavery between 1777 and 1804, although southern states clung tightly to the "peculiar institution". Conflict and debates over the expansion of slavery to new territories constituted one of the reasons for the southern states' secession and the American Civil War. During the reconstruction period immediately following the war, several amendments to the United States Constitution were made. These included the 13th amendment, banning slavery, the 14th amendment, assuring full citizenship and civil rights to all people born in the United States, and the 15th amendment, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote.


Many groups and movements have achieved profound social changes over the course of the 20th century in the name of human rights. In Europe and North America, labour unions brought about laws granting workers the right to strike, establishing minimum work conditions and forbidding or regulating child labour. The women's rights movement succeeded in gaining for many women the right to vote. National liberation movements in many countries succeeded in driving out colonial powers. One of the most influential was Mahatma Gandhi's movement to free his native India from British rule. Movements by long-oppressed racial and religious minorities succeeded in many parts of the world, among them the African American Civil Rights Movement, and more recent diverse identity politics movements, on behalf of women and minorities in the United States.


The establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 1864 Lieber Code and the first of the Geneva Conventions in 1864 laid the foundations of International humanitarian law, to be further developed following the two World Wars. The World Wars, and the huge losses of life and gross abuses of human rights that took place during them, were a driving force behind the development of modern human rights instruments. The League of Nations was established in 1919 at the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles following the end of World War I. The League's goals included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation and diplomacy, and improving global welfare. Enshrined in its charter was a mandate to promote many of the rights later included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


At the 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allied Powers agreed to create a new body to supplant the League's role; this was to be the United Nations. The United Nations has played an important role in international human-rights law since its creation. Following the World Wars, the United Nations and its members developed much of the discourse and the bodies of law that now make up international humanitarian law and international human rights law. On 10 December 1948 at Palais de Chaillot, Paris, United Nation General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Universal Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly by a vote of 48 in favour, 0 against, with eight abstentions: the USSR, Ukrainian SSR, Byelorussian SSR,People's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, People's Republic of Poland, Union of South Africa, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The day of adoption 10 December is commemorated as Human Rights Day or International Human Rights Day.


The Declaration consists of 30 articles which have been elaborated in subsequent international treaties, regional human rights instruments, national constitutions and laws. The International Bill of Human Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols. In 1966 the General Assembly adopted the two detailed Covenants, which complete the International Bill of Human Rights; and in 1976, after the Covenants had been ratified by a sufficient number of individual nations, the Bill took on the force of international law.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)


Preamble: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.





All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


·         Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.


Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.


No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.


No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.


All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.


·         Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.


No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.


Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.


(1)  Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2)  No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.


No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.


(1)  Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2)  Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.


(1)  Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2)  This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.


(1)  Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2)  No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.


(1)  Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2)  Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3)  The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.


(1)  Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2)  No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.


Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.


Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.


(1)  Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2)  No one may be compelled to belong to an association.


(1)  Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2)  Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3)  The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.


Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.


(1)  Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2)  Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3)  Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4)  Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.


(1)  Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2)  Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.


(1)  Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2)  Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3)  Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.


(1)  Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2)  Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.


1.     Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.


(1)  Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2)  In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3)  These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.



Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.


Originally the Universal Declaration was conceived as a statement of objectives to be pursued by Governments, and therefore it is not part of binding international law. Nonetheless, it is still a potent instrument used to apply moral and diplomatic pressure on states that violate the Declaration’s principles. In fact, in 1968, the United Nations International Conference on Human Rights agreed that the Declaration "constitutes an obligation for the members of the international community" to protect and preserve the rights of its citizenry


Since the Declaration is not legally binding technically, there are no signatories to the Declaration. Instead, the Declaration was ratified through a proclamation by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948 with a count of 48 votes to none with only 8 abstentions. This was considered a triumph as the vote unified very diverse, even conflicting political regimes.


Human Rights in india

The constitution of India did not originally contain the term “Human Rights” exclusively, the issue was addressed implicitly through the provisions in chapter III and IV under Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles. Though directive principles are not enforceable in the court of law but at the same time it provides the direction of governance. But we completely lacked an institution which could look after the issue of violation of Human Rights effectively. The institution came into existence with the enactment of Protection of Human Rights Act in 1993.


Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993


The act provided for the constitution of a National Human Rights Commission, State Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Courts for better protection of human rights and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.


The Act was in response to the global concern about Human Rights Violations. In 1960 the ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council, UN) emphasized the role of NHRIs (National Human Rights Institutions). After this, Paris Principles in 1991, Vienna Declaration and Programme of   Action 1993 and UN General Assembly of 1993, all endorsed the need of “independent, accountable and accessible” NHRIs. At home the Government of India was also facing severe criticisms for alleged violations of Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Assam. Because of internal and International pressure it became obligatory for Indian Government to constitute a specialised agency to deal with the issues of protection and promotion of Human Rights.


