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Why Laws Are Unable To Provide Solutions For Sustainable Development As A Human Right

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To deliberate upon the notion of development as a right and how it relates to sustainable development, the Centre for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD), Impact Studies Centre (GISC) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Centre for Development Communication and Studies (CDECS), Jaipur, organised a talk on ‘The Right to Development and Sustainable Development – Reflections on Global and South Asian Developments‘ as part of its series on The State of Development Discourses #CohesiveDevelopment.

Prof Sunil Ray, Former Director, AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna; Advisor, CDECS and IMPRI, started the session by highlighting that the right to development comes before attaining sustainable development. He stressed the need for a new theoretical construct that goes beyond dominant development paradigms. He said that it is important to look at the international law perspective of development, develop an analytical discourse of development that rests on international solidarity, and bridge the gap between law and reality.

Development As A Concept And Law

Dr Shyami Puvimanasinghe, Author and Advocate on International Solidarity, Human Rights and Sustainable Development, started her presentation by noting that the right to development is a human right. Usually, we associate human rights with civil and political rights, such as the right to free speech and the right to assembly, but they also include social and economic rights such as the right to water and the right to development. Development has traditionally been in the hand of economists.

International law recognises development as an inalienable right as well. In 1986, the UN defined the right to development as the right of all individuals and all people to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, political and social development. The right has origins in decolonisation. Many developing countries were achieving political freedom during that time but didn’t have true economic freedom. The right to development applies to all levels from the local to the international and is rooted in non-discrimination and equality. It’s a multifaceted right involving a range of issues from sovereignty over natural resources to peace, security, disarmament and international cooperation.

She used the demand of developing countries for a waiver on the TRIPS agreement to avail the Covid-19 vaccine as an example of a conflict in international cooperation. Inequalities exacerbated during the pandemic and this poses further threats for developing countries. Development is a duty as well that works on three levels – nationally, internationally and collectively.

African governments started the discourse on the right to development, which read to a fuller understanding of development. Since then, we have moved towards the idea of sustainable development, that is, the development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their needs. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing development were all landmarks in sustainable development.

Case Studies From South Asia

Dr Puvimanasinghe narrated a story of ancient Sri Lanka to explain that the idea of sustainability was rooted in the subcontinent’s culture for a long time. The story’s moral was that land belongs to all living things and humans are just the guardians. Similarly, governance is like stewardship, where the government looks after public resources for everyone. The Bhopal gas tragedy case in 1984 showed how the legal system could not cope with the tragedy that caused the death of so many people. It showed that the law had to find solutions in the conflicting intersections of development, human rights and the environment.

The 1991 PIL of Suraj Kumar vs the Union of India was a landmark case and paved the way for cases being fought in the interest of the public and not just personal interest. The impact of the Indian PILs in the 1980s and 1990s spread in the subcontinent to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This was the South-Asian sustainable development jurisprudence of the 1980s-2000s. Dr Puvimanasinghe spoke about the Eppawal case in Sri Lanka as another example of law intervening to protect life, livelihoods and the environment.

Dr Puvimanasinghe said that the right to development is the key to sustainable development and that the right had to be interpreted dynamically. The Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992 stated that the right to development must be realised equitably keeping in mind the environmental, and developmental needs of present and future generations. The SDGs, too, is anchored in human rights.

Prof Ray commented that the perspective of law on development raised further questions, and asked about the role of the present international scenario and global order in influencing it.

Connecting Development And Sustainable Development

Dr Joss Chathukulam Director, Centre for Rural Management, Kottayam, remarked that sustainable development needed a critical multi-disciplinary approach. He spoke about the relevance of the Gandhian approach — the world had enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. The equitable distribution of resources and moderation in consumption is essential to achieve sustainable development. Dr Chathukulam identified the following concerns — climate change, human rights, poverty, pollution, loss of biodiversity, discriminatory liberalisation and urbanisation. He said that decentralisation, cooperatives and a solidarity economy are required to achieve sustainable development goals.

Democratic states guided by constitutional morality and public legality dealt with the pandemic more efficiently than states with populist and authoritarian governments. Democracy and development are the answer to connecting the right to development and sustainable development.

The Existing Paradigm

Prof H S Shylendra, Professor, Social Science Area, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), Gujarat, spoke about rights-based interventions in India over the last two decades, including such as MGNREGA and the Right to Education. When talking about the right to development, it is important to focus on enforceability. Many developed countries, prominently the United States of America, haven’t shown their support for the right.

Prof Shylendra noted that both the right to development and neoliberalism developed around the same time and did not converge in theory. Although the RTE was passed in India in 2002, it was only implemented by 2009. It took about 50 years to recognise that primary schooling was a right and seven years to figure out its enforcement. Such schemes just satisfy a façade with no compulsions to the government. We need new theories and frameworks that account for enforceability and accountability. There is a need to move beyond the right to development. PILs are spontaneous interventions and do not lead to broad-based interventions that can create transformational change.

Dr Puvimanasinghe agreed that there was a lot that theory and principles left lacking. A new model with alternate paradigms for development was required. The human rights approach, by no means, is complete on its own. Consumerism has been pushed by MNCs and elites, and sustainable development will have to address it to overcome it. She took Kerala as a model of governance that took the human rights approach and ensured a standard of health and education for everyone. Democracy and decentralisation would help to create a vibrant civic space with high local participation.

Dr Puvimanasinghe explained that the right to development is a reaction to the global order. Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights professed that everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which all human rights and freedoms can be realised for all people. These ideals have been created before enforcement and accountability. Human rights are a pathway towards that justice. The gaps and injustices in global order were often filled by South-South cooperation. During the pandemic, the Global South shared resources in the form of vaccines, PPE kits and even sent doctors to afflicted areas.

The Legal Framework Supporting The Right

Dr Gopal Krishna, Fellow, International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Berlin; and Guest Fellow, Faculty of Law, Humboldt University, Berlin, remarked that in the face of the globalisation of diseases and assault on constitutionalism, the law does not have a solution for climate change and humanitarian crisis. Law is a second-order subject and can only preserve the status quo.

The 1984 Bhopal cases are still being fought and the welfare state is melting away. The right to development does not challenge the status quo. Karl Polanyi has said that self-regulating markets cannot be regulated by law because of the economic determinism behind law-making. He found law and the right to development to be an unethical approach due to its inherent corpocentrism. Development as a process cannot be made equivalent to an outcome. This made law as a discipline philosophically challenged.

Dr Puvimanasinghe replied that her scepticism of legal tools did not run as deep. Economics, too, had failed to protect health, nature and human well-being in an ideal way. All disciplines have their shortcomings and, perhaps, their collaboration would provide answers. Law can bring in management and regulations. The non-enforcement of law is a problem and the right to development is itself controversial, with countries agreeing to it in principle but not implementation.

She said that there was a movement towards creating a legally binding convention of development. Developed countries aren’t showing support for it so far, but negotiations have started. Law doesn’t just come in after the damage has been caused but through policy and regulation, it can prevent the damage in the first place.

Prof Ray concluded the session by raising concern over the lack of a conclusive statement from the discussion. He felt that the conflict between the capitalist system and sustainable development had not been addressed. The core of the problem lies in the distribution of resources that cannot be changed without systemic change. The rhetoric of development has only created arguments upon arguments. To move beyond it, the global order and the power relationships have to be discussed. The Global South could, perhaps, address the problem through academic and intellectual solidarity.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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