An "organic link" is being established between the national and state human rights commissions, while the process of setting up designated human rights courts has also been initiated.
The developments ought to have been considered stimulating enough, had these not been combined with the fact that thirteen states and all Union Territories (UTs) remain to establish the SHRCs - in contravention to the mandate of the Human Rights Act of 1993.
Commissions in other states, meantime, have continued to hobble along with approximately half the authorised strength, while an ‘acting chairperson’ heads several of these.
The Human Rights (Amendment) Act of September 16,2006 scales down composition clauses for states by permitting reduction in the number of members required to be appointed (from 4 to 2), while also opening up the option for smaller states to go in for a combined SHRC.
The amended act also expands upon functions of the NHRC by empowering it to monitor progress on cases referred by it to the SHRCs.
"Guidelines and rules to firm up the new arrangement are presently being framed," said NHRC Joint Secretary Aruna Sharma.
Activists and groups are, however, of the opinion that - in the absence of statutory powers to prosecute and punish - the national and state commissions remain "toothless bodies" and that announcements of lofty ideals amount to nothing but a "perfunctory commitment" to concerns for human rights.
"A universally acceptable fact is that the human rights commissions have betrayed people’s expectations and have been a terrible let-down”, said Colin Gonzalvez of the Human Rights Law Network.
“More than legislative or administrative tinkering, what is required is an attitudinal change amongst individuals appointed to SHRCs”, feels Rajasthan People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) General Secretary Kavita Srivastava.
Like Justice NK Jain (Rajasthan SHRC Chairman), many believe that the Commission-NGO link is an “officer-subordinate” relationship and not one between partners, she elaborated.
Assam, Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh have three vacant posts of members, while a permanent Chairman’s post is also vacant in the case of the latter two states. States with two vacant posts include Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Orissa, Rajasthan besides Himachal and Kerala.
In addition, the post of a Chairperson is vacant in Himachal Pradesh, while Kerala has an acting Chairperson. States with a better record (one vacancy) include Maharashtra, Manipur and Punjab. Meanwhile, states that have not set up commissions include Arunachal, Goa, Haryana, Jharkhand, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttaranchal, Bihar, Karnataka and Gujarat.
Incidentally, the NHRC is itself without a Chairperson at present, as a replacement for Justice AS Anand - who retired on October 30 - has not yet been announced.
NHRC officials, however, feel that following the amendments to the Human Rights Act, official commitments of putting into place an effective and countrywide human rights network had come on the fast-forward trajectory.
Bihar, Karnataka and Gujarat have notified their resolve to establish such commissions and Gujarat has already appointed a Chairperson and a Secretary, they pointed out.
Officials also feel that previous complaints of state governments about “funds crunch” are effectively addressed by the amended clauses permitting a combined SHRC and reduction in the composition size.
Therefore, smaller states like those in the Northeast are likely to take concrete steps to set up the SHRCs in the near future, they said.
They further pointed out that states including Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had begun the process of framing rules for setting up designated human rights courts.