National Human Rights Commission: it is a statutory body established 12th October, 1993 under the provision of of the Protection of Human Rights act 1993. Also 14 state Human Rights Commissions have been established.


The commision consists of

(a)   A Chairperson who has been a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

(b)   One memberwho is or has been, a judge of the Supreme Court;

(c)   One member who is, or has been, the Chief Justice of a High Court

(d)   Two members to be appointed from amongst persons having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights.


Besides, Chairpersons of National Commission for Minorities, the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes, The National Commission for the Scheduled Tribes and the National Commission for women arethe ex-officio members.


There is a Secretary General who is the chief executive officer exercising power and functions other than judicial.


Presently Hon’ble Justice Shri K.G.Balakrishnan is chairperson and justice shri Govind Prasad Mathur, Justice Shri Babulal Chandulal Patel, Shri Satyabrata Pal is member other than ex-officio members.


The head quarter of the commission has to be in Delhi and the commission may, with the prior approval of central government, set up office at other places in India.


The chair person and members are appointed by the president on the recommendation of a committee comprising

(a)   Prime minister – chairperson

(b)   Speaker of the lok sabha

(c)   Minister in-charge of the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Government of India

(d)   Leader of the opposition in the House of the People

(e)   Leader of opposition in the Council of States

(f)    Deputy chairperson of the council of states


Provided further that no sitting Judge of the Supreme Court or sitting Chief Justice of a High Court shall be appointed except after consultation with the Chief Justice of India.


The composition of the committee ensures the neutrality in matters of appointment and also enjoys the confidence of ruling party, opposition as well as legislature as a whole. The functional autonomy of the commission is also ensured by providing security of tenure to chairperson and members, a complex procedure of removal and financial autonomy.


Financial autonomy, though limited, has provided NHRC independence of Central Government. The Commission is free to make its own budget and spend it according to its own planning. The draft of the proposed budget is placed before both the Houses of Parliament and after the approval of the budget, Government, without making any amendment, has to provide finances to the Commission.


Removal of a Member of the Commission


Section 5 of the Act describes the procedures and ground for the removal of the any member of the Commission. Subject to the provisions of sub-section (2), the Chairperson or any other Member of the Commission shall only be removed from his office by order of the President on the ground of proved misbehavior or incapacity, after the Supreme Court, on reference being made to it by the President, has, on inquiry held in accordance with the procedure prescribed in that behalf by the Supreme Court, reported that the Chairperson or such other Member, as the case may be, ought on any such ground to be removed. The President may remove the Chairperson or any other Member if he-


(a)   Is adjudged an insolvent; or

(b)   engages during his term of office in any paid employment out side the duties of his office: or

(c)   is unfit to continue in office by reason of infirmity of mind or body; or

(d)   Is of unsound mind and stands so declared by a competent court; or

(e)   is convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for an offence which in the opinion of the President involves moral turpitude.


Term of office of Members


According to Section 6 of the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993, Chairperson shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or until he attains the age of seventy years, whichever is earlier. A Member shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office and shall be eligible for re-appointment for another term of five years, provided that no Member shall hold office after he has attained the age of seventy years.


Functions of the Commission

The Commission performs following functions (Section 12 of the Act),


(a)   inquires, suo-motu or on a petition presented to it by a victim or any person on his behalf, on the violation of human rights or abetment thereof and negligence by a public servant in the prevention of such violation,

(b)   intervenes in any proceeding involving any allegation of violation of human rights pending before a court with the approval of such court;

(c)   visits, under intimation to the State Government, any jail or any other institution under the control of the State Government, where persons are detained or lodged for purposes of treatment, reformation or protection to study the living conditions of the inmates and make recommendations thereon;

(d)    reviews the safeguards provided by or under the Constitution or any law for the time being in force for the protection of human rights and recommend for their effective implementation;

(e)   reviews the factors, including acts of terrorism that inhibit the enjoyment of human rights and recommend appropriate remedial measures;

(f)    studies treaties and other international instruments on human rights and make recommendations for their effective implementation;

(g)   undertakes and promotes research in the field of human rights;

(h)   spreads human rights literacy among various sections of society and promotes awareness of the safeguards available for the protection of these rights through publications, media, seminars and other available means;

(i)    encourages the efforts of non-governmental organizations and institutions working in the field of human rights;

(j)    such other functions as it may consider necessary for the protection of human rights.


