The Supreme Court has sought responses from the Election Commission, the West Bengal government and others on a plea challenging the appointment of two retired bureaucrats as special observer and Central police observer in the State for the ongoing Lok Sabha election.
- The plea, filed by an Independent candidate of the Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency in West Bengal, came up for hearing before a Bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Deepak Gupta.
- The petition, filed by Ramu Mandi, alleged that the two observers — Vivek Dubey and Ajay V. Nayak — have been appointed in contravention of the law so as to ensure “certain favours” are granted at the time of election.
- It stated that Mr. Dubey has been appointed as Central police observer for West Bengal and Jharkhand while Mr. Nayak has been appointed as special observer for West Bengal only.
- The petitioner alleged that he is apprehensive that these observers will indulge in favouritism and partisanship and their appointment will directly be against his interest as an Independent candidate.
- “There appears to be no reasonable or cogent reasons to nominate or appoint retired officers as observers especially when there are multiple senior officers who are currently in service and are known to have impeccable integrity and reputation,” the plea said.
- The petition also alleges this appointment does not fulfill the requirement laid down under the Representation of the People Act, since they were retired bureaucrats and not “officers of government”.
Who are EC’s observers?
- Observers of the Election Commission of India (ECI) are appointed under the powers conferred on it by Section 20B of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and the plenary powers available to the Commission under the Constitution of India.
- They are the appointees of the Commission working under the superintendence, control and discipline of the Commission for the period from their appointment until the process of election is completed.
- The Representation of the People Act, 1951 was amended in August 1996 to add a new Section 20B.
- This provides statutory powers to the Observers to watch the conduct of elections and especially in respect of counting of votes.
- The appointment of an officer as an Observer and the intimation for the briefing meeting shall be communicated by the ECI through the nodal officer of the State and Central Government who shall coordinate with Election Commission for various issues including provision of the list of officers for appointment as observers.
Roles and duties
- The General and Police Observers are expected to assist the Commission in the conduct of free and fair polls.
- They also oversee the efficient and effective management of the electoral process at the field level.
- For all purposes, they act as the eyes and ears of the Commission during the period of the election and provide direct inputs to the Commission from the field as an interface with the election machinery the candidates, political parties, and electors to ensure that the Acts, rules, procedures, instructions and guidelines related to elections are strictly and impartially complied with by all concerned.
The SC bench issued notice on the petition and posted it for hearing before a vacation bench.
- The National Green Tribunal constituted a committee, drawing representatives from various departments including Wildlife and PWD, to provide it a factual report on alleged illegal construction of a road for use by commercial vehicles in the ecologically sensitive Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand.
- The issue raised in the application relates to ex-situ conservation and in-situ conservation methods for protection of biodiversity and biological resources of Laldhang-Chillarkhal buffer area of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand.
- A Bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel formed the committee comprising representatives of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Uttarakhand Public Works Department and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
- The petition filed had said that the road is being built in the tiger reserve without statutory clearances and requisite safeguards and that the construction of the road may potentially damage the biological diversity and resources of the reserve.
- The plea claimed that the Uttarakhand government on March 1, 2017, without considering the negative impact on the biodiversity-rich stretch, opened the Laldang-Chillarkhal road in the reserve for commercial vehicles.
- The petition also said there already is a closure order from District Forest Officer of Lansdowne against the construction of the Laldhang-Chillarkhal road.
Two major issues:
Justice AK Goel, observed two errors on part of the Uttarakhand government.
- First, the state government started construction on Laldang-Chillarkhal Road, which falls in the buffer area of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, without taking a statutory clearance from NBWL.
- Secondly, no measures were taken by the state to protect the biodiversity of the park, both inside and outside the buffer zone, before starting the construction.
The committee said that it is necessary to seek a factual and action-taken report from the joint committee before considering the matter further. The report has to be furnished within three months by email. The NTCA would be the nodal agency for compliance and coordination.
For the first time, researchers have sighted nests of the grizzled giant squirrel, at Pakkamalai Reserve Forests near Gingee in the Eastern Ghats.
- A team of researchers and wildlife activists from Indigenous Biodiversity Foundation (IBF), a non-profit organisation were conducting a survey in the Pakkamalai Reserve Forests near Gingee when they spotted grizzled giant squirrels.
- Over 300 nests of the endangered species were spotted by the group.
- Several diverse and endangered species including the Golden Gecko, Bamboo Pit Viper and Mouse Deer have also been spotted in the Pakkamalai Reserve Forests.
- A member of the Indigenous Biodiversity Foundation (IBF) said that the government should immediately declare the forests as a sanctuary for the grizzled giant squirrel, he said.
Grizzled gaint squirrel:
- Grizzled giant squirrels are named for the white flecks of hair that cover their greyish-brown bodies, giving them a grizzled look
- It is an endangered species listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
- The grizzled giant squirrel is usually known to nest in the Western Ghats in Southern India ranging from Chinnar Wildlife sanctuary in Kerala to Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Palani hills in Tamil Nadu.
