Boundary lines blur amid growing concerns

Boundary lines blur amid growing concerns

The National Commission for Women was constituted to be a forum for advocacy for the rights of women and to...

The National Commission for Women was constituted to be a forum for advocacy for the rights of women and to provide a voice for their issues and concerns. The subjects of their campaigns have included dowry, politics, religion, equal representation for women in jobs, and the exploitation of women for labour.

They have also raised policy/public abuses against women. For instance, they have demanded that women should not be punished for adultery, as a woman is 'the victim and not an offender' in such cases.

This led the courts to have also begun to deliver verdicts accordingly. Hence, women who are arrested under the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act are being sent to rescue homes and men involved in those cases are facing prosecution.

They have also advocated the amendment of Section 198 of the CrPC to allow women to file complaints against unfaithful husbands and prosecute them for their promiscuous behaviour. This was in response to 'loopholes' in the Indian Penal Code that allowed men to file adultery charges against other men who have engaged in illicit relations but did not allow women to file charges against their husbands.

The commission, however, came in for sharp criticism for their response to the attack by miscreants on women in a bar in Mangalore in late January 2009. A member had to be removed on disciplinary grounds on account of failure to respond effectively to the demands of the situation.

The commission came under fire again after the molestation of a woman outside a bar in Guwahati on 9 July 2012, with certain comments by the Chairperson inviting criticism of victim-blaming.

The National Commission for the Schedule Castes and the Schedule Tribes, was set up to look into the atrocities committed against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as well as to monitor the safeguards provided to these communities and was the first non-judicial body to be vested with the powers of a civil court.

Contrary to the initial criteria prescribed for selection of the members of the commission, however, the panel was packed with politicians, leading to the formation of groups at war with each other. Infighting made the commission a non-starter.

In one case, a court had to quash the order issued by a member of the commission saying that "a single member cannot act on behalf of the commission", as it had been passed "without the approval or concurrence of the Chairman and other members."

The National Human Rights Commission was set up primarily as a body to promote and protect human rights in the country. While it has dealt with a number of cases pertaining to different aspects of human rights, notable is its finding that a majority of cases of encounters by the police with suspected extremists were fake. The commission, consequently, awarded compensation to the victims of the action.

For all the controversy it has generated, the NHRC Bill seems to be an improvement on the scheme of the SC/ST Commission. The Bill lays down rigorous criteria for selecting four of the five top members of the NHRC. The Chairman will be a Supreme Court Judge, sitting or retired. The government, at last, seems to have learnt a lesson from earlier experience.

Brought in as a replacement to the earlier Freedom of Information Act of 2002, the Right to Information act 2006 – was intended as a statutory basis for creating and enforcing the right to information for the citizens.

It is widely accepted that Aruna Roy, the Magsaysay Award winning activist from Rajasthan was the spirit behind the legislation. The act has been described as one of the best in the world, lacking only in proper implementation.

As far as the performance of the commission is concerned, the most alarming aspect is the enormous pendency that has accumulated over time. The primary reason for this is the continued inability of the Central government to fill a large number of post of Information Commissioners for unacceptably long periods.

Another reason is the laxity of the commission in imposing penalties for violating the law, by denying information to legitimate applicants, on the part of the officials of the State and Central governments. This has promoted a culture of impunity and exasperated applicants seeking information.

The Union Public Service Commission, another of the institutions created by the Constitution of India, has had a flawless record for over seven decades in arranging, and conducting competitive examinations, and interviews, for the civil service aspirants in the country, year after year.

It has had an enviable record, not only for promptness, regularity and accuracy, but also for its impartiality and fairness. It has deservedly earned for itself a commendable reputation as one of the finest of its kind in the whole world. The government of India recently made an attempt to erode its autonomy by altering the rules which would, in effect, transfer the authority for allotting services to successful candidates from the UPSC to itself.

Earlier, through its decision to recruit persons for the level of Joint Secretary in the government of India from the open market and on a contractual basis, not only hit at the very root of the concept of a permanent and independent civil service, but also impacted on the jurisdiction of the commission.

Before the curtain falls on our discussion of the performance (or otherwise!) of the various bodies we have looked at, a few observations appear relevant. With very few exceptions - perhaps the Supreme Court and the UPSC - the general feeling is that, while most of the bodies have many significant accomplishments to their credit, there have been significant failures on their part to discharge, to the fullest extent, the obligations entrusted to them by the Constitution or the laws concerned.

One problem appears to be the fact that much more enthusiasm has gone into conceptualising the mandate of the institutions, rather than the structure the required to discharge their mandates.

Another failure of the system, clearly, is the woefully inadequate supervision by those entrusted with the task. This would appear to be on account of the fact that the citizen whose representatives have created the laws that gave birth to the institutions, have no direct voice in the effort at correcting their performance.

The existing arrangements for supervision have given rise to a feeling that they are creations of a self-serving elite. There is always a political bias and part of the functionaries of these bodies as they are appointed by different governments with varying political persuasions. They therefore generate impressions clouded by information asymmetry.

The entire system is subjective and hypocritical, lacking in sincerity of purpose. It is precisely for this reason that the doctrine of separation of powers and the philosophy of checks and balances have informed our polity. These salutary principles will need to be respected more in the future if one is to see any major improvements.


(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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