Powers relating to inquiries


Section 13 of the Act defines the powers of the Commission relating to inquiries. The Commission, while inquiring into complaints under this Act, have all the powers of a civil court trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, and in particular in respect of the following matters, namely :


(a)   summoning and enforcing the attendance of witnesses and examine them on oath;

(b)   discovery and production of any document;

(c)   receiving evidence on affidavits;

(d)   requisition of any public record or copy thereof from any court or office;

(e)   issuing commissions for the examination of witnesses or documents.


The Commission also has the power to require any person, subject to any privilege which may be claimed by that person under any law for the time being in force, to furnish information on such points or matters as, in the opinion of the Commission, may be useful for, or relevant to, the subject matter of the inquiry and any person so required shall be deemed to be legally bound to furnish such information within the meaning of section 176 and section 177 of the Indian Penal Code. An officer, not below the rank of a Gazetted Officer, specially authorized in this behalf by the Commission may enter any building or place where the Commission has reason to believe that any document relating to the subject matter of the inquiry may be found, and may seize any such document or take extracts or copies there from subject to the provisions of section 100 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, in so far as it may be applicable. Proceeding before the Commission is deemed to be a judicial proceeding and the Commission is deemed to be a civil court for all the purposes of section 195 and Chapter XXVI of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.



According to the Section 14 the Commission may, for the purpose of conducting any investigation pertaining to the inquiry, utilize the services of any officer or investigation agency of the Central Government or any State Government. The Commission may summon and enforce the attendance of any person and examine him. The Commission may demand the production of any document and may cease any public record or copy thereof from any office.


Steps after inquiry


The Commission may take any of the following steps upon the completion of an inquiry held under Section 18 of this Act namely:


1.     where the inquiry discloses, the commission of violation of human rights or negligence in the prevention of violation of human rights by a public servant, it may recommend to the concerned Government or authority the initiation of proceedings for prosecution or such other action as the Commission may deem fit against the concerned person or persons;

2.     approach the Supreme Court or the High Court concerned for such directions, orders or writs as that Court may deem necessary;

3.     Recommend to the concerned Government or authority for the grant of such immediate interim relief to the victim or the members of his family as the Commission may consider necessary;

4.     Subject to the provisions of clause (5), provide a copy of the inquiry report to the petitioner or his representative;

5.     the Commission shall send a copy of its inquiry report together with its recommendations to the concerned Government or authority and the concerned Government or authority shall, within a period of one month, or such further time as the Commission may allow, forward its comments on the report, including the action taken or proposed to be taken thereon, to the Commission;

6.     The Commission shall publish its inquiry report together with the comments of the concerned Government or authority, if any, and the action taken or proposed to be taken by the concerned Government or authority on the recommendations of the Commission.


Procedure with respect to armed forces


While dealing with complaints of violation of human rights by members of the armed forces, the Commission, either on its own motion or on receipt of a petition, may seek a report from the Central Government or make recommendations. The Central Government shall inform the Commission of the

action taken on the recommendations within three months or such further time as the Commission may allow.


Annual and special reports of the Commission

The Commission submits an annual report to the Central Government and to the State Government concerned and may at any time submit special reports on any matter which, in its opinion, is of such urgency or importance that it should not be deferred till submission of the annual report. These reports are laid before each House of Parliament or the State Legislature respectively, as the case may be, along with a memorandum of action taken or proposed to be taken on the recommendations of the Commission.


Achievements, limitations and challenges to NHRC



1.     Institutionalisation of an independent body that looks into the matter related to Human Rights and accessible to the masses. At least, we have an institution which we can approach to redress our grievances and which vows to fight for the Human Rights. The growing number of cases reported to commission is witness to the accessibility of the Commission to masses.

2.     Developed as an expert body suggesting legislatures on issues related to Human Rights while framing the law.

3.     The issue of Human Rights is not an isolated issue. It is not independent of the issues of poverty, illiteracy, disparities and so on. The Commission has been making efforts to minimize such aberrations and create an environment in which rights can be better promoted and protected. Apart from working for the eradication of bonded labour and child labour, rights of the child, women, dalits, minorities and other marginalized groups, the Commission has also undertaken work in other fields, such as, public health, right to food etc. The Commission has endeavoured to promote a culture of human rights in the country by pressing for the introduction of human rights education in the curricula, from schools up to the university.

