On May 28, 2013, the Ministry of Women and Child Development appointed Kushal Singh, former Chief Secretary of Rajasthan, as the Chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) thus making it absolutely clear what this government thinks of human rights institutions as well as child rights.

Ms. Singh, a retired bureaucrat, has held positions in the Board of Revenue, Rajasthan Pollution Control Board, and in Departments of Women and Child Development, Social Welfare and Tribal Area Development, Environment and Social Security. Her appointment to the Commission is in blatant disregard of the qualifications stated in the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005 (CPCR Act) which requires that the Chairperson be a person of eminence who has done outstanding work for promoting the welfare of children. Surely, it does not envisage the Commissions to be reduced to a hub for retired bureaucrats. By appointing a retired bureaucrat, the Ministry has, in one stroke, undermined the independence of a statutory institution that is vested with the responsibility of monitoring the protection and promotion of child rights in India, particularly recent legislation such as the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

Broken promises

In 2010, in Association for Development v. Union of India , a writ petition challenging the appointments of two members of the NCPCR, the Delhi High Court provided certain guidelines for future appointments. It recommended a broad-based Selection Committee which could include independent experts in the field, the Chairperson of the UPSC and/or the Leader of the Opposition. Gopal Subramanium, the Solicitor-General at the time, had assured the court that its recommendations would be borne in mind and that “at least one Member of the Selection Committee shall be an independent expert of eminence in the field of child rights or welfare”. Further, a commitment was voiced that upon completion of the selection process and at least 30 days before the notification, the details of the members of the Selection Committee and the candidates would be put up on the website of the Ministry. However, the Ministry appears to have gone back on its word as no prior information about the Selection Committee or Ms. Singh is available on its website. The stipulated 30 days period for inviting objections to candidates short-listed for the positions of Member was not followed in the case of this appointment. Furthermore, a PIL challenging the appointment of two Members of the NCPCR on the grounds of their lack of experience in child rights is pending in the Delhi High Court since 2011.

The appointment of NCPCR Chairperson also fails to meet the international standards pertaining to national human rights institutions (NHRI) that contain stipulations on composition and appointment processes. The Principles relating to the status of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, 1993, (Paris Principles), a set of internationally accepted minimum standards that states should aim to comply with while establishing a NHRI emphasise that a NHRI should be functionally and financially independent and should not be controlled by the government. The institution should have a broad mandate and its composition should be pluralistic and reflect the various entities involved in the protection and promotion of human rights. Other international standards emphatically state that the executive should not solely determine the composition of the Commission. Based on these standards, the norm that emerges is that the composition of a NHRI should inspire confidence and credibility. In order that it is not regarded as a mere extension of a government department, qualified and deserving persons should be selected in a transparent manner.

Glaring difference

However, the provision in the CPCR Act on appointments is glaringly opposed to these standards. It equips the Central government with an absolute authority to determine the composition of the NCPCR. All it must do is constitute a Selection Committee headed by the Minister for Women and Child Development and two other members of its own choice. Unlike the Chairperson and Members of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), who must be appointed based on the recommendations of a high-powered Selection Committee comprising the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, Minister in-charge of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha, Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, and Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha, the composition of the NCPCR is entirely at the whims and fancy of the government. In March, the move to appoint NIA chief as a Member of NHRC was reportedly questioned by the opposition on the grounds that “pliant” bureaucrats should not be given such post-retirement jobs. Even the reported disagreement over the appointment of Justice Cyriac Joseph to the NHRC was possible only because of the presence of the leaders of the opposition in the selection committee.

Similar disregard for the autonomy of human rights institutions has been evinced by the government in the case of the National Commission for Women (NCW) where political appointments have accommodated erstwhile and current politicians. For instance, Mamta Sharma, the current Chairperson of the NCW, has been an elected member of a State Assembly and has even held the position of General Secretary of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee. Previous Chairpersons such as Dr. Girija Vyas and Jayanti Patnaik had active political careers and were members of the national party that was at the Centre. Dr. Vyas was in fact a sitting Member of Parliament when she held the position of Chairperson.

Given the severe accountability crisis, the need for strong and independent watchdogs cannot be overemphasised. In 2010, the Delhi High Court had also advised the Minister to “consider framing guidelines for constitution of Selection Committee to eliminate allegations of arbitrariness from future appointments and bring more transparency and objectivity”. However, such gross conflagration of statutory requirements and international standards only underlines government’s lack of seriousness and respect for a strong oversight authority for protecting child rights.

(The writers are independent researchers and have been studying human rights institutions for children since 2010.)

There have been blatant violations of norms in appointments to institutions tasked with protection of women and children