(Written by Omkar Gokhale)
With the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission (MSHRC) struggling to get a spacious office ever since it was established in 2001, the Bombay High Court last month directed the state government to take possession of a new office allotted to MSHRC in MTNL Building at Colaba. It also asked the government to appoint a full-time MSHRC chairperson, a post that has remained vacant for nearly two years.
A division bench of Justice S C Dharmadhikari and Justice R I Chagla passed the order on January 29 while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by social activist Naresh Gosavi in connection to vacancies in MSHRC, the need of a bigger office and providing the commission adequate funds to ensure its financial autonomy. The court has been hearing the PIL for the last seven years.
In a July 2019 order, the HC had mentioned that MSHRC had been issued a letter of allotment to occupy a 6,800-sq ft area at MTNL Building in Colaba as its office. The MSHRC currently functions from a small temporary office in a government building in south Mumbai.
Noting that since March 2001, MSHRC did not have a permanent office, the HC pulled up the state government for not making the statutory body fully functional. As Additional Government Pleader Geeta Shastri told the HC that the procedure related to alloting the office space is complete, the bench directed the MSHRC registrar to take possession of the premises at the earliest.
An earlier affidavit filed by the registrar had pointed to massive space shortage being faced by MSHRC, leading to operational issues. It had stated that in 2001, the commission had demanded a space measuring approximately 8,000 sq ft for its office. However, taking into consideration the urgency and especially the ideal location, the MSHRC had accepted the government’s proposal allotting a 2,800 sq ft office at Hazarimal Somani Marg, opposite the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, following court intervention.
The court had also noted on January 20 that the post of full-time chairperson fell vacant after Justice S R Bannurmath, the former Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court, completed his term in January 2018. The HC had earlier as well pressed for implementation of its previous orders to lessen burden on MSHRC that is grappling with pending cases. As per the 2017 progress report of MSHRC, 14,388 cases were pending before it.
“Currently, there is no chairperson to head the commission and one member also needs to be nominated or appointed. Apparently, the commission is functioning with only one member,” the court had noted last July.
On January 29, AGP Shastri submitted that the government is waiting for the court’s registry to send a list of names of former chief justices who are willing to become the MSHRC chairperson. She also submitted that even a retired high court judge is now eligible for appointment as a chairperson. Following this, the court directed its registry to forward the list of names quickly. The court has posted the PIL for a hearing on February 13.
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