By Rini Kothari*
“The measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” — Mahatma Gandhi
Ever since the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus, a global pandemic,1 the apathy of various Commissions seems to be the “new normal”. It was in the phase of Unlock 3.0 (1st August – 31st August), I set myself on what I would describe as an “eye-opening” experience, during my internship at the Access to Information department of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), under the guidance of Mr. Venkatesh Nayak, an eminent social activist.
In my first task, I was supposed to conduct a rapid telephonic survey of all the Human Rights Commission, Women’s Commissions, Child Rights Commissions, Minorities Commissions and Lokayuktas, at the state as well as central level, and update the Lockdown Performance Database, a document at CHRI, containing the records of performance of the aforementioned bodies, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
On the first day of this task, I was just like a kid in a candy store, thrilled to explore how the organisations are working their fingers to the bones and making the ends meet during such trying times. I began with first calling Human Rights Commissions, on August 14th, day one of my task. The Human Rights Commissions have been established under The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, to inter alia, inquire suo motu or on a petition presented to them by a victim or any person on their behalf (or on court’s order or direction), into complaints pertaining to violations of human rights, or abetment thereof, and in cases of negligence by public servant in prevention of such violation.2 The Commissions have all the powers of a civil court (as provided under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908) while inquiring into complaints within this Act.3 To my utter dismay, I discovered, only 69 per cent of the total Commissions were functioning, and of the remaining 31 per cent, no records exist as to whether they even exist anymore. This percentage, however, became worse each day as I surveyed the rest of the Commissions.
The Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005,4 mandates constitution of a National Commission and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights. Section 13 of the said Act, empowers the Commissions to inter alia, look into the matters pertaining to children requiring special care and protection (including children in distress, as well as marginalised and disadvantaged children). Moreover, the Commissions also have the duty to take suo motu cognisance of matters pertaining to deprivation and violation of child rights, non-implementation of laws providing for protection and development of children and non-compliance of policy decisions. Like the other Commissions, Child Rights Commissions also have the right to exercise the rights of civil court as provided under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, while trying cases under Section 13. Children belonging to socio-economically backward and marginalised communities, faced dire consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown and many were forced into child marriages.5 The pandemic also posed challenges in terms of children being victims of extreme poverty, facing threats of survival and health, and lack of access to education. At a time when the Commissions should have been on their toes trying to mitigate the gravity of the situation, and ensuring the welfare of the children, only 36 per cent chose to be functional.
The protracted lockdown also resulted into a plethora of domestic violence cases against women and lack of access to healthcare. History shows epidemics and pandemics have always impacted women much more adversely than men,6 as also suggested by the data prepared by United Nations Population Fund.7 The Women’s Commissions, which have been established under the National Commission for Women Act, 1990, and other state laws, aim to mitigate hardships and provide relief to women. The Commissions are mandated to investigate and examine cases pertaining to the safeguards provided for women under the Constitution of India and other laws, and take suo moto notice of matters pertaining to deprivation of women’s rights, non-implementation of laws and non-compliance of policy decisions. These Commissions are also empowered to exercise all the rights conferred upon the civil courts under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.8 Several reports demonstrate that domestic violence cases doubled and were at a 10-year high during the COVID-19 lockdown,9 and New Delhi alone received around 1,600 complaints from women between March and April regarding domestic violence cases, and the National Commission for Women received more than 300 complaints during the same period.10 Despite such abhorrent circumstances, only 29 per cent of Women’s Commissions, were found functioning.
The National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992, mandates the concerned authorities to inter alia, look into specific complaints relating to deprivation of rights and safeguards of the minorities and take up such matters with the appropriate authorities. Further, they are empowered to monitor the working of the safeguards provided in the Constitution and in laws enacted by Parliament and the State Legislatures, and evaluate the progress of the development of minorities under the Union and States. The said Act, also empowers these Commissions with similar powers as a civil court, as provided under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, while trying the matters pertaining to Section 10 of the said Act.11 India is a home to world’s largest Adivasi population (8.6 per cent), Muslims, largest minority community (13.4 per cent), and Dalits, a historically marginalised community (16.6 per cent). A survey conducted by civil society organisations, of around 1,00,000 families in 11 states, indicated that the marginalised and minority communities fared much worse, in the lockdown as opposed to the majority communities.12 Yet, merely 19 per cent of the Commissions were functional amidst Unlock 3.0.
