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Why doesn't Maharashtra have a women's commission?

It is not for nothing that two institutions backed by statutory powers were set up to safeguard Indian citizens’ rights, one on the larger matrix of human rights, and the other specifically to address issues of women.

When these two major bodies are not required at the state level it is assumed that everything is hunky-dory and that a particular state is in an ideal state of being. It also presumes that they will not be needed in the future.

In Maharashtra’s case, both these institutions are in limbo. The state’s Human Rights Commission is dysfunctional with all posts vacant for some time and the Commission for Women has been headless for the past four years, almost equal to a term that a chairperson would get to serve.

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And it is not that these institutions are redundant, given that the media is alive with routine reports of rights violations. Crimes against women have not even dipped.

Perhaps the wise men who rule Maharashtra which they mindlessly describe as a ‘progressive state’ – the first to start a girls’ school the first to run a family planning clinic et al and at the forefront of reforms - remain in slumber, blissfully unaware of their obligation to keep these institutions not only running but working effectively. The neglect of these two institutions reflects the callousness and misgovernance.

Take the Maharashtra HRC first.

At last count, which was in March 2011, of the some 45,000 cases registered with the HRC, 70 percent were against the police, the law-keepers. And reports galore of police misconduct where they become a law unto themselves with no questions asked within the system unless the courts or commissions step in. In the absence of recourse to redress, it is the MSHRC the hapless turn to; it can even take suo motu cognisance and prescribe remedies.

And yet, it has been allowed to slip back to being a mere idea on a paper, with a staff, which in embarrassment, are forced to turn away the complainants because it is the best they can do. There is none there to deal with the piled up complaints and those who are victims of a system seeking help and justice from this now dysfunctional mechanism must be having a thing or two to say about the authorities. Their faith must be in tatters.

No replacement has been found for the chairperson, Justice Kshitij Vyas, who resigned a long while ago, long enough in the context of even the government’s elastic definition of time. No one else has been selected to fill the vacancies caused by the retirement of two members, Justice VG Munshi and TS Singarvel. The resignation was a surprise, the retirements were not. The file-pushers did not think it worthwhile to fill them. This amounts to scant regard for human rights.

Imagine what would have happened to a notice served to it by the National Human Rights Commission in September this year on the report on farmers’ suicides by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. In all probability, it is lying on some table because no one within the Maharashtra HRC is now empowered to deal with it. The political and bureaucratic establishment is not unaware of the dimension of this issue. There should be at least a vested interest in ending it.

It is as sorry a state of affairs as that but the government is yet to wake up or even blunder into some activity.

The appointments are made by the Governor after a panel comprising the Chief Minister, the Home Minister, the Speaker, and the Leader of Opposition recommend names. It is such a high level appointment of importance that the statutes have prescribed the norms and methods of selection. And yet…

Now, to the Women’s Commission.

This is equally a crucial mechanism but the chairperson has always been a political person, that office being part of the loaves and fishes of office that politicians share. However, it has done – when it functioned – a fairly decent job of drawing attention to trends which violate a woman’s rights, self-respect or esteem. It can launch its own probes and inform the legislature.

And, hold your breath, it has been without a chairperson for four years despite the media being full of graphic accounts of crimes against women in Maharashtra in its cities, towns and villages. The Times of India has reported how some politicians, sensitive to gender issues, like Vidya Chavan have written futile letters to the Chief Minister to “revive” the Commission.

What do you say of a state like that?

It is curious that those who have a rightful cause to complain have not asked judicial intervention by a writ as public interest litigation? Which means, what do you say of civil society activists who lament in their quotes when a newspaper approaches them for reaction?

It is hard to believe that while it actually has, Maharashtra can be allowed to turn them dysfunctional.