4.     Supreme Court of India has reposed faith in the Commission by entrusting responsibility in oversseing the functioning of three Mental institutions since 1997. The Commission has been continuing its work through the Special Rapporteur. Due to continuous efforts of the Commission, during the year 2005-06 there has been a significant progress. It is heartening to note that more than 90% of the admissions are voluntary admissions in these hospitals consistent with the provisions of the U.N. Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and Improvement of Mental Health Care (1999). There has been an overall shift from custodial care to treatment and rehabilitation. Cell admissions have been totally stopped and closed wards are being progressively converted into open wards.

5.     Since December, 1996, the Commission has been dealing with complaints alleging starvation deaths in Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi (KBK) districts of Orissa. The issue was also raised in writ petition in Supreme Court. On learning that the Commission had taken cognizance of the matter, the Supreme Court allowed the Commission to deal with the matter and empowered it to issue enforceable recommendations and directions. The Commission after hearing the parties formulated a practical programme covering rural water supply schemes, public health care, social security schemes, water and soil conservation measures and rural development schemes. Much progress has been made in this regard due to monitoring of the programme by the Commission through Special Rapporteurs. 




Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an International Non-Governmental Organisation has analysed the limitations of NHRC. According to its writings, the protection of Human Rights Act suffers from certain limitations reducing its effectiveness in achieving its goal. They are:


Structural limitations


The structural limitations largely relate to the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 and include:


Recommendations only: Commissions make recommendations to government, which include: payment of compensation to the victim or to her/his family; disciplinary proceedings against delinquent officials; the registration of criminal cases against those responsible; instructions to take particular action to protect human rights and/or to refrain from actions that violate human rights.


However, they can only make recommendations, without the power to enforce decisions. This lack of authority to ensure compliance has unfortunate consequences:


Outright rejection of a recommendation: Governments often ignore the recommendation completely or furnish a long bureaucratic discourse on how compliance with the reommendation is not in the public interest (read governmental



Partial compliance: An example of this is a failure to release the full amount of compensation. Another example is to take action on only one recommendation when there were actually dual recommendations, such as to pay compensation and take disciplinary action.


Delayed compliance: While recommendations usually obligate governments to take action within 4-6 weeks, compliance is rare within the stipulated time and sometimes action is so delayed that it becomes meaningless.


Composition Criteria: The Act requires that three of the five members of a human rights commission must be former judges but does not specify whether these judges should have a proven record of human rights activism or expertise or qualifications in the area. Regarding the other two members, the Act is vague, saying simply: “persons having knowledge and experience of human rights.” Commissions therefore sometimes become post-retirement destinations for judges, police officers and bureaucrats with political clout.


Time - bar: Under the Act, human rights commissions cannot investigate an event if the complaint was made more than one year after the incident. Therefore, a large number of genuine grievances go unaddressed.


Bar on violations by Armed Forces: State human rights commissions cannot call for information from the national government, which means that they are implicitly denied the power to investigate armed forces under national control. Even the powers of the National Human Rights Commission relating to violations of human rights by the armed forces have been restricted to simply seeking a report from the Government, (without being allowed to summons witnesses), and then issuing recommendations.


Practical limitations


Structural limitations apart, the work of human rights commissions is also being hampered by cultures that exist within governmental spheres. Some of the practical difficulties faced by human rights commissions include:


Non-filling of vacancies: Most human rights commissions are functioning with less than the prescribed five Members. This limits the capacity of commissions to deal promptly with complaints, especially as all are facing successive increases in the number of complaints.


Non-availability of funds: Scarcity of resources - or rather, resources not being used for human rights related functions - is another big problem. Large chunks of the budget of commissions go in office expenses and in maintaining their members, leaving disproportionately small amounts for other crucial areas such as research and rights awareness programmes.


Too many complaints: A common problem faced by most human rights commissions is that they are deluged with complaints. In the year 2000-2001, the National Human Rights Commission received over 70,000 complaints. State human rights commissions too, are finding it difficult to address the increasing number of complaints.


Bureaucratic style of functioning: As human rights commissions primarily draw their staff from government departments - either on deputation or reemployment after retirement - the internal atmosphere is usually just like any other government office. Strict hierarchies are maintained, which often makes it difficult for complainants to obtain documents or information about the status of their

case. The presence of security guards, armies of peons and office attendants creates barriers for ordinary people to personally meet officials in regard to their complaint.


Areas requiring intervention advocacy


There is an urgent need for civil society and defenders of human rights to immediately advocate for changes in the structure and functioning of human rights commissions to improve their functional efficiency as protectors and promoters of human rights. The National Human Rights Commission in fact submitted to the national Government in March 2000 a set of proposed amendments and has reiterated these in successive annual reports. Sadly, as yet no action has been taken to bring about this reform.