- Owing to habitat loss and poaching, the species has been categorised as near threatened by the Red List and listed under Schedule II of CITES.
- Habitat loss coupled with hunting for its fur and bushmeat by the locals are said to be the major threats to this species.
The Global Assessment Report compiled by a UN agency from more than 1500 academic papers says that the World’s life support systems are in trouble.
- The report was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries.
- Known as the Global Assessment, the report found that up to one million of Earth’s estimated eight million plant, insect and animal species is at risk of extinction, many within decades.
- The authors identified industrial farming and fishing as major drivers with the current rate of species extinction, tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the last 10 million years.
- Climate change caused by burning the coal, oil and gas produced by the fossil fuel industry is exacerbating the losses, the report found.
- The report found that the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900.
- The threatened list includes more than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals, and more than a third of all marine mammals. The picture was less clear for insect species, but a tentative estimate suggests 10% are at risk of extinction.
- Relentless pursuit of economic growth, twinned with the impact of climate change, has put an unprecedented one million species at risk of extinction, scientists said in a landmark report on the damage done by modern civilisation to the natural world.
- Only a wide-ranging transformation of the global economic and financial system could pull ecosystems that are vital to the future of human communities worldwide back from the brink of collapse, concluded the report, which was endorsed by 130 countries, including the U.S., Russia and China.
- The findings will also add to pressure for countries to agree bold action to protect wildlife at a major conference on biodiversity due to take place in China towards the end of next year.
Here’s a short selection of some of the report’s notable findings:
- 75% of land environment and some 66% of the marine environment “have been significantly altered by human actions.”
- “More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources” are used for crops or livestock.
- “Up to $577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss.”
- Between 100 million and 300 million people now face “increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.”
- Since 1992, the world’s urban areas have more than doubled.
- “Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980,” and from “300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge” and other industrial waste are dumped into the world’s water systems.
The report also tells that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global. By transformative change, must be a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.
- Experts opine that the 2019 general election will long be remembered not just for the transgressions of the top political leadership, but also for the Election Commission (EC) itself being put in the dock.
- As a matter of fact, the EC has repeatedly found itself at the receiving end of scathing attacks from the Opposition, the public, the media and the judiciary.
- This is unprecedented for what was until now the most trusted institution in the country.
Case of a trust deficit?
- Experts opine that the trust deficit between the EC and the Opposition parties and the voters started with the EVM/VVPAT saga.
- The EC was accused of being on the defensive rather than being communicative.
- On April 8, 2019, in a letter to the President, a group of retired bureaucrats and diplomats expressed concern over the EC’s “weak-kneed conduct” and said that the institution is “suffering from a crisis of credibility today”.
- As a matter of fact, it took repeated raps on its knuckles by the Supreme Court for the EC to crack the whip. Experts opine that it is a pity that we needed the Supreme Court to remind the EC of powers that it always had.
The Supreme Court making a course correction:
- Article 329 of the Constitution has barred courts from interfering in electoral matters after the election process has been set in motion.
- As a matter of fact, in a long chain of judgments, the Supreme Court has reiterated that provision and restrained all courts from intervening.
- It is therefore significant that in the last couple of months, the apex court itself had to jump in for course correction. This is more serious than is realised at present.
- On April 15, 2019 a Supreme Court Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India pulled up the EC for not acting against hate speeches and statements on religious lines.
- It was reported that the EC told the apex court, “We are toothless, we are powerless, we issue notices, then advisory and on repeated violation, we file complaint.”
- The Supreme Court was furious with this stand.
The Election Commission’s Bible:
- The Supreme Court had observed in 1977 that “where these [the existing laws] are absent, and yet a situation has to be tackled, the Chief Election Commissioner has not to fold his hands and pray to God for divine inspiration to enable him to exercise his functions and to perform his duties or to look to any external authority for the grant of powers to deal with the situation. He must lawfully exercise his power independently, in all matters relating to the conduct of elections, and see that the election process is completed properly, in a free and fair manner.” This has been the EC’s bible.
Prompting the EC to act:
- After the EC had not acted on complaints against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah for almost a month, the Supreme Court ordered it to do so before May 6, 2019.
- The EC promptly disposed of several complaints, giving the two leaders a clean chit in each case.
- Experts opine that the trust of the people which the Election Commission of India enjoys cannot be taken for granted. The moment there is a deficit of credibility, problems begin.
A Noteworthy Point:
- The three-member “full commission” of the Election Commission consists of the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and the two election commissioners Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra.
- The poll panel’s rules express preference for a unanimous view, but provide for a majority ruling in the absence of unanimity.
Issue of granting clean chits to high functionaries within the ruling party:
- The opposition had alleged poll code violations committed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.
- Recently, the Election Commission of India gave clean chits in response to these alleged poll code violations.
- However, certain sections of the media have reported that these recent clean chits by the Election Commission were not unanimous.
