India’s Covid story has attained tragic proportions of a scale never seen before in living memory. People are dying everywhere but heads are yet to roll — the job of fixing the accountability has not begun. What India needs is an honest, unbiased and fast inquiry into what all went wrong, probing multiple levels of governance and decision-making. And in my opinion, only a citizens’ commission can do this job fairly. We have all seen too well the fate of reports prepared by government-appointed panels in the past.
In the prevailing highly fragmented and polarised socio-political environment in India, findings on shortcomings, lapses and misjudgments in the handling of the pandemic are likely to be contested as partisan and politically motivated. The government is also not likely to agree to appoint any commission of inquiry. Even if it is appointed, its composition will become controversial. Hence, a citizens’ commission, comprising knowledgeable persons of highest integrity, who command respect and are above politics, should be constituted to go into the issues in-depth, fully and expeditiously.
India is a pharmacy to the world but is currently begging for medicines and equipment. Our vaccination programme is running at a snail’s pace when the virus is ravaging the country. This is a monumental mismanagement. The statement of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister that experts had not anticipated the “ferocity” of the second wave currently sweeping the country, has taken my breath away. With a vast reservoir of acclaimed scientific talent in the country, I am at a loss for words. He has also stated that a third wave is inevitable. Are we prepared for it? The prospect is frightening.
Against this background, the advice tendered to the government by the expert panels and others from time to time and the decision-making processes that followed need to be placed in public domain. Public accountability is the crux of democratic governance. Shockingly, there is no evidence of it so far. No heads have rolled. This speaks volumes about the Indian brand of democracy. The Indian Constitution does not provide for imposition of President’s Rule at the Centre. But, if such a provision was there, this would have been the most eminent occasion to take recourse to it.
The mistakes, one after the other
No great expertise was required to know that super-spreader events like the Kumbh Mela and election rallies would have to be avoided if the pandemic was to be controlled. Election rallies could have been avoided by postponing polls by six months. During the insurgency in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, constitutional amendments were undertaken to extend the term of the legislatures.
Failure to provide free vaccination to all is another cause of concern. It’s hard to understand why free vaccinations cannot be provided by the central government to all. Any cost-benefit analysis shows its viability.
For the first time after Indira Gandhi’s tenure, India’s quasi-federal structure is under severe strain. The Centre-state relations have reached such a low that any dialogue, even on critical national issues, has become impossible.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was criticised for the national lockdown. I have been of the view that the lockdown helped India save lakhs of lives and created a national awareness about the enormity of the Covid-19 threat. But as a result of the unjustified torrent of criticism, Modi now seems to be reluctant to declare another national lockdown and has left it to the states. The states, in turn, have left it to the local authorities to take such unpopular decisions.
A spate of intemperate comments by some high courts is another disturbing development. The Supreme Court has taken a view that the high courts have a responsibility to monitor Covid-19 related management issues. There can be two views on this but even if this is to be so, the division of powers between state organs envisaged by the Constitution should not be lost sight of. The question is not of the media reporting the observations of the courts. I believe that off-hand, of-the-cuff comments, which undermine the integrity of the constitutional organs and institutions and bring them in disrepute, must be scrupulously avoided.
Why a citizens’ commission
As I had brought out in my book, The Judiciary and Governance in India, the two most potent instruments of public accountability in a democracy — Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament and judicial commission of enquiry — have been blunted and have lost credibility and esteem. This can be seen from a number of the PAC reports such as on securities scam, Bofors, 2G scam, coal scam, among others. Only in a few exceptional cases such as the Justice J.C. Shah Commission on Emergency excesses, and J.S. Verma Commission on Indira Gandhi’s assassination, were the reports of judicial commissions submitted expeditiously. In several other cases, inordinate delays in the completion of inquiries were due to reasons such as stays (even ex-parte) granted by the high courts and the Supreme Court, which had continued for an indefinite period, were time-consuming procedures, and so on. In spite of suggestions made by several commissions to remedy these deficiencies, no steps have been taken by the government to amend the Commission of Inquiry Act.
In such a situation, the civil society had to take recourse to citizens’ commissions to probe major catastrophic events such as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in which over 3,000 persons were killed, and the Gujarat riots in which more than 2,000 persons, mainly Muslims, perished. The Citizens’ Justice Committee presided over by Justice S.M. Sikri, former Chief Justice of India, and other eminent members submitted their report on Delhi riots, which was an eye-opener, as compared to the report of Justice Ranganath Misra Commission, appointed by the government, which became controversial for several reasons. The same was true in respect to the Godhra riots. The Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal, under Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, former judge of the Supreme Court, submitted its report in 2002 itself and made several thoughtful recommendations.
As was to be expected, the state and the central government of the day did not cooperate with the citizens’ commissions. Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, even declined to meet Justice Sikri. Government servants were not permitted to depose before the commissions or to submit any information to them. Their recommendations were totally overlooked. If it is any consolation, whatever the outward show of deference to the judicial commissions appointed by the government, the same treatment was meted out to the recommendations of most judicial commissions.
The purpose of any commission of inquiry is to place full facts before people and to educate public opinion. It is empowerment of the people in the real sense. Towards this end, citizens’ commissions have some distinct advantages. They have no political bias. They are not constrained by limitations such as stays on their proceedings by high courts and the Supreme Court. And most importantly, their reports become available in the shortest possible time.
The writer is a former home secretary and secretary, justice, GOI. His new book, India: A Federal Union of States—Fault Lines, Challenges and Opportunities, is under publication. Views are personal.