Suggested proposals

If human rights commissions are to truly protect and promote human rights in India, changes must

be made to enable them to become more effective institutions. Some suggested proposals are:


More teeth: The effectiveness of human rights commissions will be greatly enhanced if their decisions are immediately made enforceable by the government. This will save considerable time and energy as commissions will no longer need to either send reminders to government departments to implement the recommendations or alternatively to approach High Courts through a cumbersome judicial process to make the government take action.


Commissions must also have clear and well-defined powers to proceed against government departments furnishing false reports. This will assist in preventing the many instances where the departmental version of events is more often than not a white-wash, particularly in those cases where the police has been accused of violations.


Including armed forces in their ambit: A large number of human rights violations occur in areas where there is insurgency and internal conflict. Not allowing commissions to independently investigate

complaints against the military and security forces only compounds the problems and furthers cultures

of impunity. It is essential that commissions are able to summons witnesses and documents, rather than the present situation where the National Commission is restricted to seeking reports from the

national Government. Commissions’ membership: As non-judicial member positions are increasingly being filled by ex-bureaucrats, credence is given to the contention that commissions are more an extension of the government, rather than independent agencies exercising oversight. If commissions are to play a meaningful role in society, they must include civil society human rights activists as members. Many activists have the knowledge and on-the-ground experience of contemporary trends in the human rights movement to be an asset to the Commission.


Independent recruitment of staff: Human rights commissions need to develop an independent cadre of staff with appropriate experience. The present arrangement of having to reply on those on

deputation from different government departments is not satisfactory as experience has shown that

most have little knowledge and understanding of human rights issues. This problem can be rectified

by employing specially recruited and qualified staff to help clear the heavy inflow of complaints.


Separate agency to investigate police-related complaints: Complaints regarding police excesses

and misbehaviour take up most of the time of human rights commissions. It is perhaps time to think about an alternative agency, dedicated solely to civilian oversight of the police. Here we can learn from international experience: the UK, for instance, has an Independent Police Complaints Commission; South Africa has an Independent Complaints Directorate; and Brazil has Police Ombudsmen offices is some provinces to deal exclusively with police complaints. While it may be an accepted fact that these proposals would help bring about qualitative improvement, the challenge lies in moving the government to accept these and other progressive ideas. Governments across the world are only too keen on maintaining the status quo. Governments often put in place inadequate accountability mechanisms as their presence helps to silence public demands, without overly diluting

government power.


Civil society groups therefore need to mobilise people across the nation through targeted advocacy

strategies. Reform initiatives can only bear fruit when ordinary citizens take an active interest in good governance and human rights.


Human rights and its challenges

The Universality of human rights, their focus on human dignity and their concern for accountability make them uniquely appropriate for reshaping development, cooperation, fostering good governance and combating discrimination, disease and despair to reach the goal of achieving a society where ‘human rights for all’ becomes a reality. Human dignity is the spine of human rights. It is in fact the very foundation on which Human Rights rest. By its very nature, they are indivisible and, therefore, violation of one human right cannot be compensated by enhancement of another. The aim of human rights is empowerment of people through human development. Both are inter-dependent and inter-related and have a direct relationship with human development. Universality of human rights demands eradication of global inequities and to achieve this end the importance of “Right to Development” cannot, but, be emphasized.


Challenges to Human Rights in India

Poverty is the biggest violator of human rights. However, for a programme of eradication of poverty, one has to look at a number of indices together, and a right to development approach would imply considering improvement in each of the indices through schemes that have to be implemented following the rights approach where the beneficiaries are empowered to participate in the decision making and executing the different schemes, transparently and accountably, and sharing the benefits equitably. Statistics provided by The Human Development Reports demonstrate that there exist massive inequalities, more particularly in the developing countries, which render the enjoyment of human rights rather illusory. Political freedom would not have much significance or meaning for millions of poverty stricken people in various countries who suffer the social evils flowing from poverty. Eradication of poverty is, therefore, a big challenge. 

