New Delhi: While the Narendra Modi government claims to be keen on promoting regional languages, particularly Hindi, its public participation processes suggest otherwise.
Some of the recently introduced key policies, such as the draft of Environment Impact Assessment or EIA notification, mining reforms and the latest National Health Data Management policy have been made available only in English for public comments.
What happens to public participation?
The trend of non-translation of major policies in regional languages is not new, however, some of the latest proposed policy measures have generated a lot of debate on the need for being made available in various languages, for the affected communities to respond.
In particular, the Draft EIA drew a lot of flak due to its limited circulation and publicity, lack of availability in most Indian languages, hindered genuine public participation.
Many traditional communities of rural India, often most affected by such developmental projects and other policies, lack the technology and access needed to take part in such an exercise.
The Prakash Javadekar-led environment ministry had been directed by the Delhi High Court as well as the Supreme Court to conduct public consultations for the proposed law in the 22 regional languages, called the Eighth Schedule.
Weeks later, while responding to an order by the Karnataka High Court which also favoured conducting public consultations in regional languages for the proposed law, the environment ministry filed a written ‘statement of objections’ against what the two high courts had asked it to do. Through this statement, the ministry has not only gone back on its earlier position in favour of conducting public consultations in regional languages, but has also disclosed that it had appealed against the Delhi High Court judgment in the Supreme Court.
While a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde allowed the Environment Ministry to withdraw its appeal against a Delhi High Court judgement, it suggested that the Union government translate the draft law into local languages and consider amending the Official Languages Act, 1963 which mandate publication only in English and Hindi.
The legal contestation over translation in the case of the draft EIA reflects the growing trend of restricting the consultation process. Many other proposed policies, such as the new mining reforms seeking to enhance private investment in the mining sector, have seen a similar trend.
Currently, the draft mining policy is available in only in English, preventing stakeholders from mineral-rich states, such as Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh among others, from participating in the policy debate. Moreover, while for local level public consultations a 30-day period for public consultations is the norm, only 10-14 days have been provided for some of the wide-ranging reforms that would have implications across the country.
Another policy for which the public was given a 10-day period, which has now been extended, is the draft health data management policy. On August 26, the government released the draft health data management policy of the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM), which seeks to digitise the health ecosystem in India and introduce a unique health ID for every citizen.
The National Health Authority (NHA) had initially asked for public feedback on the policy by September 3, which was then extended by a week, giving citizens only two weeks for their comments. The government rushed through the process by not making it available in Hindi as well as other regional languages.
Speaking to NewsClick, Gargi a public policy expert, said: “These are things that are going to affect everyone. The National Health data management policy, for example, will collect data from across societal groups. The marginalised, which will include a major chunk of beneficiaries, will not be able to read or review these provisions since the draft primarily remains in English.”
‘Suppression’ of Views
Speaking to NewsClick, environment researcher Kanchi Kohli said: “The demand for translations needs to be understood as a public call for seeking informed participation in policy and law-making. Communicating an intent for legal amendment is not complete till the message is received by those from whom the responses are being sought. Without translations or public hearings, the communication is far from complete.”
Poorna, a Bengaluru-based lawyer, said: “Besides making non-Hindi speakers feel alienated in their own country, the larger implications are the fact that the government is proposing major overhaul in the law or the primary structures that govern us, but people will not be able to register their opposition. .”
Also Read: How Draft EIA Notification Compromises Rights of Tribal and Forest Dwelling Communities