Category Archives: Featured

Accessing Accountability: A Community Effort in Sundaram Nagar to push for Quality Public Education

Pranjal Dhaka worked with Public Systems Groups at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, in pursuance of the client led project component of the Master of Public Policy programme. His account on community efforts undertaken to ensure quality public education in Sundaram Nagar, during the course of the project, is quite illuminating.

Date: 18th February 2018

Time: 2200 hrs

Place: Paigaam-e-Insaaniyat Charitable trust office, Sundaram Nagar

Background

Ahmedabad is rapidly transforming into a major urban centre with international and domestic investments flowing in, along with an evident endorsement from the central government to push for development and urbanization in the city. The process of this transformation poses serious challenges to ensure socio-economic equity in a highly diverse demographic that is divided along communal, caste and class lines. Social exclusion and economic inequality of minorities can be a direct consequence of an institutional bias that further pushes a minority social group to the periphery. Ahmedabad has a significant Muslim community that accounts for around 12.24 percent of the total city population (Census 2011). The community has been struggling to access basic public services like education, sanitation and drinking water, and have been spatially segregated to the western part of city in largely unregulated and compactly packed colonies. These families work as weavers, daily wage labourers, tailors, traders, shopkeepers, auto-rickshaw drivers and in other jobs and trades that put a ceiling over the socio-economic capital they can exert individually.

Agenda of the meeting

One of the major concerns of the community is with reference to the issues around access to quality education. There has been a subtle shift in the narrative characterizing development in Ahmedabad, portraying it to be an emerging business hub while neglecting fundamental issues around education and health. This context presses the need for community mobilization to claim and assert accountability from local government bodies to ensure collective mediation.

A glimpse of the meeting conducted by Ajaz Sheikh

Ajaz Sheikh is a  social activist and PhD scholar from Gujarat University who has extensively worked on the issues of education and drug addiction amongst adolescents. He is working towards collectivising parents to form community associations to claim a democratic space and push for better quality education facilities in government schools in the locality.

An individual is often not strong enough to challenge an entire institution like the government but an organization can collectively and coherently question, lobby and push for a positive change. We just need to ensure accountability, the government is bound by the Constitution to act upon people’s will.”

-Ajaz Sheikh, Social Activist

The government schools in the areas around Sundaram Nagar are often perceived as inadequate and inept in providing quality education causing a gradual shift in the parental choice in poor and lower middle income families to send their wards to low fee private schools. Most of these low fee private schools charge as low as Rs 250-500 a month and function without proper facilities or a regular and qualified teaching staff. This trend further absolves the government schools from taking responsibility, as parents themselves do not prefer enrolling their wards in government schools. There were, however, certain avenues created for larger engagement of parents to demand better facilities for their children studying in these schools. This was done through successful awareness drives by many non-governmental organizations and academic institutions for RTE in 2015-2016 and its various provisions including Section 21C mandating a 25 percent  reservation in all private schools for students belonging to Economically Backward Families.. But a general level of unawareness and hesitation to pursue a formalized process of mediating these concerns still continues to be a crucial constraint in compelling government authorities to address issues around education.

Community Outreach programme: Forming parents’ associations

Ajaz Sheik, working closely with a local charitable trust (Paigam-e-Insaaniyat Charitable Trust), is planning to start an extensive community outreach program that seeks to engage parents and other concerned members of the community in forming a parents’ association that can discuss, mediate and create a grievance redressal mechanism for parents to ensure accountability through a collective forum. The meeting held on 17th February witnessed attendance from parents and member of the trust that has worked on various local issues that affect the community on a day-to-day basis.

It started out with every attendee introducing themselves and then a briefing by Ajaz Sheikh. The briefing started out with a detailed background of the legislations and policies around education and the current state of government schools. Ajaz was using a mix of rhetoric and facts to enunciate the need for addressing equal access to quality education as a primary step towards community development. The briefing was followed by an open discussion that witnessed parents and other attendees talking about the problems they face with reference to the way government schools operate. It was loosely moderated by Ajaz to focus the agenda of the meeting on discussing the strategy of enforcing accountability on the government schools and push for incremental institutional change. Amongst various issues that were put forward by the attendees the discussion focused upon the poor quality of school infrastructure, a general disinterest on the part of government school teachers and principals in ensuring good quality teaching and engaging the students, and the apathy of the government officials in addressing these issues. Through discussion and careful moderation, the meeting concluded with a general understanding that the formation of the parents’ association is a step forward in engaging the community and placing accountability over political, bureaucratic and school authorities towards a positive change.

