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Poverty - the worst of human rights violations

THE HINDU, Wednesday, December 08, 1999 The worst of human rights violations

By Rajindar Sachar

OF THE many violations of human rights that can be listed, none is worse but less spoken of in fashionable seminars on human rights - I am referring to ``poverty'' the mother of all human rights violations.

No doubt human rights violations manifest themselves in various forms - brutality of police, or gender injustice, pollution and environmental degradation, social ostracism of the Dalits - but ultimately the answer to all these must be found in our commitment to the elimination of poverty.

The horror of poverty was highlighted in a message given on October 17, in observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, by the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan: ``How many times have we said that it (poverty) was incompatible with human dignity.''

``But billions of people are still trying to survive on less than Rs. 130 a day, with no drinking water, health care, or access to education, still denied the jobs that would help them escape their impoverished state, and thus, still deprived of some of their most basic rights.''

During the Cold War human rights were said to be restricted to what we call the political right of freedom of speech. Association and economic rights were said to be something necessary, but not a part of human rights. This is a myth.

Fortunately, this myth of conflict between political or economic rights or artificial prioritisation of such rights in developed or developing countries was exploded when the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action at the World Conference on Human Rights (1993) affirmed that human rights were the birth right of all human beings and their protection and promotion were the first responsibility of the Government and that all the human rights were universal, indivisible and inter-related.

Bread and liberty are two sides of the same coin, and deprivation of either must inevitably damage the fabric of the other. The freedom to agitate for bread, and sustenance to fight for one's liberties are concomitant.

Freedom of an individual, which is the postulate of human rights, obviously can have no meaning so long as the poor in the country do not have their economic conditions improved and the discrimination based on privilege do not become mere memories instead of becoming more and more aggressive as time passes on. The present situation must cause concern to all human right activists.

The richest fifth have an income 74 times that of the poorest fifth.

One per cent of the wealth of the 20 richest people, or $8 billion, could provide universal access to primary education for a year - but no political party is seeking to correct this balance - the result is a denial of the human right to universal education.

The assets of three of the richest people are more than the combined GNP of the 48 least developed countries.

In Delhi, nearly one third of the total population lives in juhggi jhompri bustees. There is a shortage of 40 million houses. Those preferring artificial sympathy to the homeless express helplessness because of the huge outlay of Rs. 123,000 crores required for this purpose. But curiously these very worthies maintain a deafening silence about Rs. 55,000 crores in bad debts (euphemistically called non-performing assets) owed by big business to banks and which if realised could considerably help the homeless meet their needs.

Many a time one feels distressed by some human rights organisation getting preoccupied with human rights problems which are more relevant in the European and America context - the rights of homosexuals, the rights of unmarried mothers, the right to abortion or the status of surrogate mothers - no doubt important aspects of human rights dimension in their social set up. But I do feel that the protagonists of human rights in developing countries should concern themselves on a priority basis with the actual realities of oppression of the weak and of discrimination in the social set up.

The blessing of the Government would degenerate into tyranny unless it is accompanied by a recognition that there are certain basic rights which are possessed by all the citizens. Though believers in human rights must be ever vigilant to resist any onslaught on the civil and political liberties of the individual, and there can be no compromise on their essentiality, it is necessary that these rights, so far as developing countries are concerned, must correlate with the equally important major issue which is also an aspect of human rights, namely, the development of the economy and the responsibility of the society to feed, clothe, house, keep its people free from starvation, and to be able to bring up one's children and oneself in a decent, healthy environment.

The former South African President, Mr. Nelson Mandela, speaking at the Heads of Non-Aligned Nations Conference held on 2-9-1998 in Durban highlighted the immediate need to fight poverty when he said: ``We have to remake our common world anew. The violence we see all around us, against people who are as human as we are, who sit in privileged positions, must surely be addressed in a decisive and sustained manner. I speak here of the violence of hunger which kills, of the violence of homelessness which kills, of the violence of joblessness which kills, of the violence of malaria and HIV/AIDS which kill and of the trade in narcotics which kills.''

Unfortunately the solutions being suggested are all an illusion. Thus the much-touted claim by the propagandists of globalisation that it will accelerate progress in developing countries is belied by the UNDP's Tenth Human Development Report of 1999, which says that ``market dominated globalisation has led to growing marginalisation of poor nations and people, growing human insecurity and growing inequality with benefits accruing almost solely to the richest people and countries'' and that ``the global gap between the haves and have-nots, is widening.'' HDR 1999 has commented tersely that ``the benefits of globalisation in the past decade have been so unevenly shared that the very word has come to acquire in certain quarters a pejorative tinge.''

Similarly, the World Development Report for 1999-2000 says that at the start of the new millennium an estimated 1.5 billion people will subsist on the equivalent of a dollar a day.

About 220 million urban dwellers (13 per cent of the developing world's urban population) lack access to safe drinking water and about twice that number lack access to even the simplest of latrines.

Another denial of human rights is to the half of the population, that is the women. The burden of deprivation, poverty and violence is the heaviest on them.

In most countries women have neither the right to the home in which they were born nor to the home they live in after marriage. This essential homelessness of women is a major factor in limiting the valuable contribution women can make towards gaining and retaining a home and, in turn, in building society. This critical factor has the effect of perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty.

A century ago Swami Vivekananda warned the Indian elite that unless they carried the masses with them in all efforts at national regeneration, no great progress could be made. The neglect of the masses..... chronic poverty under which they were held down have been the main cause of India's degradation. ``I call him a traitor who having been educated, nursed in luxury by the heart's blood of the downtrodden millions of toiling poor, never even takes a thought for them.....who thinks of raising these sunken downtrodden millions? A few thousand graduates do not make a nation, a few rich men do not make a nation.''

How sad that even after a century, that reproach by the saintly soul should continue to shame us.

(The writer is a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi.)

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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