Kailash Awhad, 45, a Right To Information (RTI) activist, was allegedly beaten up by a senior police officer who was the first appellate authority in an RTI request he had filed, on March 2017. On February 22, 2018, Awhad approached the State Police Complaints Authority for action against the officer. Mandated to finish hearings in 90 days, the hearing in this case, however, dragged on for a year. Six hearings have been held and the next hearing is slated on February 21.
Awhad’s is one of several cases assessed by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) that has studied the functioning of the police complaints’ authority since it began functioning in Maharashtra in January 2017. The CHRI has now written to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and to the chairperson of the police authority, Justice Anand V Potdar, offering a series of recommendations. The letter, endorsed by several activists including former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, recommends discarding the rule that all complaints must be filed within one year of the incident, discarding the provision to penalise false or frivolous complaints and ensuring that cases are heard in the stipulated 90-day period.
The police complaints authority is a quasi-judicial body with the powers of a civil court. This means it can summon witnesses, examine them under oath and receive evidence on affidavit, among other things. If the authority finds merit in a complaint, it sends a report to the superiors of the police officer or policeman named in the complaint, or to the state government in case the complaint is against a senior officer. The orders of the authority are, however, recommendations and not binding by law. The Home department takes a final decision on action to be taken, if any.
Maharashtra was one of the first states to form the authority, nearly a decade after the Supreme Court issued directives for setting up independent bodies to investigate complaints against policemen.
A study conducted by two research scholars, who were formerly associated with the State Police Complaints Authority, forms the basis of the CHRI letter. The duo, after going through several complaints and the processes in the functioning of the authority, found there is inadequate awareness among citizens about such a platform. “Until now, it is just urban centres that are aware about this mechanism as most from rural areas are either not aware about it or are located too far from Mumbai to approach the authority. In one case that I knew of personally, a complainant from Yavatmal came to the authority in Mumbai last year. However, he stopped coming later. When I enquired, he said he doesn’t have the wherewithal to come all the way and lose a day’s earnings,” one researcher said.
The complaints authority has recently started centres in Pune and Nashik with plans for four more centres afoot to cater to the rest of the state.
The other researcher who drafted the report said, “At times they have rejected complaints where detailed affidavits were not filed. A common man may find it difficult to meet these technicalities. It is too severe on them that their complaints be rejected on such grounds. It should be an all access platform and not merely restricted to the rich and powerful who have lawyers to represent them.”
Dolphy D’Souza, Project Lead (Mumbai) at CHRI, said, “Since January 2017, the State Police Complaints Authority has disposed of 432 cases. Based on the study, we found that there are certain factors — such as insisting on complaints within one year of the incident — that reduce the accessibility for complainants. Also, we have sought that hearings should be completed within 90 days and there should be maximum disclosure on a website run by them.”
Despite repeated calls and messages, the chairperson of the State Police Complaints Authority could not be reached for comments.
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