A venue for the next meeting was decided and the attendees agreed to be volunteers to reach out to the community and gather with more parents from the community. It was also decided that there must be a ‘Right to Education Mela’ to engage and make people aware about the plan to form such an association through pamphlets and discussion.

The Way Forward

As an observation, it was interesting to witness the process of building a critical mass at grassroot levels to collectivize individuals towards a common cause. The effort is at a conceptual stage and requires two basic elements that need to be adhered to, that will consequentially determine successful mobilization. First, it must involve a large number of people, even if they are not directly affected by poor education in government schools as active participants to characterize education as a community level concern. Secondly, it must strive to moderate individual opinions to push for a focused collective approach to engage with the current democratic process as laid down by legislations to create and sustain a culture of institutional accountability. There is enough clarity amongst the trust members and Ajaz Sheikh about the actionable measures to follow while working on the issue. However, in order to engage a large number of people, the success of this novel project relies upon a continuous and discursive facilitation to enable an institutionalized forum that can push for strengthening accountability.

References

Census 2011.Ahmadabad District Religion Census 2011. (http://www.census2011.co.in/data/religion/district/188-ahmadabad.html) (accessed on 24 April 2018).

(Pranjal Dhaka is a 2017-19 participant of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. He can be reached at pranjaldhaka@nls.ac.in)


Image Source:- Author

 

Marianad: A Tryst with History

Noel Benno Joseph, Linitha Mathew, and Srilakshmi Nambiar visited Marianad, a fishing village in Kerala in October 2017 as part of the fieldwork component of the Master of Public Policy course. They chart out the history of the village and how it took its modern shape.

A still from the Marianad beach.

‘Everytime we come back from the sea, we bring back not just fish but our lives too’ says Anish, a 37 year old fisherman. Our 21 day fieldwork at Marianad showed us that the lives of the people in this quaint village in Thiruvananthapuram revolved around fishing. The fisherfolk fondly refer to the sea as ‘Kadalamma’ which when translated in English means ‘Sea Mother’. Most of the households in Marianad wake up at 3 am. The womenfolk pack rice porridge and if available, some slices of dry fish for their men. Men sip a cup of black coffee to shake off the looming cold weather and head out to sea. They return with the catch in the afternoon.

Fishermen believe that the place is blessed with good fortune and wealth, with varieties of squid, crab, and fish being shipped to different parts of the state. However, the days of glory did not come without a struggle. Known earlier as ‘Alilathura’, meaning an uninhabited place, the village’s history is enmeshed with religious conflicts and social transition. With a vision for transforming this barren land into a habitable space, a Catholic Bishop named Bernard Perera made concerted efforts to resettle the fisherfolk in this village. Since they were primarily Latin Catholics and religious faith was an intrinsic part of their existence, fishermen found their spiritual abode in a church in a nearby village called ‘Puthukurichy’. The villagers here did not take kindly to the new neighbours, more so because of the advanced fishing techniques they employed. It was widely believed that hook and line fishing technique which was advanced would result in smaller catch for these traditional fishermen who used the shoreseine technique. The political economy of resource ownership resulted in the burning of nets and boats and there existed a fear among the migrant fishermen.

In 1961, with the establishment of the Thiruvananthapuram Social Service Society (TSSS),  Marianad Community Development Project was introduced in the village. The Program for Community Organisation (PCO) played a key role in building the village and the fishermen cooperatives. The cooperatives incentivised the fishermen by providing them with credit and protection from exploitation by big merchants. The setting up of M.U.C.S, the first cooperative in the village was a revolutionary step in terms of the upliftment it brought to the marginal fishermen. Today, Mariyanad hosts four fishermen collectives, two of which are registered as cooperatives and the other two as charitable societies. The co-operatives are enrolled under Matsyafed, which is the fishing cooperative established by the Government of Kerala. This makes them eligible for subsidies and loans from government agencies. The cooperatives which are not enrolled under Matsyafed, organise themselves under the umbrella of SIFFS (South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies).

