He appreciates the concern among civil society groups and activists at the extreme poverty and vulnerability of the marginalized and their enthusiasm for a rights-based approach (as against the dole-based approach of traditional welfare state). However, he cautions against the prevailing craze for it,
"It (rights-based approach) serves to raise consciousness among the poor and the vulnerable about their entitlements, and remind them that they are not mere supplicants to politicians and bureaucrats. In a weak administrative and institutional context, however, the NGO approach of uncompromising support for citizen’s rights can cause more harm than good. If the structure for implementing some of these rights is weak and corrupt, then the rights are hollow and promoting them breeds cynicism."
In the context of India where courts have joined civil society groups in taking up the cause of the poor and vulnerable, he strikes a much-needed but politically incorrect note of caution,
"India is already littered with hundreds of unenforced or spasmodically enforced court injunctions, some of them on the implementation of rights. This proliferating judicial activism, egged on by the rights-based movement and the media, may end up, for all its good intentions, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the judiciary itself."
Prof Bardhan hits the nail on its head when identifying the real limitation of civil-society activism driven rights-based approach to development in societies where the ability of governments to deliver is severely constrained. He writes,
"The social activists share with left-wing unions a preoccupation with redistribution, and a lack of concern for generating enough surplus to enable it. There are obvious trade-offs here between incentives for private enterprise and the need for social justice... When real capacity to create wealth is missing, social activism is often reduced to mere populism, which in the long run can be wasteful and counterproductive."
This is the biggest problem with the dominant development policy discourse in India - too much of wealth re-distribution and too little of wealth creation!
Again, in light of the political drama surrounding anti-corruption activists and their populist quick-fixes, Prof Bardhan questions their right to appropriate the mantle of popular legitimacy in democratic societies,
"In the policy arena... such non-party organizations cannot and should not threaten to replace the role of traditional party organizations in a democracy. Voluntary groups, as single-interest advocacy lobbies, lack the mechanism of transactional negotiations and give-and-take among diverse interest groups that large party organizations, representing and encompassing those varied interests, possess.
This kind of give-and-take is particularly important when resolving controversial issues and requires complex trade-offs and balancing of diverse interests. Those who speak for the poor usually underplay the diversity among the poor and sometimes romanticize their traditional way of life. A dam may benefit thousands of small farmers in hitherto parched land, even as it displaces thousands of others; a development project may displace some from their ancestral land but provide jobs and more productive livelihoods for others; and so on. Each such case involves complex trade-offs and demands negotiated compromises and compensations across groups and over time. Such deliberations should take place within a party forum where diverse interests and stakeholders are represented."
Finally, this message for those opposing capitalism on the grounds that capitalist exploits the poor, is extremely relevant,
"Activists who romanticize the pristine life of the poor and the indigenous, and ignore a great deal of misery and stagnation, should keep in mind that the horrors of capitalism fade in comparison with the horrors of pre-capitalism."