- It has emerged that on five occasions, one of the three commissioners dissented with the majority view to let PM Modi and Amit Shah off the hook for their comments.
- The five rulings where one of the commissioners dissented with his two colleagues include two separate instances where the Prime Minister sought votes in the name of the martyrs of the Pulwama terror attacks, in speeches in Maharastra and Karnataka and two separate instances where the Prime Minister questioned Rahul Gandhi’s selection of the Wayanad Lok Sabha seat as pandering to minorities, in speeches in Maharashtra.
- The fifth instance was related to Mr Shah’s comments, also on Wayanad, where in a speech in Nagpur, he said “Rahul Gandhi is contesting in such a place where it is impossible to say when a procession is taken out, whether it is a procession in India or Pakistan”.
- In this case, too, the sole commissioner objected to the majority view granting the BJP president a clean chit.
- Experts opine that the minority view expressed by this sole election commissioner may not have changed the result, but dissent is a healthy sign of objective deliberation, and thus presents a ray of hope.
Alleged inaction on part of the Election Commission:
- Experts opine that while complaints against other leaders were promptly dealt with, there was an obvious delay in taking up those against Mr. Modi.
- Few would have failed to notice that he has been running an abrasive campaign.
- Critics allege that he had stoked fears over India’s security, claimed credit for the performance of the armed forces and implicitly underscored that his party stands for the religious majority.
- It was only after the matter reached the Supreme Court that the three-member EC began to dispose of the complaints.
- Experts opine that what is disconcerting is the EC’s finding that none of his remarks touching on the role of the armed forces under his rule violates the directive against the use of the armed forces for political propaganda.
- Further, the fact that some of these decisions were not unanimous, but marked by dissent from one of the Election Commissioners, points to the seriousness of the credibility crisis the institution is facing.
- For instance, a remark Mr. Modi made in Wardha on April 1, 2019 — that Congress president Rahul Gandhi was contesting from a constituency “where the majority community is in a minority” — was deemed innocent, and it took four weeks for the EC to give this clean chit.
- The second one, for a speech at Latur on April 9, 2019. Here, the Prime Minister made a direct appeal to first-time voters that they should dedicate their votes to the Air Force team that struck at Balakot, and the martyrs of Pulwama.
- The technicality the EC used to absolve Mr. Modi was that he did not directly appeal for votes in the name of the armed forces.
- So far the EC has rejected six complaints.
- It is important to note that the prohibition against the use of the armed forces in election propaganda is to underscore their apolitical nature and to deny ruling parties the opportunity to project their performance as their own achievements.
- Yet, the EC has decided that none of the references to air strikes, the nuclear option and dealing with Pakistan attracted the bar under the MCC.
- Critics point out that it is difficult not to speculate that had the same remarks been made by other candidates, they may have attracted a ban on campaigning for a period.
- The EC has so far retained its well-founded reputation, although there have been occasional complaints in the past that questioned its impartiality.
- However, it is unfortunate that this reputation for independence and even-handedness is starkly under question in this election.
Appointments and removal: A Flawed System?
- Experts opine that the root of the problem lies in the flawed system of appointment of Election Commissioners.
- They are appointed unilaterally by the government of the day.
- There has been a demand for de-politicising appointments through a broad-based consultation, as is done in other countries.
- The uncertainty of elevation by seniority makes them vulnerable to government pressure.
- The government can control a defiant CEC through the majority voting power of the two Election Commissioners.
- In its 255th Report, the Law Commission of India recommended a collegium system for appointing Election Commissioners.
- Political stalwarts such as L.K. Advani and former CECs B.B. Tandon, N. Gopalaswami and
S.Y. Quraishi supported the idea even when in office. However, successive ruling dispensations have ducked the issue, not wanting to let go of their power. It is obvious that political and electoral interests take precedence over national interest.
- A public interest litigation was also filed in the Supreme Court in 2018 on the matter. This has been referred to a Constitution Bench.
- Experts feel that on issues of such vital importance, even the Supreme Court, which is described as the guardian angel of democracy, has to act urgently. If democracy is derailed, its future too would be in jeopardy.
- Apart from the manner of appointment, the provision for the removal of Election Commissioners also needs correction.
- At present, only the CEC is protected from being removed (except through impeachment).
- One has to remember that the Constitution enabled protection to the CEC as it was a one-man Commission initially. This must now be extended to other Commissioners, who were added in 1993, as they collectively represent the EC.
- In the rich history of democratic India, all institutions of the state have come under pressure at one point or another. But the strength and credibility of an institution is tested when it buckles under political influence.
- It is unfortunate that the topic of debate now is the EC rather than the appalling and unconstitutional conduct of our leaders.
- Over 40 electoral reforms remain pending for two decades.
- While it seems futile to have any hope from the political leadership, it is imperative that the EC asserts the ample authority that it already possesses constitutionally.
- It has the full support of the Supreme Court. It must act tough. This is not a mere question of its discretion, but a constitutional duty. Governments come and go, but the reputation of the EC stays for good.