Of shut Commissions and forgotten justice

When the Centre implemented the J&K Re-organisation Act last year, following abrogation of Article 370, curtains fell on seven statutory bodies, among them State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) and State Women and Child Rights Commission (SWCRC).

As per the official data more than 4,000 cases, which were pending before these bodies, remain undecided even more than a year later. “For now, there is neither any forum nor any redressal mechanism for people who had approached these bodies,” said senior advocate Syed Riyaz Khawar, opining the government should have set-up some kind of mechanism for addressing complaints of people.

A year on, questions are also being raised now about abolition of the acts under which these statutory bodies were created. Besides SHRC and SWCRC, the bodies closed down included State Accountability Commission (SAC), State Information Commission (SIC), State Commission for Persons with Disability (SCPD), State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (SCDRC) and State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERC).

Khawar argued closing down of these Commissions was against the “fundamentals of democracy”. He said these Commissions created as “independent forums” not only presented their recommendations on various matters to the government, but were also a platform for general masses to lodge their complaint with regards to their rights.

The SAC was constituted in 2002 to exclusively hold people holding “highest echelons of power” including Chief Minister, Ministers and legislators accountable. It had power to take suo-motto cognizance in cases of malpractices. Over the years the Commission however came under criticism for failing to live up to its mandate and over the years the Commission was rendered hallow, particularly after 2015 when the government clipped its wings.

Similarly, the SHRC was also closed down with its cases dispatched to Law department. Created in 1997, the Commission over the years passed recommendations in several cases of human rights allegations. Besides, its own police investigation wing has also made revealing investigations into human right cases. However, legal experts opined rarely the Commission’s recommendations were implemented by successive regimes in erstwhile J&K state.

According to Amnesty International, the SHRC, since its inception dealt with 8,529 cases of human rights violations of which 7,725 cases were disposed off. Official records showed recommendations were made in 1,862 cases during this period. In two years, between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2019, the Commission received 1,174 cases and disposed of 1,244 cases.

An official said there were over 600 cases pending before the Commission when it was shut down. The J&K has now come under the mandate of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). However, legal experts said there was “no effective redressal mechanism” in place, since the NHRC does not have a bench in the UT.

Only one Commission which won peoples’ faith was State Information Commission (SIC). Officials state some 131 complaints and 233 second appeals under J&K RTI 2009 were pending before the Commission when it was wound up.

The SIC had designated public information officers (PIOs) and first appellate authority in the government offices in case information seeker was not satisfied with information provided to him. In case of laxity by the PIO or first appellate authority, SIC had power to impose fine, withheld salary of the officer or even impose penalty on the public servant.

“The Commission would compel government offices to reveal information to the tax payers,” said Khawar.

Another important provision of J&K RTI Act was that complaints were disposed off in a time bound manner, unique to erstwhile J&K state only, said RTI activist Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat.

Another Commission which over the years had gained public trust was SCDRC. A three tier, quasi-judicial body was meant to protect consumer rights. An official said nearly 3,000 cases were pending before the Commission at the time when it was shut down, and its cases transferred to Consumer Affairs & Public Distribution Department (CAPD).

The gumption of the Commission is explained by Bhat, who recently exposed ration card scam in Budgam and Sopore. “If it (SCDRC) would have been function, we would have encouraged people to file complaints before it to ensure justice,” he said, adding amid COVID pandemic role of the Commission was significant to keep check on sale of substandard sanitizers and masks.

The SWCRC is a “sordid saga” of government indifference. After resignation of Nayeema Ahmad Mehjoor as its Chairperson in 2018, it remained defunct for several months before the government appointed Vasundhara Pathak as the new chairperson in July 2019. Similarly the SCPD which was still in infancy before it was closed down. The Commission was set up in 2016.

The SERC, which was meant to regulate electricity tariff, and keep a check on functioning of the power department also faced the axe. It was lying defunct for long time as the successive regimes had failed to appoint its chairman and two members. It was only a few months before J&K’s special status was taken away that Lokesh Jha was appointed its chairman in May 2019.

With no roadmap as to how the cases, which were pending before these shut commission will be taken to logical conclusion, advocate Khawar said the quest for justice will only linger on.

The government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said General Administrative Department (GAD) was “looking after” the wound up commissions. “Please ask them,” said Kansal. However, no official from GAD was available for their comments.