When it comes to monitoring the working of government agencies and putting information in public domain, Assam still has far to go towards good governce. It is amazing that a crucial monitoring body like the State Police Accountability Commission (SPAC) has been functioning for the last four months with the posts of its chairman and three members all lying vacant. Set up under the Assam Police Act, 2007, this body that deals with complaints against serious misdeeds of police including death in police custody, rape or molestation, arrest without due process of law, forceful deprivation of property, extortion or blackmail and refusal to lodge complaints — is presently pulling by with just a secretary and three investigating officers. Reportedly, around 30 complaints have been received by SPAC in the last four months alone; not surprisingly, there has been hardly any movement in these cases with the commission remaining completely headless. This is not a trifling matter in a State recently desigted as ‘Disturbed Area’ by its own government despite the Centre’s reservations. Last year, there were 182 complaints against police misconduct, 30 of these being of serious ture, the SPAC report for 2016 has revealed. If this body is allowed to remain headless for long, cases will simply go on piling up and there will be little chance of complaints ever getting redressed. A similar situation prevails in the Assam Human Rights Commission (AHRC), with its last chairman having ended his term in November last year itself, and presently functioning with a lone member. Up to June this year alone, 93 cases have been registered at the commission, but only 14 disposed of till date. Here too cases are piling up fast, thanks to the manpower crunch. Such lackadaisical approach to the human rights panel is ucceptable in a State with a track record of human rights abuse, particularly during the horrendous Nineties and sporadically thereafter.
Things have been hardly better for the 3-member Assam State Information Commission (ASIC), only lately at full strength. It had remained headless for nearly 4 years before current chief information commissioner Himangshu Sekhar Das took charge in 2014. But the damage was already done by then, so much so, that by December 2015 — a study covering 16 States showed Assam to have the highest pendency of RTI appeals at 240 percent. Conducted by Research, Assessment & Alysis Group (RaaG) along with Satark grik Sangathan (SNS), this study revealed that as on January 1, 2016, the average time for a new RTI appeal to be heard in Assam was an unbelievable 30 years! Only two years before in 2014, the waiting period in Assam as per this study group was a mageable 2 years and 8 months. Hopefully, by the time the next such study is carried out, ASIC will have better figures to show in cutting down pendency. Suggestions have been put forward including more decentralisation of RTI redressal powers at district level, but it depends on how far the powers-be in Dispur are willing to make ASIC more effective with better infrastructural support. Unless things improve, there is little hope for RTI applicants of getting justice against government officials or public information officers for withholding information about various departments. But judging by the way bureaucrats are providing information to Assam Assembly, there remains much to be done to remove the opaque culture in the State’s officialdom. During the current session itself, the Speaker had to pass a ruling that breach of privilege proceedings will be initiated against any official found misleading the House with incorrect information. This came after several MLAs from ruling and opposition benches complained about failing to get correct and complete answers to their queries. Questions are now being asked whether State Home department officials gave complete information about the numbers of IAS and IAS officers having cases registered against them. There are allegations that the mes of several top-ranking bureaucrats have been left out. So if members of the public seeking information under RTI are regularly stonewalled and if representatives of the people fail to elicit correct information in the Assembly — it simply points to officialdom hell-bent in continuing with secretive ways. This has to be dealt with strictly, and along with freeing information flow, meaningful steps need to be taken to keep monitoring bodies functioning effectively.