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They are not merely complaint boxes

Governance is a buzzword this election. But then why isn’t anybody talking about the dismal state of our statutory panels?

ht view Updated: Mar 23, 2014 22:35 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

The 2014 general election is due to start in two weeks’ time. For the last few months, the electorate has been debating key election issues, candidates and political parties. The demands of the electorate have been varied, depending on the region they come from or the economic/social group they belong to. But if there is one demand that has managed to cut across caste, ethnic, religious and economic groups, it is the demand for robust and transparent governance.

While it is difficult to ‘quantify’ good governance, one way to do so in India could be to do a performance audit of the statutory commissions. This is because these important organisations are ‘tools of governance’ and their work is primarily to deepen the democratic process and keep a strict watch on whether policies aimed at the socially excluded classes are being implemented properly. It is important to take into account the experience of marginalised communities because they are the ones who faced — and continue to face —historical barriers and many forms of visible and invisible discrimination.

Such a performance audit of five statutory organisations in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Jharkhand was done recently by the Poorest Areas Civil Society and Participatory Research in India, two civil society bodies, and the results are absolutely cringe worthy, to say the least. The commissions that have been included in the report are the ones that deal with scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, minorities and persons with disabilities.

Certain problems are endemic to all these commissions: They have no linkages with the respective national commissions; they lack proper funding and are at the mercy of bureaucrats for the release of funds; they have no manpower and have no support system for research; their reporting mechanisms are weak and most appointments are politically motivated.

The report on the commissions for minorities in these states shows that despite their existence for so many decades, they are still not known to the people they seek to serve. The Bihar and Uttar Pradesh panels don’t even have the mandate to study the causes behind violations or rights or the hampered development of the minorities. Moreover, these are mere ‘advisory’ bodies whose suggestions depend on the whims and fancies of the ruling parties.

As for the state commissions on scheduled castes, the most critical factor that is affecting the functioning of the panels is ambiguity about their identity and autonomy: Are these panels part of the state governments or extensions of the social welfare and social justice department? Even answers to this basic question are not clear.

One important aspect of ensuring transparency in any public body is to publish annual reports. While the National Commission for Women has a 270-page annual report published for 2010-11, the Madhya Pradesh panel last published its annual report in 2009-10. Even the published report cannot be accessed easily but only on approaching the panel. Worse is the state of the Orissa panel: the ‘latest’ annual report was in 2008-09.

BR Ambedkar said that the Indian Constitution had given political equality to people but the process of achieving socio-economic equality would be a long one. He agreed that the normal governance processes would not be able to attend to the needs of socially excluded groups and would not create the forum for their voices to be heard. He was spot on. Unfortunately, even these governance tools, which could have changed the scenario, have failed to deliver. And no one seems to be bothered.

kumkum.dasgupta@hindustantimes.com