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07 May, 2009

AHRC on task before the next government in India

The following is a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:

India is about to complete the national general elections to the 15th Lok Sabha. The fifth and the last phase of the election is expected to be completed on 13 May. The results will be declared on 16 May.

Politics and its shallowness in India apart, any government that assumes office in the country after the elections will have to deal with an intellectually demanding and politically and administratively challenging environment. In addition to the external pressures emanating from the relative instability in the region, the new government will have to deal with myriad problems that are domestically rooted. Poverty, starvation, corruption of the bureaucracy, caste based discrimination and low intensity armed conflicts within the country are a few serious issues to be cited. These issues are serious enough, and the manner in which they are dealt with by the next government, will practically decide the destiny of the country for a long time to come.

Though in theory the country has a democratic framework within which these issues could be effectively addressed, governments, irrespective of their political colours, have considerably failed in dealing with these issues. For instance, no government that was in power during the past twenty years in India can find tenable excuses for not effectively addressing the pathetic state of living conditions of an estimated 456 million Indians who earn less than two dollars a day.

A third of the world's poor live in India. The national policies and the action plans formulated by the government have failed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. This is because, the implementation of government programmes were defeated by corruption in the administrative setup. The reality is, that the price of a kilogram of rice, intended for free distribution for the poor, by the time it reaches the beneficiary will be ten times costlier.

The increase in price is due to the bribes paid at various levels along the distribution chain, which the vendor at the customer-end, often a licensee, will meet by short-weighing or by denying the actual beneficiary the food grain and by selling it in the black-market. The regulatory framework that should monitor the proper distribution of rationed articles in the country does not function, owing to lack of proper investigation, prosecution and adjudication of this criminal activity. In this scenario, the real beneficiary of the government sponsored welfare programmes for the poor are the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and the rich vendors.

Even if a criminal charge is made out, the courts in the country are so understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the already existing cases that any additional workload makes no sense as a decision will have to wait for decades. Delay in justice delivery in India has rendered the justice system and the complaining process meaningless.

According to the Chief Justice of India, Justice K.G. Balakrishanan "the growing population, increasing awareness of rights and abiding confidence of the people in the judiciary saw a litigation boom which our judicial set up was not sufficiently equipped to handle." Underfunding of judiciary, the continuing neglect to improve the judicial infrastructure over the past decades, inordinate delays in filling up vacancies of the judges and a very low population-to-judge ratio are some of the major factors that require immediate attention to improve the performance of judiciary in the country.

During the Ninth and Tenth Plan, only 0.071percent and 0.078 percent of the total plan outlays were allocated for the judiciary. India spends a mere 0.2 percent of the gross national product on the judiciary. According to the 120th Law Commission Report, India's population-to-judge ratio is one of the lowest in the world with only 10 judges for every million of its population as compared to about 150 judges for the same number in the United States and Britain.

The non-functionality of the justice system owing mostly to the congestion in the judicial process has led to a situation in the country where disputes are sought to be settled outside the legal framework. Such settlements, have led to the emergence of parallel dispute resolution mechanisms outside the parameters of the accepted norms of justice and the rule of law. The vacuum created by the absence of the rule of law, is occupied by the advocates of violence. In rural India, this void is filled by armed movements, which have arguably a philosophical background of resistance struggles by the classical have-nots.

The government response to such movements is that of oppression and suppression. The Salwa Judum and similar state sponsored private militia that operate in at least three states in the country have practically eliminated a democratic space within which an armed resistance movement could have been permanently diffused and issues settled.

The government further contributed to the declining confidence of the ordinary people by irresponsibly resorting to the recruitment of Special Police Officers (SPO). The SPOs are ordinary civilians, armed and indoctrinated, literally to kill his or her neighbour. The creation of the SPOs and the Salwa Judum is a direct breach of the constitutional mandate of the state and the international human rights norms that India must follow and practice.

It is this same psyche that has to a large extent isolated the people living in the north-eastern states of India from the rest of the country. Instead of trying to resolve the legitimate issues related to identity, ethnicity and exploitation of natural resources of the people living in the north-eastern states, the government of India's response in dealing with the crisis in the north-eastern states was first of discrimination and exclusion and later of suppression by militarisation shrouded with statutory impunity.

A government that has not tried to objectively understand the root cause of the anti-state sentiment of a large section of its population does not have a right to expect settlement of disputes through dialogue. The case against the government is further demeaning given the fact that it has so far prevented even the free movement of journalists and human rights activists within the region.

While the government prevents foreign journalists and researchers from entering the region, it has not been able to contain the infiltration of foreign terrorists into the region. As of today, people living in these states, particularly in places like Assam and Manipur are caught between foreign and home-grown anti-democracy elements and paranoid government agencies.

Abduction for ransom, arbitrary execution and other forms of violence are daily events in Assam and Manipur. While the government apparatus is practically incapacitated to prevent human rights violations carried out by the anti-state elements, the state agencies operating in the region violate human rights of the people, particularly by resorting to the widespread practice of custodial torture.

The present government has in theory and principle decided to ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In fact the government has initiated the preliminary steps for ratification of the Convention. Towards this end the government has already started drafting a Bill against the practice of torture. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) expects that the new government will continue the present government's effort in ratifying the Convention and criminalising the act of torture in the country.

Democracy only makes sense if it is visibly felt in a society. The opportunity to elect a government, though in itself is one of the foundation stones of democracy that alone cannot mature into a democratic state. A democratic state guarantees the rule of law. In a society governed by the rule of law, democratic institutions gain prominence when they provide an open space for dialogue and discourse. In such a society it is the government that must be afraid of its people.

A government that respects its people cannot be sabotaged by narrow minded politicians and disruptive ideologies. The AHRC expects that the peoples' mandate of the largest democracy in the world will reflect this sentiment and that the next government that assumes power in India will be honest to the constitutional promise it swears allegiance to when assuming office.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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