By Keerthana Chavaly, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi & Gargi Kothiyal, Graphic Era (Deemed University), Dehradun

Public policy can be defined as ‘government action to address public issues’. It is essentially a government decision undertaken to pursue a certain goal or objective which may or may not be enforceable at the Central, State or local level of governance. Policy-making thus remains a dynamic process which is changing dramatically with the increased involvement of different stakeholders. Given the multiple voices of different stakeholders at various levels of policy-making, it is necessary for civil society to be proactive and create spaces for people’s involvement in public policy. One way of ensuring that people’s voices are heard and determine the fate of policy-making has been through activism.

Civil society groups have led the way forward in solidifying the role of activism when it comes to policy-making in our democracy. It has inspired citizens to step out into the streets, demonstrate, protest and demand policies that have been long neglected or misconceived by policymakers. Today, we are at a juncture when the significance of activism in policy-making is bound to increase manifold with citizens being a lot more involved in the policy-making procedure. However, examining the evolution of the kind of activism that led policy-making movements to the fore will help us evaluate the degree of its significance in India’s public policy space. 

Farmers’ Movement that Moved the Parliament

The Right To Information (RTI) Act, 2005 entitles any citizen to acquire information from any “public authority” and it is the responsibility of the authority to reply within 30 days or to reply promptly. It is secured under Article 19 and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Interestingly, the birth of this legislation, that stimulates transparency, is not the creation of our representative democracy but of its consequent failure to maintain transparent public offices. It can be argued that the need for the RTI Act emerged from the failure of the government to counter corruption and establish effective and universally inclusive governance. The demand for this Act came from civil society for the sake of greater accountability and transparency while curbing the relentlessness of corruption in India’s system of administration and governance.

The grassroots struggle started from courageous efforts of villagers of Devdungri, in Rajasthan, led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan. The movement began as a demand for fair wages, survival and justice for the rural poor, but it proved to be a revolution and quickly spread to almost all parts of the country. The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formed in 1996 to build up mass support for the RTI movement, which attracted a variety of individuals and groups. The continuous and well thought-out activism eventually led to the formation and passing of the RTI Act in 2005.

The success of the RTI movement, is based on the stakeholders’ clear objective of attaining the goal of better transparency between the government and its people. The identity of the movement with its democratic grassroots, helped garner the confidence and trust of other stakeholders in the policy-making mechanism and eventually the legislature of the country. While a well organised set of strategies and coordination helped the activism take up the form of an effective legislation, continuous monitoring led to the movement’s eventual success by changing the course of policy-making in the arena of transparent governance in India.

Persuading Policies For Bodily Integrity 

Policies on women’s bodily integrity have always been subject to the aftermath of grotesque incidents of rape, sexual assault and widespread protest movements objecting to policy-makers’ deep slumber on the issue. The first such movement gained national attention in 1980 following the Supreme Court verdict on the Mathura Rape Case. It came as a major shock when a tribal teenage girl, was raped in a police station by two policemen. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the High Court which convicted the accused to seven and a half years of imprisonment and exonerated the two policemen on the basis that there was no sign of resistance or injury and the girl wasn’t a virgin at the time of the incident. 

The movement spread across the nation and demanded the reopening of the case and amendment in India’s legislation on rape. The face of the movement was mainly middle class urban women. In the aftermath of a rigorous movement and debates over three years, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1983, which stated that if a woman makes a statement that she did not consent to an act of sexual intercourse, there will be no rebuttable presumption by a Court of law.

While the post-Mathura Rape Case movement led to India’s policy on the concept of consent and respecting the identity of a rape victim, the post-Nirbhaya Rape Case movement led to policies including acts other than penetration in the definition of rape. Similarly the widespread knowledge of the Bhanwari Devi Rape Case led to the Vishakha Guidelines that outlined India’s policy on women’s safety at the workplace. Thus, activism in these cases has underlined the urgency of ensuring women’s safety and acknowledging their right to protection against all acts that violate their bodily integrity. It has worked as a tool for society to pressurize the State for harsher punishments and stricter policies.

Paving the Way for an Anti-Corruption Bill

The anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare provoked a crucial grassroots movement sprouting from the middle class and mainstream media, compelling the government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill. The gigantic support for this movement came from widespread rage against a bizarre number of exposed instances of corruption, with a series of government scams hitting the headlines. It changed the citizen, civil society & State relationship and compelled the government to recognize the urgent need to acknowledge and address India’s problem of corruption. The movement inaugurated a new form of activism, assembling the urban middle class connected by  the new face of media and raised their unified voice. 

Limitations of Activism as a Tool for Policy Making

As activism has evolved through the years, so have the impacts and limitations of activism as a tool for policy-making. The most notable change that can be witnessed is the rise of hashtag activism – an engagement with political issues that is limited to the sphere of the internet. This new instrument of activism displays – now more than ever – the pitfalls of collective engagements in creating and influencing policy.

The new age means of social engagement through varied platforms of social media lead to viral duplicity of movements from place to place, forming mishmash groups having no clear aim, no formal alliance, vague hierarchy and no distinct leader. These protests fail to follow up their demands and tackle the complex and sluggish political pace that yields real change in public policy. 

Furthermore, there are instances where policies formed as a product of activism have been either enacted or created with stark flaws. The National Register of Citizens (NRC), a policy that seeks to document citizens in Assam, was created as a response to protests in the region over fears that immigrants were overrunning the State. However, problems with the NRC are becoming increasingly visible as the policy threatens to disenfranchise thousands. It requires documents containing proof of residence – an impossible ask since a large section of Indian citizens (particularly those belonging to economically weaker sections) lack documentation, an endemic problem in India. 

Given the limitations of activism as a tool for policy-making, activists must ensure that laws created and passed are monitored. Activism is most effective when it is long-term and evolutionary – demands must address policy deficiencies while core values remain the same. It should be remembered that activism must not simply campaign for change – salient features and implementation of policies should be at the forefront of activists’ and reformers’ agendas. Widespread information dissemination and well-informed citizens that seek to hold policymakers accountable will help to ensure the effectivity and ethicality of policy. The case for such reformed activism can be made through the example of climate activists who have been holding sustained protests across the world – from Canada and Austria to Japan – in the form of climate strikes and marches. Their continued, unrelenting protests are effectively galvanizing environmentally-friendly policies to ensure a clean, green present and stimulating a sense of urgency in creating a safe and sustainable future. An emulation of their model of protests – a proactive, persistent involvement of citizens in effecting both action and policy – has great potential in creating lasting socio-political change in India.