Striking An Own Goal: The NHRC Submission to the United Nations

Saturday, May 27,2017

NEW DELHI: The submission of the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) to the recently concluded Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations is a classic.

Written in a format that would do little credit to a high school student, it symbolizes the deep rot in the NHRC. Bad English, faulty sentence construction, a profusion of unexplained, un-elaborated acronyms, and worst of all, bereft of substance – the quality the submission is a matter of shame, an indication of how seriously the NHRC took its duty of setting out the picture of human rights in this country.

On to the NHRC’s submission to the UPR. Recommendation 4 is as follows: “The legal system continues to be dysfunctional with slow disposal of cases and inordinate delay in giving finality to both criminal and civil litigation.”

There is no elaboration, no reference to data that would have provided a fuller picture and indicated the enormity of the problem. According to the Supreme Court’s own figures, 60,751 matters were pending before it as of May 1, 2017.In the High Courts, was 31,16,492 civil cases and 10,37,465 criminal cases were pending as on December 31, 2014. In the district courts, as on December 31, 2014, 82,34,281 civil cases and 1,82,54,124 criminal cases were pending.

The NHRC’s submission on health states that programmes like Janani Suraksha Samiti (JSY), Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakram (JSSK), Dial 102 Emergency Ambulance Services, nutrition coverage for pregnant and lactating mothers have resulted in significant progress on health indicators. It states that the maternal mortality rate for 2011-2013 was 167, but according to Lancet and the data from the Global Burden of Disease report, 2015, the number has increased in 2015 to 174 per 1000 live births.

And not to quibble, but the fine staffer who drafted the note – and which the senior members clearly did not think to review – felt that acronyms like JSK and JSSK are universally understood – although a glossary of abbreviations is at the end of the document, no translations are provided.

Perhaps the NHRC felt that all UN delegates would automatically grasp the meaning of the Hindi words thanks to some telepathic Vedic Rosetta stone placed at the Indian delegation’s desk.

Here’s more:

“Recommendation : 38

43. While Government has been taking initiatives to promote social security through schemes like PMSBY, PMJJBY, APY and RSBY, there is need to do much more as 93% of the workforce is in unorganized sector, without social security and safety net. The UWSSA, 2008, is in place, needs to be implemented more effectively by the States.

44. The implementation of the BLSA, 1976 is weak. More effective implementation is also needed for legislations like IMWA, 1979 and MWA, 1948.”

Let alone UN delegates, how many Indians know and understand this acronym-fest?

No data was provided by the NHRC in its submission to show the alleged success of the National Child Labour Project of the Ministry of Labour and Employment in rescuing and rehabilitation of trafficked children.

On press freedom: “Press Council of India under the PCA, 1978 is mandated to take immediate action on complaints of violence against journalists. However, incidents of violence against them have been reported.” Yes, thank you for the laying out the rule, and no, the details don’t matter.

On recent developments like Kashmir, the NHRC thought it was best to keep it simple:

“The turmoil in Kashmir is on the spotlight now. It is augmented by trans-border terrorism and Jihadi funding from the neighbouring country. The use of plastic pellets by CAPFs is controversial. NHRC has taken up a case on the matter but withholds its comments now because human rights of both sides are involved, when young crowd pelt stones at the Police personnel.”

Hello obfuscation, goodbye nuance.

On vigilantism and violence against religious minorities, here’s some helpless hand-wringing and abdication of responsibility:

“56. The sporadic instances of violence concerning eating of beef have been reported in different parts of the country. The fringe of the right wing Hindutva Brigade is alleged to be behind these incidents which are few and far between. Though disquieting, it is too early to assess as to be a threat to secular and pluralistic structure of Indian society.”

The shoddy quality of the NHRC’s work product should not come as a surprise. The problem goes deeper. None of the senior officers of the NHRC are independent appointments. They are all officers from other Government of India ministries or departments on deputation to the NHRC. So much for adherence to the United Nations Paris Principles that govern the setting up of and running of National Human Rights institutions.

For example, one of the members is BJP Vice President Avinash Rai Khanna. The leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, a member of the appointing committee, who could and should have objected to the appointment was clearly as committed to the process as the ruling dispensation. Mercifully, the Supreme Court of India is hearing a challenge to the appointment.

The NHRC is a member of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI). In February 2017, it came close to losing its “A” status accreditation in GANHRI. The NHRC has not demonstrated pluralism, there is no space for women or esteemed individuals from minority communities. This is in fact a violation of Section 4 of the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993.

The NHRC is also almost completely staffed by civil servants at all levels. A number of intelligence officials are on deputation to the Commission.

The NHRC’s deferred accreditation will be reconsidered by the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of GANHRI during its next session in November 2017. Going by the quality of its most recent submission, and the serious structural problems that have plagued the NHRC for a while, the GANHRI is going to have to think long and hard before placing the Indian NHRC on par with the other Commissions.

(Ravi Nair is with the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC). He is the recipient of the M A Thomas, National Human Rights Award for 1997.)