The history and social movements of the village is closely tied with the empowerment of its womenfolk as well, who found strength in these movements to form a collective by the name ‘Mahilasamajam’. This forum opened up employment opportunities for women, while also providing them with a platform to raise and discuss their issues. Nursery, sewing classes, net-knitting, and other vocational activities became a hobby and a leisure activity for the women while the husbands were away at sea. Today, fisherwomen make small purchases to sell fish  in the city, they bargain effectively, and are an epitome of strength in the male dominated markets. However, subtle signs of patriarchy crop up when it comes to matters of womenfolk going into the sea for fishing. They are strictly prohibited from getting on boats and going out into the sea at all times. But Christmas and New Year are occasions on which women and children are also taken for a ride into the sea in a festive mood.

Following is a video montage of memories from Marianad shot and edited by Noel.

(Noel, Linitha, and Srilakshmi are participants of the 2017-19 batch of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. They can be reached at noelbennojoseph@nls.ac.in, linithamathew@nls.ac.in, and srilakshminambiar@nls.ac.in respectively.)

Independence Day message from Prof Haragopal

Happy Independence Day from the Lokniti Editorial Board!

On India’s 71st Independence Day, Lokniti Editor, Trisrota Dutta, speaks with Prof G Haragopal about his thoughts on the true meaning of freedom, the importance of history and what kind of perspectives and politics can help achieve social transformation. He also shares a special message for all his students past and present about the role they can play in bringing about greater freedom for all Indians.

Prof Haragopal is a Visiting Faculty member for the MPP programme and teaches both the Political Economy of India and Public Administration courses.

A Legislative Framework for Accountability: The Karnataka Sakala Services Act

SMITA MUTT

Due to the consolidated strength of Karnataka’s bureaucracy, most anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms that have been established since 1956 have been institutional in nature, though some have been in response to the demands of social actors. These include the Directorate of Vigilance established in 1965 to “investigate charges of corruption against all government servants excluding the judiciary” and the Karnataka Lokayukta Act passed in 1984, which is considered to be one of the strongest Lokayuktas in the country and brought about the jailing of sitting Chief Minister Yeddyurappa under charges of mining corruption in 2011 (Aji 2012). In addition, NGOs, the media and even the formal judiciary have been active outside of these institutions, critiquing them and confronting their shortcomings.

The year 2011 saw an unprecedented push in India for greater government transparency, accountability and punishment for political corruption driven by the India Against Corruption movement and supported by some politicians. At the Centre, a ‘Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services of their Grievances Bill’ was introduced in the Lok Sabha, but lapsed without serious discussion (Kalra and Bedi 2012) while the activists’ push for an overarching Lokpal Bill was largely ignored. Despite these disappointments at the national level, a number of Indian states enacted Right to Public Services legislation, beginning with Madhya Pradesh in August 2010, that provided statutory backing for citizens’ charters, autonomous grievance redressal mechanisms and stricter punishments for defaulting public officials. Karnataka was the 10th state to introduce a similar act, which was passed unanimously by the Karnataka legislative assembly in December 2011 under BJP Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda and included 151 services under 11 major departments from its inception (The Hindu Staff Correspondent 2012). Shortly after the statewide launch in March 2012, an amendment was passed which added a further 114 services, bringing the total to 265 within the first year and making Karnataka’s the most expansive of similar state-level legislations.

