Reinventing the discourse around human rights today presents new opportunities to advance the possibilities of justice. An excerpt from Harsh Mander’s just released book Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger.

There are many ways that the story of human history can be told. One of these is of the unending struggles of oppressed people — to fight their chains, to free themselves and others from the bondages which have enslaved and crushed them.

Each epoch has fashioned its own ideas around which dreams and struggles for justice have been forged. In recent centuries, these struggles for justice have increasingly been fashioned at least partly around some notions of rights, or moral and legal entitlements. In post-War, postcolonial decades of the second half of the twentieth century, somewhat sterile debates rose around the conflict and hierarchy of rights. Non-Communist liberal democracies prioritized civil and political rights, such as protection against torture and arbitrary arrest and detention, over social and economic rights of food, shelter, health care and education. Communist regimes ensured food, education, health-care and social security for its citizens, but trampled civil and political rights. However, epochal changes wrought the world over after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demolition of the Berlin Wall in the last two decades of the twentieth century have posed new and urgent challenges to the notions of both rights and justice.

Discussions about ending hunger and securing every person’s access to food is increasingly being articulated around some notion of rights, rather than appeals to charity, the goodwill of people, religious organizations or public officials, or even development services or basic needs. It is built around the growing acknowledgement of the equal intrinsic worth of every human being, primarily by virtue of their being human. This leads to a belief that governments have the primary duty to ensure that people have the material resources, freedoms and protection required to be able to live a human life of dignity, security and material levels, considered the entitlement of every human being. Rights are these claims that every human being can make from the government stemming from the essential equal humanity and worth of all people. These rights have moral binding, but some are also legally enforceable in courts of law. In other words, rights are entitlements backed by legal or moral principles.

During much of the twentieth century, poverty, hunger, want and inequality were always with, and around us. Their existence formed an essential element of middle class consciousness. Radical socialist and communist formations fought for power in the name of poor and oppressed people, and when in power governed explicitly for their social and economic rights. Postcolonial States derived legitimacy from claims of redistributive justice. Liberal democratic capitalist governments experimented with Keynesian or welfare state solutions to poverty, basic needs and social security. Whatever States actually did for social and economic justice and for better lives for underprivileged people, there was no doubt that they derive legitimacy substantially from these claims and acts. The lives and struggles of poor people were a staple of popular cinema and literature and found spaces, even if limited, in print and television media.

All this changed dramatically in the last decade of the twentieth century. The notion of ‘good governance’ was influentially fostered by international financial institutions like the World Bank, incorporating globalised free markets, private provisioning of public goods and fiscal austerity, and like the assembly line of consumer goods adopted increasingly by populations across the world. There arose also a global assembly line of ideas and culture. In other words, not only did people across cultures and nations start eating the same burgers and wearing the same branded blue denim jeans; they also began to believe that the same set of economic and public policies would benefit people of all classes and gender across nations. Important among these ideas was that the primary duty of the State was no longer to address poverty, hunger and injustice, and to ensure the security of all citizens. It was instead to create the most effective conditions for globalized trans-national capital to flourish with the least encumbrances and uncertainties, so that investment and consequent economic growth could be best secured. States did not even have to provision public goods like food, education, health care and public transport; even these could be competitively secured through the functioning of markets.

This change is also brought about with the breakdown of Keynesian welfare State and the emergence of Schumpeterian workfare regime, in which welfare was downgraded and workfare become the ruling idea. That is, one can only ask for relief if one is willing and able to ‘work’ in ‘productive’ ways as defined by material society. Crucially, a whole group of people (including the destitute, aged, sick and disabled) become devalued and invisible, because they are deemed to be unproductive, even ‘unemployable’. This also leads to de-prioritizing and in a way de-legitimizing the rights of people to means of dignified existence, independent of their perceived inability to ‘produce’.

The contemporary international regime of human rights was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly, 1948, which affirmed that the ‘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’.

Reinventing the discourse around human rights today presents new opportunities to advance the possibilities of justice, faced by the challenges in our times. This is because people can even less than in the past depend only on appeals to the moral authority and legitimacy of the State and conventional processes of representative democracy to secure the rights of citizens, particularly those who are most marginalized.

Rights already exist, but they are often implicit in the fundamental constitutional rights (especially the rights to life and equality), in the normative framework established by international covenants, or in a more universal moral regime that binds all States and informs its actions. These rights can and have indeed been widely and manifestly violated by State authorities. Yet there seems little recourse to the victims and survivors of these violations in the existing regime. The likelihood of these rights being enforced is greatly dimmed in a world where the success of States is judged by their abilities to attract international capital and accelerate market led growth, rather than to actively build a better life for its disadvantaged citizens, and when they are under enormous pressure by international financial and aid institutions to decelerate State spending. A range of rights such as social and economic rights, perhaps the first of which if the right to food, need now to be elaborated, codified and above all made judiciable.

Excerpted with permissions from Penguin Books India from the book Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger by Harsh Mander. Penguin India/ Rs.350.