The Lok Sabha on Friday passed a bill to amend the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. The amendments propose changes to the composition and appointment terms of the National Human Rights Commission and the state human rights commissions.

The Centre said the bill would make the national and state human rights panels more representative and powerful. However, the Opposition claimed the changes were “piecemeal and cosmetic” and were not in accordance with the Paris Principles, a set of international standards for human rights institutions.

The bill allows for all former Supreme Court judges, and not just former Chief Justices of India, to be appointed to the chairperson’s post of the NHRC. It proposed the appointment of three instead of two human rights experts, including one woman, to the commission, as well as that of chairpersons of commissions such as the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, and National Commission for Women as members of the NHRC.

The amendments reduce the term of chairpersons of the national and state human rights bodies to three years from the existing five years. They also remove the five-year limit for reappointment of members to the commission.

Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai claimed that the changes would safeguard human rights with more administrative and financial powers. Bharatiya Janata Party MP Satyapal Singh said the government was committed to protecting human rights of the “right people” and not those of the “terrorists and rapists”.

Opposition’s criticism

However, Opposition members of the Lower House demanded better amendments. Citing the recent searches at the homes and offices of lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover and the arrest of human rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj last year, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said voices of those working in the field were being “stifled” under the present government, PTI reported.

Tharoor said there were several gaps in the bill and it failed to bring autonomy to the human rights bodies.

“The bill doesn’t even scratch the surface, I recommend the minister to withdraw it and fix it, and bring it back for consideration in the House,” Tharoor said, according to Firstpost. “It’s a damp squib, there is a real fear that we might face an international embarrassment when the United Nations picks faults with the bill.”

Tharoor said 57 people had committed suicide in Assam because they were excluded from the National Register of Citizens and that “ironically, the majority of these people are Hindus”.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Kanimozhi also opposed the bill, saying that it tried to include membership of several chairpersons of other national commissions. “ how can the NHRC work independently if there are ‘political appointees’ who have been included in the commission?” she said. Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy supported Kanimozhi’s arguments.

Kanimozhi asked the government to bring “something that really takes care about human rights”. She said the reappointment clause would make the members of the commission toe the government line.

Other proceedings

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was also introduced in the Lower House amid protests from Opposition party leaders. The bill seeks to take away the status of the information commissioner, which is equivalent to election commissioners, and empower the Centre to fix their salaries and service conditions, according to PTI.

Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh, who introduced the bill, contended that the bill was aimed at institutionalisation, streamlining, and ease of delivery of the Right to Information Act.

Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury on Friday said the draft law was a threat to the Central Information Commissioner’s independence. While Tharoor described it as an “RTI elimination bill” as it eliminated two greater powers of institutional independence, Owaisi said the bill would be a threat to the Constitution and the Parliament.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, was also presented in the Lower House. It provides a system for the social, economic and educational empowerment of the transgender community and defines their rights which would forbid any discrimination against them.

A bill seeking to tackle the menace of taking deposits illegally was also introduced in the Lok Sabha. It aims to resolve the activities that are currently exploiting regulatory loopholes and absence of stringent administrative measures to con the underprivileged and the gullible, the Centre said.

Rajya Sabha discusses building collapses

Rajya Sabha members on Friday expressed concern over the recent building collapses and the deaths resulting due to them. They suggested that cheaper loans could be provided for repairs of old buildings. Congress leader Viplove Thakur raised the matter during the Zero Hour.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Rakesh Sinha said that builders, engineers and architects should be held accountable for the collapses. He also suggested a low interest rate loan, especially for senior citizens, to repair the old structures.

Meanwhile, Biju Janata Dal leader Prashanta Nadda asked the Centre to help in the restoration of power infrastructure in Odisha after damage caused by Cyclone Fani. Senior BJP leader CP Thakur and Janata Dal (United) leader Ram Nath Thakur brought up the Bihar floods.

Rakesh Sinha mentioned rising cases of child sexual assault and suggested that a nodal ministry could be formed to deal with the cases. While Congress leader Kumari Selja raised concerns over violence due to marriages of interfaith couples, Shiromani Akali Dal leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa asked the Centre for a committee to facilitate the return of books and documents taken away from the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star in 1984.