Scope and Objectives of the Sakala Services Act

The Act was titled the ‘Karnataka Guarantee of Services to Citizens Act and was also known as the Sakala Services Act, which follows from ‘sakala’ meaning in-time in Kannada (Department of Personnel & Administrative Reforms, Government of Karnataka 2013). The Act is “a bill to provide for guarantee of services to citizens in the State of Karnataka within the stipulated time limit” and its provisions are as follows:

  • Citizens have the “right to obtain service within the stipulated time limit” for the services and from the Government departments specified in the Schedule (as per S. 3),
  • For each service guaranteed by the Act, the Government must notify the designated officers (who are “required to provide the service”), competent officers (who are “empowered to impose cost on the public servant defaulting or delaying his duty”), appellate authorities (who are “invested with the power to hear appeal against the orders passed by competent officer under the Act”) and the stipulated time limit (as per S. 4 read with S. 2 (a), (c) and (d)),
  • The stipulated time period begins when the designated officer receives an application for a service to which the citizen is eligible and he must either provide (or authorise another officer to provide) the service in question or reject the application, record the reason in writing and inform the applicant of the rejection as well as the “details of the competent officer to whom the first appeal lies” (as per S. 5),
  • In order to facilitate the citizen’s ability to ensure the application is being duly processed, they “shall be provided an application number by the concerned… authority” and are entitled to monitor the status of their application online- therefore, it is the duty of every authority to maintain and update the status of all applications as per the prescribed rules (as per S. 6),
  • Therefore, the state must maintain a dedicated online portal and through e-governance, remain in communication with citizens (as per S. 7),
  • And in the case a designated officer or a subordinate public servant directed to carry out a service fails to fulfil the duty within the stipulated time period, then they are liable to pay a compensatory cost to the citizen as specified by the Act (as per S. 8).

The bulk of this Act is constituted, not of legislative sections but of Schedules that enumerate the services offered by various government departments and the relevant officers and time limits. In addition, while analysing the Sakala Act, it is important to realise that the purpose of the Act is not merely punitive but that it aims to “develop a culture to deliver services within fixed period” (S. 14). Therefore, defaults “shall not be counted towards misconduct” in the hopes that the public official will be sensitised to the concerns of the citizens they are in service to – however in the case of a “habitual and wilful defaulter without any reasonable cause” the head of the concerned Public Authority can take appropriate disciplinary action (as per S. 14(2)). On the other hand, if a designated officer does not have a single default against his name, then a letter of appreciation is to be issued and entered into his Annual Performance Report (as per S. 14(3)).

Implementation of the Sakala Services Act

Within this thin outline put forward by the Act, the Government of Karnataka took a series of bold steps to make Sakala functional, including:

  • Sakala was operationalised in Mission Mode rather being administered within DPAR. Initially, it was led by Senior IAS officer, Dr Shalini Rajneesh as Mission Director and Munish Moudgil as Assistant Mission Director along with a three-member team. Within each of Karnataka’s 30 districts, the Chief Nodal Officer is the District Magistrate, who is assisted by an IT consultant (Sakala Mission Team).
  • The e-governance component received the assistance of the National Informatics Centre, which created the online monitoring system. The monitoring number is generated by this portal as a unique 15 digit GSC or ‘Guarantee of Services to Citizen’ number (Ibid). Receipts and disposals are tracked by department and by district and the Sakala mission is supposed to release monthly reports in which they provide district, taluk and constituency level breakdowns of receipts and disposals. Further, in order to incentivise districts, they are also ranked in each report on their performance, introducing an element of competition.
  • In order to make Sakala truly accessible to Karnataka’s citizens, the website and phone lines can be accessed in both English and Kannada. A major weakness of both e-governance and mobile governance in India is a lack of functionality in Hindi and vernacular languages, which the Sakala model tries to overcome.
  • The Sakala Mission and DPAR took steps to spread the word about Sakala and what services citizens were entitled to under its purview. They conducted street plays in all districts, set up dedicated helpdesks and interacted with RWAs and consumer forums. There were also mass media commercials and efforts were made to educate school and college students on how to register Sakala applications, so they could spread awareness in their communities (Bharatiya Janata Party 2012).

This programme was designed as a way to demystify public service provision, reduce bribery, inculcate a culture of personal responsibility among public servants and was portrayed as “more important than [the] Right to Information Act” by the Karnataka State BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party 2012).

