As India comes up for Sustainable Development Goals review at the United Nation’s High-Level Political Forum in New York on Wednesday, it is unlikely that Indian authorities will deviate from painting a rosy picture.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity through 17 interconnected goals. These aims include climate action, economic growth and gender equality. The Sustainable Development Goals came into effect after world leaders from 193 nations met at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015 and adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The unanimously agreed 17 goals will provide the overarching framework for international development for the next 15 years.

As part of its follow-up and review mechanism, the High-Level Political Forum provides the central platform for countries to present their Voluntary National Review. At this year’s High-Level Political Forum, India, along with 43 other nations, will present its Voluntary National Review on the progress, challenges and gaps in implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals at the national and sub-national levels.

In its report to the High-Level Political Forum, the government of India has listed its achievements on poverty alleviation, health and nutrition, gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, the report ignores the most crucial element for the success of its initiatives: in the absence of transparency, accountability and recourse to justice, these efforts come to naught.

Killings, human rights violations

After decades of fencing off concerns over security, justice and accountability from mainstream development debates, the 2030 Agenda has come to recognise good governance as the keystone for sustainable development. Indeed, its inclusion in the global development framework as Goal 16 – “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” – is seen as the transformational goal to ensure the Agenda can be accomplished.

To ensure that the poor and the vulnerable have equal rights to economic, financial and land resources as well as basic public services, it is imperative for people to possess legal identity and access to justice when these rights are denied. Likewise, to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls, anti-discriminatory laws need to be introduced and the rule of law upheld. Essentially, Sustainable Development Goal 16 empowers citizens to demand what is rightfully theirs, and create safer, more inclusive societies. Yet, the government’s report on its Sustainable Development Goals maintains silence on these crucial issues.

One can assume the reason behind this silence is India’s terrible record on violence, access to justice and human rights. Take for instance the spate of extrajudicial killings and encounter deaths the country has seen in recent years. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ 2016 report, Chhattisgarh has witnessed a 50% increase in encounters and a 122% increase of Maoists killed in areas affected by Left-wing extremism. These statistics mirror those of civil society groups working in the region, which have documented 134 alleged extrajudicial killings since the beginning of 2016.

In Manipur – where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, giving the military overriding powers to search and kill without a warrant, is in effect and has been criticised for its widespread misuse – civil society groups have documented 1,528 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings between 1979 and 2012 by the Indian Army and paramilitary forces. To assess the veracity of these claims, the Supreme Court appointed a high-level commission, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde, in January 2013 to investigate a sample of six such cases. All of them were found to be “not real encounters”.

Other similar cases include the encounter killing of 20 suspected red sanders timber smugglers in Andhra Pradesh in April 2015, and that of prison escapees in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in October 2016. Independent fact-finding reports have raised serious doubts over the government narratives in both instances. In the red sanders case, witnesses testified that the dead men were villagers from Tamil Nadu arrested at a forest checkpost while searching for work. In the jail break incident, videos purportedly showed the eight prisoners raising their hands in surrender and speaking with the police before being shot dead.

Videos have raised questions about the killing of eight prisoners, who escaped from a Bhopal jail in 2016, by security personnel. (Credit: PTI)
Videos have raised questions about the killing of eight prisoners, who escaped from a Bhopal jail in 2016, by security personnel. (Credit: PTI)

Legal immunity

To make matters worse, a culture of impunity provides a near impenetrable cloak for holding security forces accountable for human rights violations. Until July 2016, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act granted the Indian Army immunity from the law for acts committed during active duty. Challenging the Supreme Court’s interim order that every allegation of use of excessive force by armed forces personnel must be investigated, the government of India argued that the “actions taken by the Army during operations cannot be put to judicial scrutiny”. But the court dismissed the petition.

Yet, other such laws continue: under the Border Security Force Act, members of this border-guarding paramilitary force cannot be tried in civilian courts for acts committed while on active duty. Further, the Protection of Human Rights Act limits the National Human Rights Commission’s mandate to conduct independent inquiries into complaints of human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces.

In the case of the police, illegal arrests and detention, false charges and fabrication of evidence, torture and excessive use of force have been documented by researchers and civil society organisations. But the last National Crime Records Bureau report mentions only 94 instances of human rights violations by the police in 2015. Of these, 12 were dismissed as false cases after preliminary hearings by the police department at their own discretion. Of the remaining 82 cases, charge sheets were filed against only 34 of those accused and none have resulted in a conviction.

Weak rule of law, an inefficient and overburdened criminal justice system, and a culture of impunity erodes the foundations of good governance in India. For India to achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda, the government must show greater commitment towards access to justice, accountability and human rights for all.

Trinanjan Radhakrishnan is a Programme Officer at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The views expressed here are those of the author and may not reflect the organisation’s position.