Neglect of social, economic and cultural rights of the citizens is yet another big challenge. In our Constitution civil and political rights are contained as “fundamental rights” in Part-III, while social economic and cultural rights are contained in Part IV as Directive Principles. The mandate of Article 37 of the Constitution, however, is that even though directive principles are not justiciable or enforceable by the courts, the same are “fundamental in the governance of the country” and it shall be the “duty” of the State to apply these principles. Unfortunately, the Governments at the Centre and the States, as statistics tell us, never whole-heartedly pursued the implementation of Directive Principles. The government dilly-dallied implementation of each principle generally citing the reasons of resource crunch. Governments have so far contented themselves by chalking out only strategies for promotion of economic and social rights. Even those strategies have hardly borne any fruits because of rampant corruption in implementing the same. Millions of people in this country still live in a state of abject poverty, without food, shelter, employment, health care and education. According to UNDP Report of 2003, Indian society is a highly inequitable society where the richest 10% consume 33.5% of resources and the poorest 10% get only 3.5% of resources. Around 233 million people are chronically hungry. Official figures state that in our country 26% people are living Below Poverty Line.

The State must realize the importance of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and should not content itself by only chalking out strategies for promotion of the same. The neglect of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights like right to food, health care, education, etc. gives rise to internal conflicts, which are caustic factors of conflict and terrorism. They pose a threat not only to human rights but also to peace. Where hunger persists, peace cannot prevail.

One other important challenge to the enjoyment of human rights is the issue of rampant corruption.

Corruption inhibits enjoyment of human rights. It has become all pervasive and is eating into the vitals of the society. It directly contributes to inequalities in income, status and opportunities. It remains one of the biggest threats to ‘full human development’ and ‘human rights for all’. It undermines the rule of law. It distorts the development process and also poses a grave threat to human security. Corruption is not a new phenomenon. What is new and worrying is the magnitude and size of corruption. It has spread its tentacles to every sphere of national life. It is one of the biggest threats to development. It can tear the very fabric of the society and, infact, it is doing so. Corruption benefits the rich and the well-to-do. It enriches the rich and disproportionally affects the poor, unprotected and the underprivileged and thereby it deepens their deprivation. Unless it is checked, the governments and people will have to pay a very heavy price in the consequent result of lower incomes, lower investments and lower developments resulting in volatile economic swings. It is unfortunate, but true, that growing politicization of public services and criminalization of politics have contributed in no small measure to let corruption flourish and the corrupt not only go scot-free but even earn a position of false respectability. Zero tolerance to corruption by We the People of India, would go a long way to check the menace. To have corruption free governance is a basic human right and the need to recognize it as such and to take steps to eradicate it, is the need of the hour.

Terrorism: The pervasive threat of terrorism is a great obstacle in the efforts  to promote and protect human rights, for terrorism is deeply hostile to human rights, including the most fundamental of all rights, the right to life itself. Terrorism hinders development and thereby affects human rights. All liberal democracies must unite to fight the menace and curb terrorism strongly. The Commission have consistently held the view that the actions which any State takes to fight and triumph over this evil, must themselves fall within the parameters of the Rule of Law and conform to the high standards that we have set for ourselves – in our Constitutions, our laws, and in the great human rights treaties adopted since the founding of the United Nations.  There should not be a selective approach while dealing with terrorism and there has to be a united and concerted effort to fight the menace, without chilling the civil liberties of the citizens. The actions must be in accordance with the Rule of Law since the actions are aimed at preserving both Rule of Law, democracy and human rights.

Sexual exploitation of women and children is also posing a big challenge for protection of human rights. Trafficking in women and children is a gross violation of their human rights and an affront to the supreme dignity of the females, apart from being a serious crime. It is a problem of Human Rights. It is a problem which should make the heads of the civil society fall in shame because here we are treating human beings as chattels, commodities, saleable items - the price tag varying with age, class, colour and sex. What used to be sometimes an affair in the remote corner of some hidden unknown street, is today available in five stars establishments.

India is not only a transit point for supply of trafficked women and children but also a recipient and a supplier of such persons. The exploitation of women and children for sex purposes, however, is not confined to India alone, which has porous borders with Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but is a problem of global dimensions. Statistics tells us that this crime is a flourishing trade to the tune of 8 billion dollars in a year. It is almost surpassing the profits from drugs trafficking. In Asia- Pacific itself, 4,50,000 persons are trafficked every year and out of them Two Hundred Thousands are from South Asia. Unfortunately trafficking in women and children has remained confined to intellectual discussions to understand as to what is prostitution or commercial sex and how to control it. That is only one side of the coin. When we confine it to prostitution or commercial sex or exploitation as a result thereof, we are only trying to identify the disease, we are neither looking for the symptoms nor the causes let alone the remedies. Trafficking has wider dimensions and requires multi-prong attack to tackle it. May be it is because of a weak law enforcement mechanism and inadequacies in the criminal justice system, but the situation in every case invites attention of all concerned agencies: legislature, judiciary and other enforcers of law. It appears that our society is becoming a psycho-sick society with an uncivilized behavior. Whenever crime is committed against women and that too a violent crime, it sends shock waves to the society but those shock waves burst like bubbles in a very short time. The society must change its attitude.