Successes and Impact of the Sakala Services Act

When it was first rolled out in 2012, Sakala was implemented sincerely and brought pride to Karnataka administrators. Not only was it an ambitious policy move, but it was motivation-driven rather than penalty-driven and treated both bureaucrats and citizens as stakeholders collaborating towards the same goal (Chandra and Bhatia 2015). In its first year, the Sakala portal received over 20 million applications of which 96.55% were disposed of within the stipulated time (KGSC). The services guaranteed under Sakala were those that citizens required to access various targeted social schemes such as Caste certificate, Income certificate, registration of birth and death, driving and learner’s licenses, copy of FIR, etc. A team from the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore was engaged to conduct field visits, analyse the performance data generated through the portal and evaluate the rollout of the programme. In 2014, the scheme was further awarded ISO certification and a survey conducted by the Indian Market Research Bureau revealed that “of the 4.38 crore applicants who sought services under the Karnataka Sakala Services Act in the last 20 months, 99 percent were satisfied with the service” (The Hindu 2014). In addition to the appreciation shown by the citizens who accessed the programme, Sakala received the 2013-14 National e-Governance Award, the 2014 Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management’s international innovation award and in 2015, there was active consideration to adopt a similar model at the Centre (Hebbar 2015).

Why did Sakala stop working?

Despite a stellar record in its first few years, problems have begun to creep into the Sakala mission. What has emerged is a form of institutional hubris in which legislators and bureaucrats thought they were creating a perfect system that blended executive autonomy, e-governance and real-time tracking. But in essence, they had built another black box of service delivery – only in this case the service that was being withheld was government accountability. Without actions initiated by the bureaucrats, citizens could not see into the box or easily invoke the levers of social accountability.

First of all, the Sakala mission mode empowered a parallel class of bureaucrats assisted by data and gave them the responsibility of oversight. This created an artificial balance of powers since the only check on their working is legislative – through the appointment of the Mission Director and in the case of approving amendments to add new services to the Schedule. Other models like RTI and the Consumer Protection Act introduce a quasi-judicial body as a final source of appeal. However, the Sakala mission breaks one of the basic tenets of administrative law and retains appellate functions within the executive itself. This meant that once necessary steps of implementation began to slow down, there was no separate authority to take action. Monthly reports were not released on time, the timeline tables that were supposed to be displayed in government offices disappeared and efforts to publicise the programme from hoardings to print, radio and televisions ads were neglected (Karnataka Sakala Watch 2016). After IAS officer, M. V. Jayanthi stepped down in 2015, the position of Mission Director has not been updated on the website.[1] While this type of administrative failure is typical for other projects, for it to plague the Sakala Mission as well is pure irony. The high standard of citizen awareness and satisfaction that had been achieved in the first few years has also suffered with a survey reporting that more than 60% of respondents were not aware of the Sakala scheme (Ibid).

Moreover, the essential provisions of the Act are not being met. By the end of 2015, there were over 20,000 overdue complaints, 15,300 overdue applications and the number of cases in which compensatory costs were awarded (a cornerstone of the Act) had dropped from 250 in 2013 to 55 in 2015 (Ibid). The Karnataka Sakala Watch raised these figures in a report published in January 2016. Despite wide coverage in the press, no action was taken on many of these fronts, with December 2016 being the last Monthly Report available on the Sakala website.

While Sakala has faded from public memory, the Centre for Media Studies’ released their annual Indian Corruption Survey for 2017 (or CMS-ICS 2017), a survey which captures citizens’ perceptions and experiences of corruption across a range of public services and ranks Indian states. According to it, 77% of households in Karnataka experienced corruption when engaging with some government department as compared to a combined state average of 31% and Karnataka was ranked as the most corrupt state in India [2] (Centre for Media Studies 2017). In this situation, Karnataka’s welfare state has been compromised, which can have electoral repercussions.

[1] The Sakala website’s Contact page lists the Principal Secretary DPAR (AR), the Additional Mission Director and the Administration Officer.
[2] This is how a number of news organisations reported on the survey. It is worth pointing out that only 20 out of 28 states were actually surveyed in the Report.

REFERENCES

Aji, Sowmya. 2012. “Toothless Watch Dogs.” India Today, February 11.

