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India’s national panels on rights & civil liberties lie vacant, toothless under Modi govt

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From NHRC and NCW to child rights and information panel, several crucial commissions are headless and simply too short-staffed to perform their tasks.

New Delhi: Several national commissions tasked with protecting civil liberties and human rights are grappling with crippling vacancies under the Modi government – rendering these bodies redundant, toothless or simply too short-staffed to perform their tasks.

Consider this: The Central Information Commission (CIC), the national transparency watchdog constituted under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, has just seven commissioners against the sanctioned strength of 11. Of the seven, four more, including the chief, are set to retire in November.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) has none of its five members at present. It is functioning with just a chairperson and a member secretary.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) – the watchdog, advisor and educator of human rights – has two members out of the sanctioned strength of four.

Also read: NHRC turns 25 – and that’s pretty much all it has achieved

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has only three members against the sanctioned strength of six.

The state of the bodies has prompted critics to allege that this was being done by design.

“It is obviously by design that all these commissions are being kept vacant,” said former Union minister Arun Shourie. “The strategy is to pull out the teeth of all the institutions by keeping them vacant, and then searching for your own yes-men to fill them up,” he added.

“Look at what they (the government) have done with RTI…They have killed RTI completely,” said Shourie.

The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), which decides appointments to several posts in the government, did not respond to queries sent by ThePrint. This report will be updated when it does.

CIC the worst hit

While the sanctioned strength of the commissioners in the CIC is 11, the present commission is working with just seven of them. The government advertised for these posts only in July even though the vacancies have existed since January.

This is, however, only part of the problem. Four more vacancies in the commission are set to come up by November, for which there has been no advertisement. So even if four  commissioners are appointed by the government before November, vacancies in the commission will continue to persist.

The upcoming four vacancies include that of the chief. While the government advertised for the post last week, there is a concern that the appointment will not be made before the chief retires on 24 November.

“Appointing the CIC is a long process…The Commission is like a court and commissioners adjudicate over matters, and their decisions are binding,” said Wajahat Habibullah, a former CIC chief.

“According to the Act, the appointment of the chief is done by a committee that consists of the PM, leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha and one Union minister…So, it needs to be done well in advance. None of this has happened,” he said.

“Without a chief, the entire commission will be defunct,” said an official in the commission on condition of anonymity. “The chief is the one who assigns cases, allocates powers – without a chief, nobody would know what to do.”

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition alleging that the Centre and some state governments have “stifled” the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act by failing to ensure appointments of information commissioners.

The commissions without chiefs

Several crucial commissions such as the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), the country’s central recruiting agency responsible for appointments to the All India Services, the Competition Commission of India and the National Statistical Commission do not have full-time chairpersons and are working under acting ones.

Also read: NCW can’t be a post office: Amid #MeToo campaign, women’s body pulled up for ‘insincerity’

Arvind Saxena, for example, was appointed the acting chairperson of the UPSC in June. Four months have passed, and the government has not appointed a full-time chairperson to the commission.

Similarly, Professor Manoj Panda, Director of the Institute of Economic Growth and a member of the National Statistical Commission, was recently given charge as the acting chairperson of the commission, which currently has no chairperson.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) too has an acting chairperson – Sudhir Mittal.

While the work does not suffer in any way, since the acting chairperson performs all the functions of the chairperson, it is inexplicable why the government does not appoint permanent chairpersons, a CCI member said on condition of anonymity.

Vacant, redundant commissions

Rekha Sharma, former media in-charge of the BJP in Haryana, was appointed the National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson in August, but she had been the acting chairperson of the commission for almost a year.

“Why was she not made the permanent chairperson right at the beginning if after a year the government wanted to appoint her?” asked Ranjana Kumari from the Centre for Social Research (CSR).

The NCW, however, is lying vacant with no members at a time when the commission is looking into several complaints of sexual harassment made as part of the #MeToo campaign in India.

In fact, according to a source in the commission, it has not been at full strength in three years. “We are hoping members will be appointed soon, but there have been vacancies for years, and we’ve worked with two or three members at most,” the source in the commission said.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which is the sister organisation of the NCW since both come under the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) too has been struggling with vacancies for over three years.

Earlier this year, the Delhi High Court pulled up the WCD for keeping nearly half of the senior posts in the apex child right’s body vacant for over three years and asked it to fill up the vacancies in 30 days.

While the commission is mandated to have six members, it has had no more than three members for the last three years. The tenure of another member is set to expire in a few days.

In March, the Centre told the Parliament that it has not been able to find suitable candidates for the posts.

“Generally speaking, the work does not suffer because the existing members take up additional responsibilities…But it basically means that the members are doing double their sanctioned work,” an official in NCPCR said on condition of anonymity.

“How can a commission be expected to perform its duties smoothly without full capacity and resources?”

‘Deliberate design to undermine role of institutions’

The NHRC similarly has only two members against the sanctioned strength of four in addition to the chairperson. ThePrint had earlier reported that the rest of the commission too remains understaffed, significantly impeding its ability to investigate cases.

“These commissions are the intermediaries between the people and the government…What kind of advocacy are they expected to do with no strength?” asked Kumari of CSR. “This seems to be a deliberate design to undermine the role of institutions.”

While Kumari argued that even during the UPA regime, the government was not interested in strengthening the commissions, but, she added, when civil society exerted pressure, the government would yield.

“Under this government, the voice of the civil society has been completely silenced,” she said.

While several of these commissions have sought greater powers – commissions like the NCW, National Minority Commission, etc. are like civil courts with no binding powers – they remain important in the sense that they give a voice to certain sections of the Indian people, argued Habibullah, who has also been the chairperson of the minority commission.

“Unfortunately, it appears that there is a pattern,” he said. “People are beginning to conjecture if the government is deliberately trying to silence these commissions.”

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