May 26, 2023
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss whether the National Human Rights Commission has lost its bite. We also look at the welfare measures for migrant workers in West Bengal, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Has the National Human Rights Commission lost its bite?
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled…except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” In 1215, when King John signed the Magna Carta, he was merely signing a peace treaty. Retroactively, it’s become one of the first documents to recognise the inherent equality of all human beings. In modern-day democracies, behind the facade of taken-for-granted human rights are several organisations working like cogs in a wheel to ensure it.
In India, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is one such organisation doing its part to ensure that human rights are taken care of. But, for the second time in a decade, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) has deferred the commission’s ‘A’ status accreditation. It’s raked up a debate over whether the human rights organisation has slowly been dismembered.
The global proliferation of United Nations-led National Human Rights Commissions in the last rites of the 1900s was considered a feat of global governance. In India, the NHRC was established on 12 October 1993 under the Protection of Human Rights Act (PHRA), an ordinance of the President.
Justice Ranganath Mishra was the commission’s first chairperson. He was the former Chief Justice of India (CJI), serving from 25 September 1990 to 24 November 1991. The organisation was formed per the framework laid down by the Paris Principles. The Paris Workshop held in 1991 drafted certain channels and human rights principles that would be endorsed two years later by all members of the UN General Assembly.
It essentially called for national-level organisations to implement international norms of individual rights within the domestic framework. They would act as fourth-branch institutions. Other fourth-branch institutions in India include the Election Commission and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. They’re the watchdogs of the political ecosystem.
The Paris Principles required that these commissions work independently from the government, and their composition was diverse enough to reflect the plurality of the society they’re embedded in.
They also needed to have enough resources and adequate power to investigate human rights and carry out grievance redressal. Now, these investigations could involve just about anyone – government officials, civilians, or army officers.
Consider the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law often under the spotlight for enabling human rights abuses. In cases where people have such a complaint, the NHRC can intervene by seeking a report from the state government and initiating an inquiry.
NHRC also collects data on human rights abuses. If it notices a worrying trend, like a steep rise in child abuse in a state, it notifies the state government and other concerned authorities.
You can think of these organisations as working in tandem with the judiciary to protect human rights victims and help them seek legal remedies. But the NHRC has often been under the scanner for being pusillanimous and vulnerable to political sidelining.
To protect NHRCs from precisely this, in 1993, at the second international workshop in Tunisia, they decided to establish GANHRI. The organisation meets twice every year in Geneva to review accreditation applications and decide whether the NHRCs comply with the Paris Principles mentioned earlier.
GANHRI has decided to postpone India’s accreditation by another 12 months. India failed to address GANHRI’s concerns in 2017 about the deterioration of human rights in the country – neither the NHRC nor the Centre responded to the review. If this continues, the Indian NHRC may fall from an ‘A’ status, meaning full compliance, to a ‘B’ status, meaning partial compliance, in the review next year.
While this adds to the narrative of a deteriorating human rights situation in India, is there anything that redeems the NHRC from its image as a toothless tiger?
VIEW: It’s doing the best it can
For starters, the NHRC has a commendable disposal rate. In 2020, the Commission reported having disposed of almost all of the cases it had registered – 19,32,533 cases out of 19,50,695. That’s a lot of cases taken care of in a country where one needn’t look far for such cases and whose judiciary is chronically plagued with pendency. According to the Commission, it’s also paid around ₹205 crore to human rights abuse victims across state agencies.
In the past few years, its powers of taking suo moto cognisance have allowed the Commission to alert states to increasing crime rates and child sexual abuse material on social media. In 2021, the Madras High Court delivered a judgment that ensured the state Human Rights Commission’s decisions were binding on state governments.
Lastly, allegations of political manipulation are common across fourth-branch institutions like the Enforcement Directorate and ECI. One argument is that the accusation of political manipulation doesn’t rest with the institutions but the governments in power. Elected governments are entrusted with sustaining the human rights infrastructure and the sanctity of independent institutions.
COUNTERVIEW: What’s the point of it?
NHRCs were created to keep government actors, above all, in check. To ensure that not even the state can attack its citizens’ human rights. But the NHRC has barely ever diverged from the incumbent government’s mandate. It’s an endemic issue rising from deep beneath its structure. In the past few years, case pendency has risen by around 32.8%. The number of cases registered with it has also fallen – suggesting a decline in public trust within the entity – and taken down the rate of suo moto cases with it. Disposal rates don’t mean much if most cases are dismissed even without an adequate inquiry. In 2020, for instance, the NHRC dismissed 97% without even a preliminary hearing.
