As the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) turns 28, it’s important to assess the ‘achievements’ the Commission boasts of on every possible occasion. The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) accreditation is also due next year, and the NHRC is straining every nerve to regain its barely saved ‘A’ status.
On Human Rights Day 2020, the Commission boasted of having registered 19,50,695 cases while disposing of 19,32,533 cases. It also paid close to ₹2 billion to victims of human rights violations across various state agencies on the recommendations of the Commission. On its 28th Foundation Day, the Commission took pride in the fact that it has disposed of 20 lakh cases and awarded ₹205 crores to the victims of violations.
Full Capacity, Dismal Performance
With the appointment of Justice Arun Mishra as the Chairperson of the Commission and three other members, the NHRC today is working at full capacity. However, in the short four-month tenure of the Commission working at full strength, the watchdog remains as toothless as before with, in fact, an increase in pendency (32.75%) and a decrease in disposal (8.35%).
Under Section 12(1) of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, one of the primary functions of the NHRC is to handle complaints received from individuals against public servants alleging human rights violations. The Commission has received over 84,000 cases every year on an average in the last five years, which are categorised as per the nature of the incident. A closer data analysis, along with rising allegations of fading autonomy and increased interference, reveal serious issues about its contribution to the human rights framework in the country.
Drop in Suo Motu Cases
The declining registration of complaints at the NHRC is no surprise as the data are updated monthly on its website. However, in the long term, from a total of 96,267 complaints registered in the year 2016, the figure fell to 75,064 in 2020, recording a sharp decline of 32.78%.
Other than improved access to the Commission, the rate of suo motu cognisance of cases is also dismal. The number of suo motu cases taken up by the Commission has almost halved, with a reduction rate of 46.32% between 2012-16 and 2016-20.
The downswing in the registration of complaints is a cause of worry when seen with state-wise representation. As highlighted on the website of the Commission, 38.1% of the complaints are from Uttar Pradesh alone.
Besides Delhi, Odisha, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu, which form the top five states, all the other states are covered under the 34.6% bracket. When it comes to taking suo motu cognisance, Uttar Pradesh also seems to be on the Commission’s priority list, as 50% of such complaints are from that state.
A decrease in registration with a subsequent increase in pendency is also worrying, as it questions the efficiency of the complaint handling mechanism. As of September 2021, the Commission recorded a pendency of 20,806 cases.
A Pattern of Impulsive Disposal of Cases
The data also reveal a pattern of impulsive disposal of complaints. In 2020 alone, a total of 68,130 cases have been disposed of, where disposal would not necessarily mean deciding on merit.
It is appalling to note that last year, of the complaints received, 97% were dismissed even before being afforded a preliminary hearing on merits. For the mere 3% cases that the Commission takes up, there are varying reasons for the closure, developed out of practice.
It is noteworthy that almost 45% of these complaints are “dismissed in-limine” on procedural grounds. Approximately 34% of these complaints are disposed of with directions to the concerned public authorities, which are often the same that are complained against. The Commission maintains no data on compliance with these directions. Out of total disposals, around 18% of the cases are closed after being transferred to the State Human Rights Commissions (SHRCs).
In furtherance of the statutory position under Section 36 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, the NHRC does not “inquire into any matter which is pending before a State Commission or any other Commission”. The absence of functional State Commissions has been underlined by activists now and then. Most of the SHRCs are understaffed, which directly impacts how complaints are handled. Due to non-intervention on the part of the national institution, the accountability of State Commissions is negligible. One of the commonly used grounds for disposing of complaints is that the “matter is sub judice before a court/tribunal”. The flawed interpretation of considering matters under investigation as sub-judice has led to the Commission overlooking innumerable cases of violations.
A Tardy Framework
The statute empowers the Commission to enquire into complaints in which the public authorities fail to take the required action. However, as per the data, it seems that the Commission has failed to make use of this power, as is evident from the reduced number of interventions. In the year 2016-2017, the number of investigations taken up was 7,865. This has halved in 2020-2021 and stands at approximately 3,000 cases.
As stated by Justice Dattu, camp sittings are a way to strengthen the partnership between the Commission and society as they facilitate speedy disposal of cases. However, the numbers are in direct contrast with the ideology of the ex-Chairperson, as only 15 such sittings have been instituted by the body in the last five years.
In light of the structural issues regarding the complaint handling mechanism, there is a dire need for the Commission to undertake reforms.
The need is to ensure qualitative disposal of complaints rather than closing them on a procedural basis. Further, the NHRC alone can’t save the human rights situation in the country — Parliament has an equally important role to play. It’s high time that the Procedure Regulations proposed by the Commission see the light of the day.
(Shrutika Pandey is. studying LL.M in Access to Justice at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Mrinalini Mishra is currently working as a Litigation Assistant in a human rights organisation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)