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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

State of commissions in Punjab: Short-changed on public services

As the Capt Amarinder Singh-led Congress government last week dissolved the Right to Service Commission, citing gaps in functioning and huge expenditure, HT takes a look at similar commissions constituted by successive regimes to find out whether they have served their purpose and the challenges they face.

punjab Updated: Jul 28, 2018 12:18 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
The ofiice of the Punjab State Information Commission in Sector 16, Chandigarh.
The ofiice of the Punjab State Information Commission in Sector 16, Chandigarh. (Ravi Kumar/HT)

Launched in 2011 as a pet project of then deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal for the smooth delivery of public services, the Punjab Right to Service Commission has lost steam.

The commission, whose working got hit after the new government took charge in March 2017, was abolished by the Congress government on July 18, removing all 10 commissioners. It was dissolved after the governor gave assent to the Punjab Transparency and Accountability in Delivery of Public Service Act, 2018.

A new one-member commission under a retired or serving officer will be set up in its place to ensure delivery of services in electronic mode in three to five years. The new chief commissioner is still to be named and the government departments and other organisations will get 180 days to notify the public services.

The Congress government decided to wind up the panel at the outset when it did not name any successor to chief commissioner SC Agrawal. The commission’s dissolution, coupled with a cut in the number of Sewa Kendras for 100 citizen-centric services from 2,147 to 500, is being seen as a setback to public service delivery.

The commission, which had an annual budget of ₹3 crore, was monitoring the delivery of 351 services with a 100-strong staff, taking action against 161 officials. Agrawal said the commission was effective. “Before it was constituted, no one was even monitoring service requests and their disposal. In five years, timely disposal rate went beyond 99% with daily service requests of 1 lakh a day. A one-member panel can also be effective” he said.

While officials cite cost as one of the reasons for dissolving the 11-member commission, not everyone agrees. AAP legislator Aman Arora, who has been raising related issues, terms it a political move aimed at getting rid of people appointed by another regime. “The decision reflects their myopic vision, besides dilution of its role,” he said, adding, “If the government is so keen to save money, it should remove advisers engaged by it.” Some say the Akali government created a problem by making unnecessary political appointments.

(by Navneet Sharma)

Info commission helps cut backlog in courts

The state information commission, set up in 2005, acts as a tool to redress public grievances. It has 10 information commissioners and is led by a chief information commissioner. It has a pendency of 2,129 cases with about 500 new cases every month.

“The cases take three to 10 sittings and most reach a conclusive end, leaving less scope for litigation in civil and high courts,” says a commission member, requesting anonymity. He says the flow of information is slow. Initially, public information officers (PIOs) tend to deny information, a trend chief information commissioner SS Channy accepts. “The flow of information is fine but some people in the government take unusually long,” he says.

Surinder Awasthi, a former commissioner, says, “The commission shouldn’t become a tool for right to information (RTI) activists. Litigants should appear with different kinds of pleas not a particular set of them.” The commission should also not become a place to park politicians who can’t be adjusted elsewhere.

Members want their pay and perks revised in keeping with the latest pay panel recommendations. They sought parity in distribution of departments among the commissioners.

Litigants say in a few important cases, all the commission did was to transfer them from one court to another.

(by Gurpreet Singh Nibber)

‘Empower the NRI commission’

The Punjab State Commission for NRIs at Sector 9 in Chandigarh.
The Punjab State Commission for NRIs at Sector 9 in Chandigarh. ( HT Photo )

A commission set up to give quick justice to brides abandoned by NRIs and hear cases of disputes involving properties of the NRIs, it gets 15-20 cases a day. The commission also takes suo motu action in cases where frauds of travel agents come to light.

“I get hundreds of emails from NRIs of being defrauded of property, and brides approach the commission. In view of the seriousness of the issue, the commission needs more powers,” says chairman Justice Rakesh Kumar Garg who joined in 2017, after retiring as a judge from the Punjab and Haryana high court.

On a given day, his court takes up between seven and 17 cases. About 60% of cases the commission takes up are related to abandoned brides and the rest are property matters. When Justice Garg took over, there were 400 cases with the commission and then 800 more were listed. Of them, 80 are pending.

