UN sustainable goals support RTI, insist on public access to information, protection of fundamental freedoms

sustainBy Venkatesh Nayak*

A recent major development at the international level received very little attention in the Indian media. While the Indian electronic media went gaga over the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States of America (just as the US media was going gaga over the visit of Pope Francis to that country), very little reporting is available locally about the recent adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations General Assembly.

At the turn of the millennium the UN General Assembly adopted 8 Millennium Development Goals resolving to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; promote gender equality; reduce child mortality; achieve universal primary education; improve maternal health; ensure environmental sustainability; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and form a global partnership for development. That exercise ended up with a mixed bag of results with countries doing quite well on some goals and defaulting on others.

Now the world leaders have decided to adopt a more complex matrix of goals covering both the left over agenda of the MDGs and sustainable development goals.  The Guardian amongst others has circulated a ready reckoner of what the SDGs are and how they might pan out and what went into their making.

Goal 16 of the SDGs is of interest to all of us who are advocators and proponents of transparency. Goal 16 is one of the many new dimensions brought in by SDGs which were missing in the MDGs.

Goal 16 of the SDGs is to “Promote Just, Peaceful and Inclusive Societies”. This Goal has the following attendant targets:

  • Significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere
  • End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children
  • Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all
  • By 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime
  • Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms
  • Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels
  • Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels
  • Broaden and strengthen the participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance
  • By 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration
  • Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements
  • Strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, for building capacity at all levels, in particular in developing countries, to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime
  • Promote and enforce non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development [emphasis supplied]

More than one Target under Goal 16 requires Governments to promote transparency, accountability and people’s participation in decision-making processes in addition to ensuring the rule of law and access to justice for all. The task of developing Indicators to measure the achievements or lack of it is now underway internationally.

The Indian Prime Minister spoke at the UN Summit prior to the adoption of the SDGs. While the PMO website has not yet uploaded the text of the speech, the Press Information Bureau has presented an English language rendering of the original speech. Interestingly, the speech focuses more on economic development, by and large leaving out the processes by which it must be achieved, namely, Goal 16 and its targets — Access to Justice. Perhaps this lapse might have been due to paucity of time as many other leaders were slotted to speak after the Indian PM.

The track record of the National Democratic Alliance Government over the last 15 months (since the last week of May 2014 when the new government was formed under the leadership of the new PM) in the area of reforming governance has some landmark achievements, but is also dotted by a lot of laxity. The transparent manner in which coal blocks and mobile telephony spectrum was auctioned, the enactment of the law to expose and curb black money amonngst others are said to be the laudable achievements of the NDA. However other major governance reform measures have simply not taken off.

The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 which provides for the establishment of an apex anti-corruption agency has not been operationalised. The Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2011, which provides for protection of whistleblowers within and outside Government who act to expose corruption, wrongdoing and offences occurring within Government is being diluted. The Grievances Redress Bill which sought to provide for a mechanism for citizens to make a complaint and be compensated for malgovernance, introduced in the previous Lok Sabha lapsed with its dissolution.The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010 which provided for citizens to make complaints of corruption and misbehaviour against judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court also lapsed for the same reason. Both Bills are awaiting for a Messiah to resurrect them and nobody within the NDA Government seems to be willing to play that role. The mess that the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, 2014 has created makes one wonder whether the High Courts and the Supreme Court will be emptied out before the court case is resolved. Vacancies in the High Courts are rising by the day with the retirement of puisne judges one by one.

The print and electronic media are increasingly reporting and talking on the centralisation of power in the hands of a few in New Delhi making governance the privilege of the few with little participatory spaces available even for senior bureaucrats within the system, let alone ordinary citizens.

The Prime Minister made a reference to the the thoughts of his ideological mentor Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in his speech at the UN SDG Summit. A website dedicated to his thoughts has this to say on his views about the centralisation of power:

CENTRALISATION OF POWER

The centralisaiton of political, economic and social powers in one individual or institution is a hindrance in the way of democracy. Generally, when power in a certain field gets concentrated in one individual that individual tries directly or indirectly to concentrate in his hands power in other fields also. It is thus that the dictatorial governments of the Communists and the Khilafat were set up. Even when human life is integral and its various fields complementary to each other the units representing these various fields should remain separate. Normally, speaking the various units of the administration should concern themselves with administration and should not enter the field of economics. A capitalist economy first acquires power in the economic field and then enters the political field, while socialism concentrates power over all means of production in the hands of the State. Both these systems are against the democratic rights of the individual and their proper development. Hence along with centralisation we shall have to think of division powers.”

The ruling powers in Delhi and elsewhere are trying hard to popularise the thoughts and ideas of Pt Deen Dayal Upadhyaya without realising that their actions and programmes are at major variance with his ideas. For example, the haste with which MNCs are being wooed to invest in India stands in complete contrast to what Pt Upadhyaya is said to have espoused:

“In other words, it is wrong to even think of Swaraj without self-reliance. even when the Government is in the hands of the nationals, Swaraj would become meaningless if the Government comes under pressure or becomes a follower of some other nation. If the State is not self-reliant in respect of defence, free in respect of its policies and self-contained in respect of economic planning it could be pressurised into working against the interest of the nation. Such a dependent State leads to ruination.”

It is only appropriate that every generation discusses and assesses the meaning and significance of the dominant and the not-so dominant thought processes and streams of ideas of the previous generations other than their own. But doing so requires an unbiased and open-minded appreciation of those ideas. The actions of the present government seem to be in a major contradiction of their revered ideologue’s thoughts and views. Merely commemorating the life and times of a thinker is not enough. The policies and actions of his supporters must be tested against those very thoughts and ideas. That alone can lead to a true appreciation of the present in terms of what was said or done in the past and for charting a course for the future. Anything short only leads to the development of a cult- an anathema of democracy.

The Government has its task cut out to develop Indicators for achieving the SDGs and then planning the processes for their achievement. This is best done by holding widespread consultation with the people in general and civil society and academia of all shades and opinions.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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