Helpful in developing participatory democracy, social movements are no hurdle in policy making


Santosh Gedam*

Social movements (SM) are mass communication to raise social issues to policymakers. Around the world, SM developed around students, women, environmental, human rights, land, among other issues. Social movements intend to engage with government bodies at various levels to find a remedy. However, the process of engagement and outcomes has a spectrum of possibilities from unleashing brutalities aimed at suppressing the social movements itself to active participation by the target government body to find an acceptable solution by the agitating group.

This article investigates the determinants of successful SM to inform stakeholders, mainly common people and activists, engaged in SM to plan and use the essential tool for the success of their SM.

As mentioned by Prof Ghanshyam Shah, an author of several books on social movements and a retired professor of JNU, there are certain essentials for any social movement to become successful. He identifies objectives, ideologies, leadership, organization, and programs as essential components for a successful social movement. He opines that agitations, protests are not social movements for him SM aim largely to change the society.

But protests or agitations are an integral part of one of the pathways followed in the change process. For examples, in Maratha agitation in Maharashtra, they have achieved the intended objective, and their social movement mostly has those essential components. At the core of any social movement is the unrest. Given the inherent risk of participation, social movements need submission of time.

Excluding occasional symbolism of the affluent, for groups with the high opportunity cost of time, social movements are rarely used for raising social issues. Therefore, we see farmers groups, Dalit groups, tribal groups, and other traditionally marginalized groups with a low opportunity cost of time as coming together to form social groups.

I may call SM as the only immediate medium left to the poor to express their grievances or sufferings. A sensible and sensitive government must keep this aspect in mind while responding to and engaging with any social movement.

I analyze recent social issues of scheduled tribes’ in Maharashtra. I compare the tribal social issue with relatively comparable and successful social movements and draw gaps in the tribal social movements. I argue that apart from given essential components as identified by professor Shah, there are external factors which also affect the success of SM. In the process, I highlight how the mirrors of the social issue, i.e., social movements are allowed to decay by the external agencies.

Dr. Payal Tadavi, a postgraduate student from a tribal community, committed suicide in Nair hospital in Mumbai on 22nd May 2019. The incident created a stir across the state and highlighted how caste-based atrocities are unleashed even in higher education institutions. Students Federation of India and Prakash Ambedkar led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) took to the street to protest in Mumbai against the incident.

Though not reported by mainstream media, across the state several organizations seem to have protested. Social media campaign #JusticeForPayal was started with support from prominent members from all over India. Maybe due to these initiatives and protests, the government handed over the investigation to the crime branch, and now the matter is sub judice. To remark on this, caste-based atrocities largely remain invisible to the general public though caste-based atrocities are social issues.

After 45 days of the incident, the legal battle continues, and it seems now SM around Dr. Tadavi’s suicide has been substituted by the legal procedure. Despite open questions like when would the justice delivered, the pressure from a social movement largely wanes. So the objective of SM was largely to highlight the issue.

Land acquisition for the proposed bullet train in Mumbai also seems to be affecting farmers whose lands need to be acquired. The land is an integral part of the sustainable livelihood of farmers. As reported by media, farmers also took to the street in 2017 and 2018 in Palghar district. A political party supported the protest. The social movement resisted land acquisition. In this movement, the essential components of successful SM are visible.

After sporadic reporting by mainstream media, there is nothing in the mainstream media since long. Does this mean that the grievances are redressed? Well, we don’t know. Temporal delays are probably a significant factor responsible for the failure of SM. Time compaction with support from national media is essential components for a successful SM as we have seen in the case of India against corruption (IAC). However, in the case of Palghar, the struggle seems to be continuing with the farmer’s groups.

Forest rights of forest-dwelling communities are recognized under the Forest Rights Act 2006. However, despite several years of passage of the legislation, the forest-dwelling communities seem to be fighting for their forest rights. Thousands of farmers marched from Nashik to Mumbai in 2018 to demand the individual forest rights.

Due to mainstream media highlighting the large scale march to the financial city of the state, the issue got some traction from the government. As remedy was not immediate, I would term such a temporal solution as moderately successful. Agitations have happened in areas like Gadchiroli and Melghat also, but except local or occasional media, no mainstream media took serious cognizance.

As we know, colonial laws allowed the British government to take control of land by trampling people’s rights. The same approach seems to have continued. In Pench national park, traditional forest dwelling communities are at loggerheads with the strong forest bureaucracy. There have been attempts to relocate a village from the buffer area ignoring provisions of forest rights under FRA.

There seems to be biased reporting to create the perception of local tribes as an anti-tiger by the local media, which itself is atrocious. In 2018, media reported the death of one of the also accused during the custody of the forest department. While these cases continue, what happens to deliver justice largely remains local in the absence of social movements.

The government implements the policy of reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Large scale usurpation of the educational and public employment benefits by the non-eligible people has been an issue since long. As per reports by the several media, more than 11000 employees are bogus and have fraudulently gained employment meant STs in Maharashtra government alone. Despite Supreme Court ordering action against such glaring deprivation of rights in 2017, the actions to remove those employees is still pending.

There has been an occasional and patchy protest by lesser-known organizations in Vidarbha and elsewhere, but the movement could not gain momentum to truly redress the issue. Compared to Maratha agitation who gains reservation policy by the state, the issue of largely ST jobs being usurped by fraudulent candidates could not create social protest. Maybe particularly tribal population is too vulnerable to even protest against the deprivation of their rights. It is in this backdrop, constitutional institutions and constitutional safeguards become most relevant.

In government-funded Ashram schools, tribal students get residential education. There have been several instances of sexual exploitations of minor students in ashram schools in Buldhana, Chandrapur, Yawatmal, Wardha, etc. The exploitation exposed the vulnerability of students and how the existing institutional mechanism is ineffective in securing the safety of students. One such incident in April 2019 in Rajura block of Chandrapur district led to protest in the local areas. Local media covered the protest.

But it also could not sustain, and the mainstream media did not take any notice of the issue. I could draw a parallel between the Nirbhaya case and a slew of sexual exploitation cases happening in ashram school. What is missing is the mainstream media coverage, which seems to be so inert even to the issue of sexual exploitation of minor girls.

This analysis informs us that apart from essential components as identified by professor Shah, irrespective of nature of the issue, coverage by mainstream media is an important factor for a successful SM. Further, the SM should be in the proximity of the place of political power. Therefore, state and central capital are more suitable for expressing social issues than the local and remote areas.

Based on the discussion on above social issues, as Professor Shah identifies building consciousness of participants is very crucial, I find largely missing attempts to build consciousness of the participants. As we have seen in the case of India against Corruption (IAC) campaign, it was the building of social consciousness by effective leadership has led to nationwide protest. With commercialized and selective mainstream media, the SM as a channel to engage with the policymakers to resolve the social issue is also dwindling.

SM should not be seen as a hurdle in policy making but an important aspect of developing participatory democracy. Further mainstream media should also be under social obligations to give due visibility to SM without bias or other commercial considerations. Finally, resolving social issues would go a long way to bringing peace and making informed policy decisions by the government.

*Doctoral student, Public Systems Group, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad

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