- The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has expressed serious concerns about the poor state of public health infrastructure in the country.
- It has taken suo motu cognizance of loss of precious human lives in various parts of the country in recent times due to deficiencies and inadequacies in the healthcare system.
- Around 140 children have died recently in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar due to Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES).
- In 2017, scores of children had died in Gorakhpur suffering from Japanese Encephalitis and lack of oxygen.
- A large number of deaths of the innocent people including women, children and elderly persons are taking place due to lack of proper medical care, infrastructure, manpower and due to administrative failure, across the country.
- Reacting to the poor state of health infrastructure, the Commission noted that the success of a public health care system lies in easy accessibility, availability and affordability of treatment and it is the responsibility of the State to ensure comprehensive health care facilities for all.
- There is an urgent need for convergence and integration of child and maternal health schemes of Central and State Governments and their proper implementation.
- The Commission has reminded the Central/State Governments of their constitutional duty under Article 21 of the Constitution under which Right to Life is guaranteed.
- Quoting the Supreme Court of India, the Commission observed that right to live with human dignity is part of Right to Life.
- Referring to the widespread malnutrition prevalent in several States, the Commission observed that it is the primary duty of the State under Article 47 of the Constitution to raise the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people, which, the State has failed in.
- The commission has asked Chief Secretaries of all the states and Union Territories to submit their reports within six weeks giving the details of the incidents relating to deaths due to lack of health and medical care facilities which took place in the last three years and steps taken by them to prevent their recurrence.
- It has also asked the Secretary of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to submit a comprehensive report within four weeks on the observations made by the Commission.
- It has directed teams comprising doctors on the panel of the commission along with the commission officers to visit health facilities in vulnerable states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab to conduct an on the spot fact finding investigation with regard to difficulties being faced by the people and shortcomings on the part of the respective State Government/Central agencies.
In focus: National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)
- The commission was established in 1993 under the Protection of the Human Rights (PHR) Act, 1993, in the backdrop of criticism against gross human rights violations in Kashmir.
- It either takes suomotu cognisance of cases through media reports or on the basis of complaint filed by a victim or any other person on his/her behalf or on the basis of reports received from the police department, as in the case of encounters, where the police, as per the guidelines is supposed to inform the commission.
- The members of the commission are appointed by the President on the recommendation of a Selection Committee.
- The Committee consists of the Prime Minister who is the chairman of this Committee, Union Home Minister, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Leaders of the Opposition in both the Houses of Parliament.
- A Chairperson – retired Chief Justice of India
- A serving or retired judge of the Supreme Court of India
- A serving or retired Chief Justice or a Judge of the High Court
- Two members having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights
- In addition, the Chairpersons of four National Commissions (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Women and Minorities) serve as ex officio members.
- The Chairperson and the members of the NHRC have a tenure of five years. But if any member attains the age of 70 years before the completion of his tenure, he or she has to retire from the membership.
- The members of the commission can be removed by the President even before the expiry of their full term.
- They can be removed only on the charge of proven misbehaviour or incapacity or both, if it is proved by an inquiry conducted by a judge of the Supreme Court.
- The NHRC plays four key roles — protector, advisor, monitor and educator of human rights.
- Investigate complaints regarding the violation of human rights either suo moto or after receiving a petition.
- Investigate the failure of duties on the part of any public official in preventing the violation of human rights.
- Intervene in any judicial proceedings involving any allegation of violation of human rights.
- Visit any jail or any other institution under the control of the State Government to see the living conditions of the inmates and to make recommendations thereon.
Achievements of NHRC
- The Commission has taken up many important cases for the better protection and promotion of human rights in the country in domains like custodial deaths, fake encounters and police excesses.
- It is responsible for disposal of more than 17 lakh cases, payment of more than Rs 1 billion to victims of human rights violations, apart from conducting over 200 conferences to spread awareness of human rights across the country.
- All States have set up Human Rights Cells in the Offices of the Directors-General of Police. Seventeen States have set up State Human Rights Commissions. A number of States have also set up Human Rights Courts.
- On the recommendation of the NHRC, the Government has ratified the two optional protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, viz. (i) Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict; and (ii) Optional Protocol to the CRC on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
- It is actively involved, in collaboration with other organisations, in providing human rights sensitisation and training to civil servants, personnel of army and paramilitary forces, judicial officers and prison officials.
- The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), a UN body based in Geneva, re-accredited NHRC with an ‘A’ status, a perfect score.
Shortcomings of NHRC
- The recommendations of the body are only advisory and not binding in nature.
- Much of the complaints that come to the commission are dismissed on procedural grounds even before a preliminary hearing, and critics argue that the NHRC shies away from contentious cases with political implications.
- In February 2017, in a major embarrassment, the UN body GANHRI (Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions) deferred NHRC’s re-accreditation until November 2017. In its report, recommending deferment, GANHRI noted the Commission’s failure in ensuring gender balance and pluralism in its staff and lack of transparency in selecting its members among other reasons.
- The NHRC, woefully lacks the infrastructure to fulfil its mandate. Despite a 1,455 per cent increase in complaints between 1995 and 2015, its staff strength had decreased by 17 per cent in the same period.
- Apart from the limited sanctioned strength, almost 50 per cent of the NHRC’s staff is on deputation from other services. These officers keep changing, leaving the commission constantly short-staffed.
- The perennial staff shortage has meant that the NHRC, despite its quasi-judicial nature, has a problem similar to the courts – pendency.
Lack of Independence
- NHRC’s independence has always been in question given that the very state, which causes the human rights violations, has to fund and provide resources to the rights watchdog.
- The officers conducting investigations are usually on deputation from the same forces that have been accused of violations and have to inevitably go back to them, creating a conflict of interest.
- Most instances of human rights violations that the NHRC investigates are against the police and, ironically, the commission comes under the Home Ministry
- A politicised appointment process that all but assures reliable and government- friendly commission members.
- Inexcusable parliamentary delays in considering the NHRC’s annual reports, thereby delaying the report’s public release.
- The NHRC does not have any jurisdiction to independently investigate human rights violations perpetrated by the armed forces. However, a very large number of complaints of human rights violations are directed against the members of the armed forces.
- Unless the NHRC is made truly autonomous and there is political will to strengthen human rights, its powers will largely remain on paper and it will continue to be called a toothless tiger.