The challenge which trafficking in women and children is posing is a formidable one – the crime is on the increase and sex-tourism, which today has become a reality, has compounded the problem. There are laws to deal with the crime but not only are those inadequate but are also not being implemented properly. The sexual exploitation of women and children is a threat to the enjoyment of human rights by that segment of the society – we must accept the challenge and take all possible steps today – tomorrow may be too late.

Custodial violence including death in custody is yet another challenge which requires to be met squarely and decisively. Custodial death is perhaps one of the worst crimes in a civilized society governed by the rule of law. No civilized nation can permit that convicts, prisoners or under-trials are denuded of their fundamental rights, more particularly the right to life and liberty. They can only suffer such restrictions as are permitted by law for the enjoyment of their fundamental rights. There is a great responsibility on the police and prison authorities to ensure that the citizen in its custody is not deprived of his right to life. A profound respect for the sanctity of human life underpins jurisprudence. The latest pronouncement by the Supreme Court of India in Shri Prakash Singh’s case, in which National Human Rights Commission had intervened, aimed at police reforms, when implemented would perhaps go a long way to sensitize the police and prison authorities. 

Administration  of criminal justice system: One another factor of concern is in the area of administration of criminal justice system. Large-scale acquittals (almost 80%) are eroding public confidence in the effectiveness of criminal justice delivery system. It is natural also because when people see persons accused of heinous and ghastly offences getting acquitted, they believe that either courts are too liberal or pro-criminal or are not functioning the way they ought to function. When a crime goes unpunished, the criminal is encouraged, the victim of crime is discouraged and the society in the ultimate analysis suffers, which has an adverse impact on the law and order situation in the country. However, the rising crime rate in the post independence era and the inadequacy of the law in balancing individuals liberty and State’s duty to ensure protection of life and liberty has made the criminal justice system a subject of heated debates, but despite the concern over the shortcomings of the system to check the growing crime rate, we are still unable to check the rise in crime. Giving the victim of crime his rightful place and taking a serious note of his existence, his feelings and his rights with a view to offer redress to him for his ‘injuries’ may in the long run help check the rising graph of crime as well as the low conviction rate. Protection of witnesses and victims of crime requires a very serious thought.


Shri Kofi Annan, Secretary General, rightly said to the 191 member U.N. General Assembly on 21st March, 2005:

“We will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.”



Countering Poverty: A Marxist Interpretation

The English word “Poverty” is derived from the Latin “pauper” meaning poor. The concern for poverty is not new. It has been a major human preoccupation for many centuries. But the approach has not been uniform across the history. The phenomenon of poverty has been treated differently in different periods. The treatment in industrial society, particularly after Marxian analysis, has achieved a paradigmatic shift. Prior to Marx, poverty was treated as a natural phenomenon and was considered a product of divine decree. God was seen as creating and ordaining the status of individual as in the following verse from the Victorian hymn, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.


The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

And ordered their estate.


In the same way, poverty and misfortune in general have often been seen as divinely ordained as punishment for sin and again the situation was defined as immutable and unchangeable. But Marxian theory changed the course of thought about poverty from being divine to artificial. According to Marx, “poverty in Industrial society is no longer a natural phenomenon, an affliction of nature or of providence, but was the result of human ignorance and exploitation.” This way, though poverty was identified as a social problem, but the positive aspect of the thought was that it was considered as eradicable.


Pressure of Marxian activism and evolution of a democratic and welfare state pursued the social thinkers and political class to address this problem. A careful analysis of Marxian description of phenomenon of poverty points it towards being a relative phenomenon rather than absolute material deprivation. As per the Marxian description of history and its different stages Primitive communism, Ancient Society, Feudal Society and Capitalism, in each subsequent stage economic conditions of subordinate class has improved in absolute terms but the gap between rich and poor has progressively increased. This widening gap between rich and poor is the visible manifestation of the problem of poverty. The combined effect of increased income inequality and Marxian prediction of polarisation and proletariat revolution generated awareness among the lower class to challenge the existing social order of capitalist economy. The capitalist class and working class came in conflict with each other. Challenged by the rebelliousness of the working class, dominant class tried to address this problem first, to contain it and second, to preserve their own domination. This is well reflected in the treatment of poverty by classical economists as a condition of absolute material deprivation subduing the income inequality aspect of Marxian theory. Alleviation of material deprivation acted as a safety valve for the dominant class.


