Special Reports

Equal Opportunity Commission discussed

By NM Salih
New Delhi: India, the most unequal society with an alarmingly developing inequality, lacks proper authority to thwart growing disparity in social life of its people. To bridge this gap, the central government took a positive step last year by setting up an expert group headed by N R Madhava Menon to study the possibilities to set up an Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC). After a detailed study, the expert group’s report with a draft bill is already in public domain. The government will soon bring in a law for the setting up of an Equal Opportunity Commission to help redress discrimination in both the public and private sectors. EOC is meant to be a monitoring mechanism to ensure adequate representation for disadvantaged groups in job and education sectors. It would range from ensuring level playing field to fair selection processes and treatment of employees.

The setting up of the EOC came as a part of the Centre’s follow-up action on the Sachar Committee’s report regarding discrimination against Muslims. Almost all countries, which have a pluralistic society, have commissions which look into social discriminations.

To deliberate the issue and assist the government in this regard, the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) organised a national consultation meet last month titled ‘Diversity, marginalisation and equal opportunity: democratising the opportunity space in India’ in New Delhi which was attended by noted academicians, social scientists and journalists.

The reports of stark inequalities and discriminations in the country are frequent in news. A recent survey indicates that 86 per cent of the people from the North East feel discriminated against in their own country. Justice Rajinder Sachar had noticed similar discrimination against the Muslim community. He wrote in his 2006 report from where the idea of EOC emanated, "It is a well-accepted maxim in law that not only must justice be done but it must also appear to be done. It is in this context that the committee recommends that an Equal Opportunity Commission should be constituted by the government to look into the grievances of the deprived groups."

The blueprint for EOC is awaiting Cabinet approval and all that remains to be done is to get it passed by an Act of Parliament. "The EOC’s primary aim is to create an equality benchmark and code of fair practices for both the public and private sectors," says Javeed Alam, chairman ICSSR. A member of the expert group, Alam says that the code of fair practices would differ from sector to sector. "For instance, the code for educational institutions would be different from that for the housing sector or for the police," he explains. The bill also proposes ‘equality auditing’ where the commission monitors the extent to which its codes are being followed by different sectors. After auditing, a report will be prepared and submitted to the EOC chairman. According to N R Madhava Menon, Chairperson of the expert group, the EOC will rely largely on evidence-based advocacy. It would not be a chairman-centric and can’t be influenced by regional politics. It is meant to ensure that various under-represented sections of society are given an equal opportunity to acquire proper education and decent jobs in private and public sectors, so the diversity of the country can be reflected in both sectors. "Sachar committee itself has contemplated the scope of a wider equal opportunity commission rather than a narrow one confined to only Muslims," Menon asserted. EOC will be a serious attempt to address the fundamental issues of under-representation of Muslim community and it will be a paradigm shift, opined Prof. Zoya Hasan, former member of the National Commission for Minorities.

CPI (M) politburo member Sitaram Yechuri stressed the need for legislation on it in  Parliament. "The EOC has a much more complex issue to handle than those like the SC-ST Commission, NHRC etc. Parliament needs to legislate on it," Yechury said while expressing his views on EOC during the workshop.

NCP general secretary DP Tripathi suggested that to thwart the ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest, the EOC should be given the power and strength of a civil court. Noticeably, Prof Kamal Mitra Chenoy’s question, "How do you ensure equality in a country of most billionaires and most poor," remained unanswered in the discussion.

Social scientists and public intellectuals expressed concern whether the body could actually serve its intended purpose in the absence of judicial powers as its envisaged role was just advisory in nature. However, the participants welcomed the proposed move for the EOC but raised apprehensions over it turning out to be yet another of those 13 odd chairman-centric Commissions in the country. Exact status of EOC’s structure and representation in it, the private sector’s reaction to the attempt to bring it in the public domain, political interference, further complication of problems with the possible emergence of new minority groups and conflict and overlap of interest with the existing commissions were the doubts raised in the consultation meet.

The architects of the EOC, NR Madhava Menon and Amitabh Kundu along with Satish Deshpande, a member of the expert committee, tried to address the concerns and doubts. The suggestions include a constitutional amendment to give more teeth to the EOC Act, linkage with the university education system, clear identification of the deprived and discriminated and deprivation and discrimination, usage of income generation instead of employment and service delivery instead of education and coordination with judiciary.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 September 2009 on page no. 13

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