Human rights commissions do not perceive themselves as independent and believe they are answerable to governments, not citizens

What did international pressure and globalisation have to do with the setting up of commissions for human rights and socially excluded sections? A lot. Under pressure from countries and businesses wanting to engage with India as it opened its doors to the market economy, the idea of setting up commissions was first mooted in 1992. In fact, it was in that year that the then Union Home Minister S.B. Chavan informed the Rajya Sabha about the proposed human rights commissions. He said they were to be set up to “counter the false and politically motivated propaganda by foreign and Indian civil rights agencies.” So, even at the very outset, the primary intent was to keep the West happy rather than improve the rights situation within the country. If some pluses have accrued they are just incidental.

So, thanks to the global community, the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 (PHRA) became a reality, broadly applying the Paris Principles laid down by the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly. With the PHRA in place came the Human Rights Commissions, followed by, among others, Commissions for Minorities, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Women, Children and People with Disabilities at the national and state level. It was implicit that these bodies would serve to provide India the pro-human rights image that it sought on the global front. Though these quasi-judicial outfits were government-sponsored and government-funded, there was a feeling that their citizen-centric functions would steer them towards their stated goal — of providing quick redress to marginalised citizens in the face of extensive red tape and tedious court proceedings in the country. As a result, each time blatant violations take place, be it custodial torture or rape, caste or class atrocities, or farmer suicides, citizens look towards these institutions for justice.

But on the ground have the national and state-level commissions delivered? A recently released report by Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) and Participatory Research in India (PRIA) documents the work of five commissions and reveals serious shortcomings. A social audit on state human rights commissions by Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) last year also throws light on their institutional and infrastructural problems.

Through data, material available in the public sphere, and filing of RTIs, the studies have collected a wealth of information which point to systemic bottlenecks that have rendered these vital institutions largely ineffective, save for some exceptions. For instance, the PACS-PRIA report notes that the offices of these commissions are mostly located amidst government offices in state capitals or bigger cities far removed from the districts where their presence is more required. The second Administrative Reforms Commission, 2009, in its 12th report had earlier observed that the commissions have not been able to accomplish the mandates to a meaningful extent, and called for making the institutions more vibrant, responsive and accountable.

So what are the inbuilt constraints eating into these institutions that on paper have immense potential? HRLN’s social audit, ‘Rugged Road to Justice,’ says that the commissions in India are heavily under government patronage, whether at the Centre or in the States. As a result, instead of being answerable to an independent authority as laid out in the Paris Principles, they report to the Ministry of Home Affairs. At the national level, the Ministry is also in-charge of the police, immigration, laws for terrorism and insurgency, security and communal harmony. The complaints made to the commission by stakeholders most often deal with these very authorities. “There has been no recorded evidence of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) or the State Human Rights Commissions (SHRCs) taking suitable action against the government of the day or of moving a court to action,” the audit report reveals. And this brings to the fore the basic question of the independence of the institutions.

Arbitary appointments

As far as these statutory bodies are concerned, their independent functioning is further corroded by the way appointments of chairpersons and members of the commissions are made, which is often according to the whims and fancies of the government of the day. It is also often a parking ground for retired judges or civil servants who are appointed instead of persons with professional experience and track records in particular fields. Rights commissions depend on government budgetary allocations. It was found that this varies drastically from state to state and it has been suggested that commissions prepare a five-year plan with clear deliverables and budgets. During the study, PACS and PRIA found that the National Commission for Women with a nation-wide mandate received a budget of over one crore in 2010-11, while the Madhya Pradesh State Women’s Commission received the same amount in 2009-10. In contrast, Bihar and Odisha were struggling with limited allocations of Rs 30 lakh and Rs 55 lakh respectively. Further, the report pointed out that a detailed analysis of budgetary provisions in all commissions revealed that most of the funds were spent in running offices, paying salaries and meeting administrative expenses. The actual activities and the mandate of the commission utilised a very limited proportion of the funds.

Another serious lacuna facing all the commissions was that of institutional capacity. It was found that in most cases, the staff of the commissions comprised largely of peons, drivers and assistants. Specialists who can deliver on the mandate of the particular commission were conspicuous by their absence. This serious lack of competencies in jurisprudence, investigation, data collection, documentation, communication and capacity development were visible when accomplishments of these commissions were carefully studied.

The studies also pointed out that often stakeholders get confused on who to approach as the commissions have overlapping scope. As a result those seeking relief were shunted from one to another. “A Scheduled Caste Muslim woman belonging to three socially excluded groups must get her rights and entitlements without any inconvenience due to confusion between commissions about their scope of work. The minority commission should not send her to a women’s commission and a women’s commission must not send her to a Scheduled Caste commission for claiming her entitlements. There needs to be clarity on which commission would serve as her ultimate recourse,” Sister Sudha Varghese, vice chairperson, State Commission for Minorities, Bihar, reiterated at the national consultation.

Many of the commissions were also found to be faulting on their public disclosures. A large number of them did not bother to update their websites or uplink annual reports. The PACS and PRIA study, while looking at Scheduled Caste commissions in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, found that no annual report was available for Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, while for Madhya Pradesh, the latest available report was as old as 2009-10.

At the very root of the problem is that the commissions do not perceive themselves as independent, nor do they seek the autonomy that the Paris Principles wanted to bestow on them. They believe they are answerable to governments and not to citizens. Unless this mindset changes, there is very little hope that things will change for the better.

preeti.mehra@thehindu.co.in

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