Why Doesn’t India See Corruption as a Human Rights Issue?

More than half a billion people voted in India’s giant general election. Many were, no doubt, motivated by the rise of the anti-corruption movement in recent years and the emergence of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi party as a political force.

Corruption is regarded as an obstacle to growth and therefore to development.

Statistics bear this out. Compared to other major democratic economies, India has the lowest development indicators (based on the Human Development Index) and the worst corruption profile (according to Transparency International). In addition, recent World Bank calculations may have ranked India as the third-largest (PPP-adjusted) economy in the world but hundreds of million of Indians still live in poverty, more than any other nation on earth.

India’s increasingly wealthy and aspirant middle classes have reacted vociferously and electorally, but the disenfranchised poor continue to be trapped in grinding poverty because they are obliged to pay out bribes for services to which they are entitled.

Entitled is the key word here.

Backhanders divert scarce income away from things like food, water, education, health, shelter – things that Indians have a right to expect and to enjoy. These are not just worthy ideals, but hard facts.

India is not only a signatory to the UN Convention Against Corruption (ratified in May 2011), but it also signed up to one of the key human rights treaties, the 1966 International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, a legally-binding treaty that guarantees a wide range of rights, including labour rights, the right to health, to education and to an adequate standard of living.

Simply put, India has a legal obligation, under international treaty law, to protect, provide and promote economic, social and cultural rights for all its people. By failing to act firmly to stamp out corruption in public office, India is failing in its obligations.

Corruption denies human rights to Indians. So why isn’t corruption presented as a human rights violation?

If anti-corruption campaigners adopted a human rights narrative, in addition to the current frame of corruption as a hindrance to growth, it might help to galvanise even more support. After all, this general election’s record turnout of 66% shows that Indians at least take their right to vote seriously, so perhaps we can assume they believe in this whole raft of other rights and fundamental freedoms too.

It’s fair to say the world’s largest democracy does enjoy an extensive catalogue of human and civil rights legislation, both domestic and international. However, India has also passed several laws that raise serious questions about its credibility in this area.

Two in particular, the 1958 Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the 1978 Public Safety Act (PSA) have led to egregious violations of human rights – including thousands of deaths – in the name of national security. These have mainly been in the disputed Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir where India says it is fighting a Muslim insurgency, against Maoist groups in central India and in the volatile northeast. Security forces have sweeping powers to crack down on opponents and detain individuals under these laws – and substantial impunity too.

While international organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International decry these violations, within India opposition seems more muted. The national security argument is strong and India’s vibrant civil society seems unwilling – or unable – to acknowledge that its military carries out human rights abuses against its own people. India’s social contract, agreed by both its government and population, seems to be that human rights are important but the priorities are national security and economic growth.

Perhaps it is this lack of a human rights vocabulary that also prevents Indians from seeing corruption as the violation of rights that it is. It might be a powerful narrative but one that India is not well-placed to articulate. Furthermore if corruption were to be presented in a human rights framework it might force Indians to look more closely – and more uncomfortably – at other actions carried out in their name.