The Lokpal And Lokayuktas Act, 2013, mandates setting up of a body of Lokpal for the Union and Lokayukta for States to inquire into allegations of corruption against certain public functionaries and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. Subject to the provisions of each state’s Act, the Lokayuktas have the power to investigate matters pertaining to corruption and complaint regarding grievances or allegation relating to corruption, with the concerned authority’s approval. The Lokayuktas have all the powers as conferred on a civil court under Code of Civil Procedure, 1903. As inhuman as it may sound, many took unfair advantage and misappropriated money from the relief funds originally allotted to help the poor and needy, thereby indulging in corrupt practices.13 During June, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, received 814.2 per cent more cases than the month of March and April.14And this time to no surprise, only 28 per cent of Lokayuktas were found functioning.
Besides the fact that these percentages are appalling, they are testament to an incompetent and ruthless government. At a time when overnight tens of thousands of daily-wage migrant workers turned jobless, homeless and penniless,15 it was the job of these commissions to intervene and uphold the fundamental rights of the stranded workers and provide them with basic amenities. The National Human Rights Commission alone recorded over 2,582 cases in the first three months of the lockdown,16 indicating rampant violation of human rights, and urgent need of redressal. Such is the condition of a nation which aims to eradicate poverty by 2030.17
It is time we start to question, why were these Commissions even established in the first place? What is the government doing to ensure their proper functioning? Who do the most vulnerable people go to, when they are at the brink of penury? To these invisible Commissions?
*Rini Kothari is Final Year Law Student at Jindal Gldobal Law School (Sonipat)
1 World Health Organisation, Virtual Press Conference on COVID-19, March 11, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available on <https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/transcripts/who-audio-emergencies-coronavirus-press-conference-full-and-final-11mar2020.pdf?sfvrsn=cb432bb3_2>
2 Section 12, The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.
3 Section 13, The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.
4 The Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005.
5 Jadhav, Radheshyam. “Covid-19: Economic hardship leading to spike in child marriages”, The Hindu. July, 6, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/covid-19-economic-hardship-leading-to-spike-in-child-marriages/article31999216.ece>.
7 Roy, Shriya. “The hidden crisis: Beneath the surface of Covid lurks a human rights crisis for women”, Financial Express. August 9, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.financialexpress.com/lifestyle/the-hidden-crisis-beneath-the-surface-of-covid-lurks-a-human-rights-crisis-for-women/2049161/>.
8 Section 10, National Commission for Women Act, 1990.
9 Radhakrishnan, Vignesh. “Data | Domestic violence complaints at a 10-year high during COVID-19 lockdown”. The Hindu. June, 24, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-domestic-violence-complaints-at-a-10-year-high-during-covid-19-lockdown/article31885001.ece>.
10 Roy, Shriya. Roy, Shriya. “The hidden crisis: Beneath the surface of Covid lurks a human rights crisis for women”, Financial Express. August 9, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.financialexpress.com/lifestyle/the-hidden-crisis-beneath-the-surface-of-covid-lurks-a-human-rights-crisis-for-women/2049161/>.
11 The National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992.
12 Raman, Shreya. “India’s strict lockdown pushed its Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis deeper into debt”, Scroll.in. September, 12, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://scroll.in/article/972840/indias-strict-lockdown-pushed-its-dalits-muslims-and-adivasis-deeper-into-debt>.
13 DHNS, Udupi. “Karkala MLA indulged in corruption during lockdown”, Deccan Herald. October 6, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.deccanherald.com/state/mangaluru/karkala-mla-indulged-in-corruption-during-lockdown-897879.html>.
14 Inamdar, Nadeem. “Post unlocking, surge in anti-corruption cases in Maharashtra”, Hindustan Times. September 20, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.hindustantimes.com/pune-news/post-unlocking-surge-in-anti-corruption-cases-in-maharashtra/story-47V58o3XicOmk5xN9mlJfO.html>
15 Pandey, Vikas. “Coronavirus lockdown: The Indian migrants dying to get home”, BBC News. May 19, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52672764>.
16 Sharma, Neetu. “How coronavirus turned into humanitarian crisis for migrant workers”, May 25, 2020. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.livemint.com/news/india/how-coronavirus-turned-into-humanitarian-crisis-for-migrant-workers-11590401718622.html>.
17 Sanchez, Erica. “Half the World’s Poor Live in Just Five Countries: Report”, Global Citizen, 16 January, 2019. Accessed on October 17, 2020. Available at <https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/half-the-worlds-poor-live-in-five-countries/>.