Coming to the GANHRI, the human rights representative body has several complaints about not just the functioning but the lack of diversity in the NHRC staff. It believes the NHRC, as it stands, doesn’t fully comply with the Paris Principles. It’s got some solid evidence about the organisation involving the police in their investigations and counteracting civil society demands.
Lastly, the NHRC is in serious trouble for remaining silent on many excesses of the centre in the past few years. In particular, it hasn’t exercised its powers to review the cases against think tanks like the Centre for Policy Research and human rights advocacy groups like Amnesty International under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Under particular scrutiny are the judgments taken under former Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra’s tenure, which favoured the government over protecting the rights of marginalised communities.
- Paris Principles: 20 years guiding the work of National Human Rights Institutions – OCHR
- History – GANHRI
- Giving Human Rights Commissions more teeth – The Hindu
- India’s National Human Rights Commission At Risk Of Losing Top-Level Ranking For Second Time Since 1999 – Article 14
- 28 Years of NHRC: A Look at the ‘Achievements’ the Rights Body Boasts Of – The Quint
- U.N.-recognised Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions keeps NHRC waiting over ‘political meddling’ – The Hindu
- Emerging Global Actors: The United Nations and National Human Rights Institutions – Brill
What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) There’s not much wrong with the National Human Rights Commission in India.
b) The National Human Rights Commission in India has lost its bite.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Secrecy Over Ticketing But Empty Seats: My Experience of Modi’s Sydney Event
For the Left:
Chronicles of Bharat-Neeti: The India story in Modi style
🇮🇳 STATE OF THE STATES
Revising user fees and charges (Delhi) – The finance department of the Delhi government might revise user fees and charges to help improve the city’s finances. This includes fees for water, sewage, and power, etc. The finance department has asked departments to explore the possibility of rationalising fees to increase non-tax revenues. Ideally, the revision should be happening every three years, but the fees haven’t been revised for many years.
Why it matters: The city’s finances took a hit due to the pandemic. In the latest budget, the Delhi government collected ₹53,565 crore as tax revenue. Non-tax revenue was estimated to be only ₹1,050 crore, 1.3% of the total budget. Rule 47 of the general financial rules mandates identifying user charges levied by departments to ensure they recover the current cost of services they provide.
Fire incidents (Kerala) – Several fire incidents in the state over the years have garnered interest and suspicion over the departments and agencies involved. The latest incident was at the Kerala Medicinal Services Corporation Limited (KMSCL), as it was under investigation for medical purchases made during the pandemic. There’s also the recent fire near the industries minister’s office coinciding with corruption allegations.
Why it matters: The first suspicious incident happened at the general administration department’s political branch in Thiruvananthapuram. The opposition Congress protested, given Chief Minister Vijayan’s office faced allegations of smuggling of gold and dollars.
Welfare for migrant workers (West Bengal) – The state government announced several measures for migrant workers and their families across the country. This includes financial aid and a call centre and office to assist them. It’s the first of its kind from the recently formed West Bengal Migrant Workers’ Welfare Board. A migrant worker in distress can use the call centre and inform the Bengal government. There’s also a portal for workers to register their names.
Why it matters: Per government estimates, during the pandemic, the highest number of migrant workers hailed from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, then followed by West Bengal. State officials estimate the total number of migrant workers from Bengal is about 38 lakh. About five lakh go abroad, mainly to the Gulf countries.
Reduced influenza and swine flu cases (Maharashtra) – The number of swine flu cases has decreased by 31% this year and H3N2 cases by 62% in a month. Experts have suggested a decline in new cases across the state. From the beginning of the year, Covid-19 and other viral infections have also decreased. In the first five months of this year, the state reported 590 swine flu cases and 500 H3N2 cases.
Why it matters: In February and March, there were a high number of influenza cases in the state with high hospitalisations for H3N2 also. Despite the decrease in cases, doctors advised people to follow health protocols like wearing masks and avoiding crowded places. The state currently has only 16 active influenza A cases.
Land grabbing allegations (Meghalaya) – As the second round of border talks got underway between Assam and Meghalaya, there have been allegations of land grabbing from the South West Garo Hills (SWGH). Members of the Achik Holistic Awakening Movement (AHAM) asked the region’s deputy commissioner to intervene. The alleged incident happened as Assam officials tried to claim land in the vicinity of Chattibui market near the Monabari outpost in South West Garo Hills
Why it matters: The incident led to the destruction of 71 shops belonging to locals by Assam officials. They produced documents relating to a land dispute filed at the Gauhati high court. The AHAM stated the actual owner’s name didn’t appear in the court order.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
₹2 lakh crore – The Government E-Marketplace (GeM), popularly known as the government’s Amazon, through which agencies procure goods and services, crossed the ₹2 lakh crore mark. The government is now looking for it to cross ₹3 lakh crore this fiscal.