The issue of poverty was isolated from the larger social context and was being reduced to merely a case of material deprivation and subsistence.  According to Peter Townsend, three alternative conceptions of poverty have evolved in the last century as a basis for international and comparative work. They depend principally on the ideas of subsistence, basic needs and relative deprivation. But all the three have ultimately been reduced to income criteria citing operational difficulty.


The subsistence idea was a result of work prompted by nutritionists in Victorian England. Families were defined to be in poverty when their incomes were not “sufficient to obtain the minimum necessaries for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency”. A family was treated as being in poverty if its income minus rent fell short of the poverty line. Although allowance was made in calculating the income level for clothing, fuel and some other items, this allowance was very small, and food accounted for much the greatest share of subsistence.


These ideas have influenced scientific practice and international and national policies for over 100 years. Examples are the statistical measures adopted to describe social conditions, at first within individual countries but later with wide application by international agencies such as the World Bank. The idea of subsistence was freely exported to member States of the former British Empire, e.g. for setting the wages of blacks in South Africa and framing development plans in India and Malaysia. In the United States, “subsistence” remains the basis of the official measure of poverty.


The inherent limitations of the idea of subsistence defining poverty line surfaced in the second half of the 20th century. The use of “subsistence” to define poverty was criticized because it implies that human needs are mainly physical rather than also social needs. People are not simply individual organisms requiring replacement of sources of physical energy; they are social beings expected to perform socially demanding roles as workers, citizens, parents, partners, neighbours and friends. Moreover, they are not simply consumers of physical goods but producers of those goods and are also expected to act out different roles in their various social associations. They are dependent on collectively provided utilities and facilities. These needs apply universally and not merely in the rich industrial societies.


Physical needs are subject to rapid change because of shifts in social activity and demand patterns. The need for material goods, their relevance to the society of the day, and even the goods themselves, are not, after all, fixed or unvarying. And the amount and kind, and thus the cost, of food depend on work, climate and social customs. So material needs turn out to be socially determined in different ways.


By the 1970s a second formulation—that of “basic needs”—began to exert wide influence, supported strongly by the ILO. Two elements were included. First, minimum consumption needs of a family: adequate food, shelter and clothing, as well as certain household furniture and equipment. And second, essential services provided by and for the community at large, such as safe water, sanitation, public transport and health care, education and cultural facilities. In rural areas, basic needs also include land, agricultural tools and access to farming.



The “basic needs” concept is an extension of the subsistence concept. In addition to material needs for individual physical survival and efficiency, there are the facilities and services—for health care, sanitation and education—required by local communities and populations as a whole.


The attractions to some of the “subsistence” concept included its limited scope and therefore limited implications for policy and political action. In the past and into the present, it seemed easier to restrict the meaning of poverty to material and physical needs than also to include the non-fulfilment of social roles, given the overriding emphasis of individualism.


The “basic needs” concept, on the other hand, aimed at establishing at least some of the preconditions for community development. It played a prominent part in national development plans fostered by the international community, especially UN agenices.


In the late 20th century, a third social formulation of the meaning of poverty was developed: relative deprivation. “Relativity” as suggested above, applies to both income and other resources and also to material and social conditions. In the 21st century societies are passing through such rapid change that a poverty standard devised at some historical date in the past is difficult to justify under new conditions. People living in the present are not subject to the same laws, obligations and customs that applied to a previous era.


Globalisation is connecting peoples and their standards of living, while inequalities within and between countries are growing. There are, therefore, major objections to merely updating any historical benchmark of poverty on the basis of some index of prices. Over many years the “relativity” of meanings of poverty has come to be recognized, in part if not comprehensively. Adam Smith, for example, recognized the ways in which “necessities” were defined by custom in the early part of the 19th century, citing the labourer’s need to wear a shirt as an example.


A careful analysis of the concept of poverty derived from the idea of subsistence, basic needs and relative deprivation also leads us to .a different conclusion. All the three ideas take cognizance of that aspect of Marxian theory which spells human ignorance as the cause of poverty. Ignorance, on the part of those who are poor; And ignorance, in the form of lack of technical skills of distribution of resources on the part of the dominant class. On the other hand, it completely neglects exploitative aspect of Marxian analysis of cause of poverty. This neglect has acted as a safety valve for dominant class who have been successful in avoiding the challenge to capitalist order. Non-recognition of structural reason of poverty has suppressed the need of structural change for the removal of the problem of poverty.





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