Review of the working of the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission and the Karnataka State Commission for Women

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It is widely acknowledged that India’s accountability institutions – Parliament, judiciary,oversight bodies, and regulatory institutions- have underperformed significantly. Worryingly, with growing corruption and heightened public scrutiny in the recent past, the credibility of these institutions is now a matter of serious concern. Despite this, there are almost no systematic analytical studies of the various accountability institutions in India. Relatively little is understood about the day to day functioning of these institutions, the incentive structures within these institutions, and the quality of their performance. This is one important reason why the current debate on reforming institutions of accountability is couched in rhetoric rather than substantive critique.

Part of the reason for this neglect of institutional analysis comes from the very nature of the evolution of the accountability debate in recent years. Over the last two decades or so, as the notion of public accountability gained ground in academic and civil society discourse, much of the focus has been on citizen led accountability efforts. This emphasis emerged from a legitimate sense of public dissatisfaction with efforts to create or revive, through public sector reforms, oversight institutions and a widely accepted view that greater citizen voice holds to key to greater public accountability. Consequently, the analytical focus of much accountability research and practice has shifted to questions and concerns around citizen-centric accountability initiatives – the instruments available to citizens, mechanisms and spaces for collective action and participation, the nature and form of organized civic activism in this space and so forth.

Yet, institutional design – the rules and incentives that govern them – matter, for state performance is a product of its institutions. In fact, as recent accountability research argues, the very nature and form of citizen engagement for accountability is shaped by the micro dynamics of state institutions. A proper, holistic discussion of accountability
requires, at minimum, that attention be paid both to state institutions and the mechanisms of citizen engagement that pressurize the system to align incentives for accountability.

But this gap is not limited to research. With the exception of efforts to monitor the Indian Parliament, civil society activism has not yet developed mechanisms and systems to monitor and push the debate on the effectiveness of accountability institutions. This review of two critical oversight bodies- the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission and the Karnataka Commission for Women is the first step to address this gap. One important objective of this review is to experiment with developing a series of indicators against which the performance of these institutions could be analytically reviewed. We hope that this will be the start of a larger civil society effort to monitor the functioning of accountability institutions and bringing much needed analytical rigour to the in going debate on creating effective, functional institutions of accountability in the Indian State.

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