Justice Garg says as and when required, he flags cases with the high commissions, the embassies and the Union ministry of external affairs.

(by Gurpreet Singh Nibber)

As powerless as the women it fights for

The Punjab State Commission for Women Act, 2001, empowers the panel to advise the state government on laws, inadequacies and amendments in the interest of women, work as a custodian of their rights, better their status in society and prevent crimes against them.

In a state notorious for a poor sex ratio, runaway NRI grooms and patriarchy, the commission’s hands are full. It receives about 50 complaints daily. But the first proof of its importance, or the lack of it, is it operates from a ramshackle office on the fifth floor of a building where the aged and disabled cannot reach. It has a staff of four, budget of ₹70 lakh a year and the pendency just keeps piling up.

Till June 11 this year, the commission received 635 complaints and it has been able to settle only eight out of them. The reason: Police apathy when all 22 districts have a women cell.

“Be it domestic violence, rape, NRI grooms deserting wives or dowry, we need the police to investigate and file a status report. The women cell has to submit the report in a month. But we have to keep sending reminders.,” says Punjab Women Commission head Manisha Gulati.

Gulati says she holds court hearings twice a week and hears 25 cases on each day. “We need to visit women cells to sensitise them besides jails and rescue homes. The budget is gone in paying salaries to staff. We can’t hire without funds or hold any awareness drive,” she adds.

One of its roles is to undertake research on the status of women and advise the government, but this has not been done.

(by Sukhdeep Kaur)

Gau Sewa Commission lies defunct

Three years after it was set up by the Parkash Singh Badal-led SAD-BJP government, the Punjab Gau Sewa Commission is lying virtually defunct.

The commission constituted for cow welfare, protection of desi breeds and dealing with stray cattle menace does not have a chairman or any non-official member except a vice-chairman. The three-year tenures of commission chairman Keemti Lal Bhagat and six members got over in January, but the government is yet to make fresh appointments. The panel is being run by officials.

“The fund flows dried up after the change in government, hitting the schemes and programmes for cow care and tackling the stray cattle problem. Not a single penny was provided and free power facility given to 472 gaushalas (cow shelters), housing 3.84 lakh heads of cattle, was also withdrawn last year,” said Bhagat. He was at the helm since 2009 – first as chairman of a board for three years and then adviser to then CM before heading the commission.

The commission had piloted the moves to set up stray cattle pounds, free power for private gaushalas, cess for cow care and removal of encroachments from grazing lands, besides stepping up efforts to check cow smuggling. Stray cattle pounds were established in almost all districts at a cost of ₹40 crore. “Badal promised another ₹32 crore for 10 sheds at each of these government-run cattle pounds, but the present government did not release any money. Cow cess is also not being spent on cow care ,” he said.

AAP legislator from Bholath Sukhpal Singh Khaira also recently said the government agencies had collected ₹15 crore by way of cow cess imposed in 2016, but over 1 lakh stray cattle were still roaming on the streets across the state. “The money collected from the taxpayers is not being used properly. Hundreds of people die due to accidents caused by stray cattle,” he wrote to the local government minister two months ago.

Commission vice-chairman Dargesh Kumar Sharma said he was holding meetings with district authorities to get cess money released for cow care. “The problem is that several municipal bodies are still to issue the notification for release and distribution of cow cess. I have asked for details of total cess collected till now,” he said. As for the appointment of new chairman and members, he said it was the prerogative of the state government.

(by Navneet Sharma)

Headless SC commission flooded with complaints

Successive governments have failed to empower the commission for Scheduled Castes (SC) in Punjab despite Dalits comprising 32% of the population, the highest in any state.

The commission, set up in 2004, is flooded with complaints. It gets about 2,500 complaints a year. Most complaints are about discrimination. The commission has only seven employees against the sanctioned strength of 41.

