National Human Rights Commission came into being in October, 1993. In terms of Section 2 of the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, "human rights" means the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed under the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India. "International Covenants" means the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on the 16th December, 1966.
Functions of National Human Rights Commission
The Commission performs all or any of the following functions, namely:-
a) Inquire, on its initiative or on a petition presented to it by a victim or any person on his behalf, into complaint of-
i) Violation of human rights or abetment or ii) negligence in the prevention of such violation, by a public servant;
b) Intervene in any proceeding involving any allegation of violation of human rights pending before a court with the approval of such court;
c) Visit, under intimation to the State Government, any jail or any other institution under the control of the State Government, where persons are detained or lodged for purposes of treatment, reformation or protection to study the living condition of the inmates and make recommendations thereon.
d) Review the safeguards by or under the Constitution or any law for the time being in force for the protection of human rights and recommend measures for their effective implementation;
e) Review the factors, including acts of terrorism that inhibit the enjoyment of human rights and recommend appropriate remedial measures;
f) Study treaties and other international instruments on human rights and make recommendations for their effective implementation;
g) Undertake and promote research in the field of human rights;
h) Spread human rights literacy among various sections of society and promote awareness of the safeguards available for the protection of these rights through publications, the media, seminars and other available means;
i) encourage the efforts of non-Governmental organisations and institutions working in the field of human rights;
j) Such other functions as it may consider necessary for the promotion of human rights.
While inquiring into complaints under the Act, the Commission shall have all the powers of a civil court trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, and in particular the following, namely;
a) Summoning and enforcing the attendance of witnesses and examining them on oath;
b) Discovery and production of any document;
c) Receiving evidence on affidavits;
d) Requisitioning any public record or copy thereof from any court or office;
e) Issuing commissions for the examination of witnesses or documents;
f) Any other matter which may be prescribed.
The autonomy of the Commission derives, inter-alia, from the method of appointing its Chairperson and Members, their fixity of tenure, and statutory guarantees thereto, the status they have been accorded and the manner in which the staff responsible to the Commission - including its investigative agency - are appointed and conduct themselves. The financial autonomy of the Commission is spelt out in Section 32 of the Act.
The Chairperson and Members of the Commission are appointed by the President on the basis of recommendations of a Committee comprising the Prime Minister as the Chairperson, the Speaker of Lok Sabha, the Home Minister, the leaders of the opposition in the Lok Sabha
and Rajya Sabha
and the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha as Members.
Inquiring into complaints is one of the major activities of the Commission. In several instances individual complaints have led the Commission to the generic issues involved in violation of rights, and enabled it to move the concerned authorities for systemic improvements. However, the Commission also actively seeks out issues in human rights which are of significance, either suo motu, or when brought to its notice by the civil society, the media, concerned citizens, or expert advisers. Its focus is to strengthen the extension of human rights to all sections of society, in particular, the vulnerable groups.
The Commission`s purview covers the entire range of civil and political, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Areas facing terrorism and insurgency, custodial death, rape and torture, reform of the police, prisons, and other institutions such as juvenile homes, mental hospitals and shelters for women have been given special attention. The Commission has urged the provision of primary health facilities to ensure maternal and child welfare essential to a life with dignity, basic needs such as potable drinking water, food and nutrition, and highlighted fundamental questions of equity and justice to the less privileged, namely the Indian Scheduled Castes and Indian Scheduled Tribes
and the prevention of atrocities perpetrated against them. Rights of the disabled, access to public services, displacement of populations and especially of tribal by mega projects, food scarcity and allegation of death by starvation, rights of the child, rights of women subjected to violence, sexual harassment and discrimination, and rights of minorities, have been the focus of the Commission`s action on numerous occasions.
Ever since its constitution in 1993, the National Human Rights Commission has been discharging a role complementary to that of the Supreme Court of India
by performing those tasks which by their very nature the NHRC can perform better e.g. monitoring any situation or functioning of an institution. The complementarities between these institutions have considerably improved the mechanism for the protection of human rights in the country, which is primarily a state responsibility.