Bharatiya Janata Party. 2012. ““Karnataka Guarantee of Services to Citizens Act 2011 (Sakala Services Act)”.” BJP.org. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://www.bjp.org/images/pdf_2012_h/sakala_introduction_shri%20suresh%20kumar.pdf

Centre for Media Studies. 2017. “CMS-India Corruption Study 2017.” Delhi.

Chandra, Amit, and Surbhi Bhatia. 2015. The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011: Origin, Need, and Analysis. Research Paper, Delhi: Centre for Civil Society.

Department of Personnel & Administrative Reforms, Government of Karnataka. 2013. “The Karnataka Sakala Services Act, 2011.” DPAR website. November 29. Accessed May 14, 2017. http://www.dpar.kar.nic.in/dparar/English/docs/Sakala%20Service%20Act/SakalaAct&Rules447Engservices.pdf

Kalra, Harsimran, and Pallavi Bedi. 2012. “Legislative Brief: The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011.” PRS Legislative Research. September 27. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Citizen%20charter/Legislative%20Brief%20Citizens%20Charter%2027%20Sep.pdf

Karnataka Sakala Watch. 2016. “A Mission in Jeopardy: A Status Paper on the Karnataka Guarantee of Services to Citizens Act, 2011 (Sakala).” Status Paper.

KGSC. n.d. “Guarantee of Services to Citizens: A case study of Karnataka.”

PTI. 2013. “240 more govt services to come under Sakala in Karnataka.” The Hindu Business Line. September 16. Accessed May 15, 2017. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/national/240-more-govt-services-to-come-under-sakala-in-karnataka/article5134526.ece

Sakala Mission Team. n.d. “How does Sakala Work?” Government of Karnataka. Accessed May 13, 2017. http://ctax.kar.nic.in/latestupdates/howdoessakala0001.pdf

The Hindu. 2014. “99 p.c. applicants satisfied with Sakala: IMRB survey.” March 5.

The Hindu Staff Correspondent. 2012. “Sakala launched in Mysore.” The Hindu, April 3.

Culture, Politics and Laws: Comparing France and Russia in the 20th Century

DWIJARAJ BHATTACHARYA

With the vast nature and scope of politics, be it in terms of the laws that are governing the society or in terms of mechanisms used for the enforcement of the formal state dictate, there exist numerous approaches in present day literature which provide a theoretical and conceptual framework to enable a holistic and at times focused study of various forms of polity either in a hierarchical environment (federal structures) or in most cases a spatial paradigm (between various countries). Amidst these competing frameworks, two frameworks are held in pre-eminence the institutional approach and the cultural approach.

The institutional approach develops a theoretical framework drawing on the rational consumer theory of microeconomics, where the principal assumption is the rational characteristics of individual actors primarily motivated by utility maximisation. The framework thus results into a metamorphosis of collective action which is a net of all individual actions. The final and most crucial hypothesis of the approach rests in the claim that cost-benefit structure propagated by the institutions of any nation results into the prevalent nature of the political activity, thus making the institutions of a nation crucial, if not sacrosanct in comparing the polity of two nation states.

The cultural approach, on the other hand, deviates from the key assumption of the institutional approach firstly in terms of the nature of human beings and the process of decision-making, and most importantly in terms of defining the incentive structure for such decisions. The approach draws upon the distinction of soft and hard institutions and proposes that political agents are subservient to the cultural and social ethos more than any abstract laws, furthermore the nature of utility (for a utility maximising individual) isn’t unidimensional and has social and cultural characteristics to it which is heavily influenced by historical events. Thus, the key idea in this approach is to analyse the polity through a cultural lens, which shall reveal the political landscape of the actors.

With the apparent ontological dichotomy, it becomes imperative that for the remainder of the paper one approach is selected and later developed for the countries of choice. Thus the paper will utilise exclusively the cultural approach since it is both broader in terms of identifying the stakeholders’ interests and has more depth, given the multi-layered social cocoon under which human agents live. The elements of the institutional approach are mostly derivatives of historical cultural norms and are thus captured greatly by the cultural approach, whose significance is becomes more apparent since there are plenty of cases, where soft norms supersede hard laws especially when looking at cases of dowry, child marriage and other subjects of personal law.