Initially, there were three members in the commission apart from the chairman. The strength was increased to 10 in 2013 during the tenure of the SAD-BJP government. “But the strength of the employees to carry out routine work remains the same. The commission has 10 members and only seven employees to do routine work. In the name of an office, we have two rooms in the Punjab civil secretariat,” says a member.

The post of chairman that fell vacant in November last year has still not been filled and the director, social welfare, has been holding additional charge.

The SC commission is a statutory body such as the right to service and information commissions. Whereas members of other commissions enjoy privileges such as government vehicles and houses, SC commission members get only a fixed honorarium.

“ Whenever there’s an atrocity on a Dalit, the administration may not pay heed, knowing well that we are not empowered to act against it,” says Rajesh Bagga, a former chairman of the commission.

(by Ravinder Vasudeva)

Now not even a toothless Lokpal

When the Congress snatched a surprise win in Punjab polls last year, it was also its please-all poll manifesto that did the trick. Along with doles for farmers, youth and women, the party had promised to clean-up the entire system, including bringing a new Lokpal Act — one that spares none, including the chief minister. But 15 months on, forget a powerful Lokpal, there is not even the “toothless tiger” there once used to be.

The post has been vacant since April this year when Justice Satish Kumar Mittal (retd), former chief justice of Rajasthan high court, resigned as the Punjab Lokpal to join as chairman of the Haryana Human Rights Commission. He was appointed on November 2016 after then Lokpal, Justice Jai Singh Sekhon (retd), a former judge of the Punjab and Haryana high court, had passed away in April 2016.

Though a watchdog on politicians and government officials, the institution in Punjab has been marred with controversies of government cherry-picking its loyalists. The Congress, then in opposition, had opposed Sekhon’s appointment in November 2012, saying he is elder brother of then Akali minister Janmeja Singh Sekhon, and a relative of then CM Parkash Singh Badal.

In power, the Congress is not faring any better. Now it is the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which is crying foul over reports of appointment of a “CM loyalist” as Lokpal. Since the Act mandates it, the Lokpal secretariat has a staff of 13, including a principal secretary, an inspector general of police, a registrar, a joint registrar, reader, record keeper and peons.

But since there is no Lokpal, the Amarinder government has relieved the registrar, joint registrar, reader and record keeper too on June 15. No administrative secretary has been assigned to it. This when the number of complaints have been increasing. Between 2006 and 2012 (when Sekhon was appointed), the Punjab Lokpal had received only 40 complaints. Justice Mittal had received 80 complaints in his 16-month tenure. By June 15 this year, 210 complaints were pending before it.

(by Sukhdeep Kaur)

PHRC: Oldest and well-established

The Punjab Human Rights Commission (PHRC) is the oldest and the most well-established commission. Established in 1997, it takes up around 50 cases a day and, on average, receives more than 15,000 complaints a year.

Of the three commission members, the chairperson has to be a retired chief justice of a high court; the second member has to be a retired justice. This automatically ensures an element of effectiveness.

According to the state government act, the third member is from a political background, but he or she should also know law.

Retired chief justice of Assam, Justice Iqbal Ahmed Ansari is the chairman. Punjab and Haryana high court Justice (retd) Ashutosh Mohunta and Avinash Kaur, a former Shiromani Akali Dal leader from Hoshiarpur, are the other two members.

The commission also has a provision for appointment of a secretary, who should be an officer not below the rank of secretary to the state government. There is also provision for a chief investigation officer of the commission not below the rank of an inspector.

A DGP-rank officer Mohd Mustafa is posted with the commission; he has been empowered to independently investigate pending complaints with the Punjab Human Rights Commission.

“It’s a well-established commission with adequate staff and a good office. The only problem, sometimes, lies with the implementation of our orders. Few departments, especially the state police and the jails department ignore our recommendation. We have the authority to take the cases to their logical conclusion. The commission tries it best to redress all complaints,” said chairman, Justice (retd) Iqbal Ahmed Ansari.

The commission recently summoned Punjab director general of police (DGP) Suresh Arora. It rejected his office’s request for exemption from personal appearance, but gave another two weeks.

(by Ravinder Vasudeva)

First Published: Jul 28, 2018 12:15 IST

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