Using the cultural approach the paper will focus on the polity of Russia and France to bring out the key aspects of their political landscape. The reason these countries are chosen is first because of their primary legislations are both derivatives of the civil law system (where France predominantly follows the Napoleonic Code and Russia follows the Napoleonic Code with Germanic influence). Secondly, the countries are both in post-industrialisation phase, suggesting a similar focus on key aspects of welfare politics, like education, health-care etc. Third, historically both the countries have been under oppressive systems and at times under foreign occupation, however, the aftermath of the eclipse of such regimes have been extremely different. Thus, the key distinctions between these two states seemingly originate out of cultural connotations, and thereby enhance the scope of investigation which shall focus on three areas namely, freedom of speech (especially political), individual autonomy and extra-territorial outreach.

The present day conception of Russia and France originated not out of the hallowed Treaty of Westphalia, but out of the October Revolution, 1917 and the February Revolution of 1848 respectively. These monumental revolutions occurred primarily because of the free flow of ideas against the then oppressive regimes, which was able to mobilise a certain section of the population to provide effective leadership to a predominantly peasant revolution. This parochial reading of history suggests that the ethos of a free press and freedom of expression should be widely regarded as a sanctimonious entity. However, the societies have had subsequent cultural conditioning that has for all intents and purposes created a divergent cultural momentum when it comes to freedom of expression.

The February Revolution of 1848 had brought the Second French Republic to life, but the idea of a republic in France has existed since mid-17th Century. The French revolution of 1789 was a result of a free flow of these ideas, but the first republic didn’t survive for long. Following the demise of the first republic, there were a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions by the then military leaders, political elites and leading intellectuals of the country. This series of revolution and counter-revolution generated a plethora of literature, some of which have achieved the status of antiquities, and has established freedom of speech and expression as a sine-qua-non for the present day France.

Though the Russian revolution was similar in character, the resultant political system varied extremely. The founding fathers who arrested the growth of the Russian Empire did reap the privileges of the freedom of expression especially during their exile in West European countries, however once tasked with maintenance of a state, atop the bedrock of the then germinating communist ideals found it necessary to curb such freedoms. The curtailment of the said freedoms didn’t generate a great deal of dissent primarily because the then Russia (USSR) was culturally disposed against the propagation of any but traditional education, given the majority of the population still operated under feudal norms.

Therefore, it is evident that the historical forces created distinct cultural fabrics in the two nations, with a divergent disposition towards freedom of expression albeit their initial similarities and common legal paradigm (since both are predominantly civil law countries). This cultural divide in terms of accessible agency of the citizenry has also seeped into the realm of individual autonomy. The creation of the French Republic with individuals at the centre helped further the culture of individual determinism, thus moulding the subsequent acceptance of deviant sexuality. In the case of Russia, the feudal cultural fabric till date hinders the emancipation of homosexuals. Furthermore, the decriminalising of domestic violence by the Putin Administration is a manifestation of the feudal cultural norms present in Russia which stands at an odds with the French regime of anti-domestic violence and postmodern regime of child rights originating out of the cultural evolution in France.

Finally, the cultural momentum of being a superpower has affected the foreign policies of both the nations. The recent Russian forays into their neighbouring countries, especially Ukraine and places of strategic interest captures the leftover cultural momentum of USSR, something that France also engaged in subsequent to World War 2 (WW2). However, the military losses of France after WW2, especially in Vietnam, has softened the manifestation of the cultural glut of supremacy, thus limiting the intrusiveness of present French foreign policy. This uncanny similarity and subsequent divergence is yet another manifestation of the cultural undertones in the two countries.

It is safe to say that institutions definitely alter the social and cultural fabric of a nation, however, no institution can ever survive without any pre-existing subscription base, which is determined by the cultural undertones of the society. The case of France and Russia, nations born amidst the fire of revolutions and later crumbling down from the zenith of world dominance is a stark reminder of the varying political landscape, curated by cultural relativism.

(Dwijaraj is pursuing his Master’s Programme in Public Policy at the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at dwijaraj@nls.ac.in)

Image Source: https://www.crossed-flag-pins.com/Friendship-Pins/Russia/Flag-Pins-Russia-France.html