Swamy in support of Himachal Freedom of Religion Act

Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy defended the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act (HPFRA) and maintained that it did not violate any provision of the Constitution.

Swamy, in his capacity as convenor, Legal Cell, Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, argued that the petitioners had no locus standi as they were not the aggrieved from infringement of any of their fundamental rights to get converted.

A division bench of the Himachal Pradesh High Court had allowed Swamy to intervene in three petitions filed by Evangelical Fellowship of India and Shabnam Hashmir-led Act Now for Harmony and Democracy challenging the Constitutional validity of the Act.

The petitioners have prayed for a writ of mandamus to strike down Sections 2 (a), 2(b), 2 (c), 2 (d), 4 and 8 of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, as also rules 3, 4,5 and 6 framed under the Act in 2007.

The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act was moved by the Congress-led government in the Himachal Assembly and unanimously passed in December 2006, Swamy contended.

The Himachal Assembly which unanimously passed the Bill was empowered vide Article 246 of the Seventh Schedule to enact the Act, he said.

Justice Deepak Gupta observed that the provision of giving prior notice for conversion and not making a similar provision for returning to one’s religion was debatable.

The court posted the case for hearing on July 16.

Himachal makes law tougher on drunken driving

The deadly cocktail of drinking and driving may soon invite a more stringent punishment even for private vehicle owners in Himachal Pradesh.

Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal Thursday tabled a bill – the Criminal Law (Himachal Pradesh Amendment) Bill, 2011 – in the state assembly that now makes drunken driving of all vehicles a criminal offence.

The amendment removes a discrepancy and expands the scope of the law that originally dealt only with drunken driving involving public service vehicles.

The new bill proposes to bring all vehicles – both private and public service – under its purview by amending section 304-AA of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), inserted through a 1997 amendment in Himachal Pradesh.

Dhumal said it was observed that the provisions of section 304-AA were against the basic principle of equality enshrined in the constitution.

‘In order to remove the discrepancy, it has been decided to amend section 304-AA in its application in the state, and to substitute the expression ‘a public service vehicle’ with the words ‘any vehicle’,’ the chief minister said.

The section 304-AA awards a maximum punishment of life imprisonment or imprisonment for seven years for causing death or injury, respectively, by driving a public service vehicle while in a state of intoxication.

The bill is listed for discussion in the house Friday, the last day of the budget session.

According to a report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), drunken driving is a major factor for road accidents.

‘Almost 99 percent of the accidents that occur outside cities are due to drunken driving and there is no check on this,’ said the NCRB report

Himachal all set to empower rural women

Himachal Pradesh is all set to empower women at the grassroots level by electing only women to around 13,000 seats in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs), the village-level third tier of governance.

The Himachal Pradesh government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, in 2008 raised reservation of seats for women in all rural and urban civic bodies from 33 percent to 50 percent and it is for the first time that the elections to the panchayati posts are being held under the enhanced quota.

State Election Commission chairman Dev Swarup told IANS that polling for 3,195 panchayats, 75 panchayat samitis and 11 zila parishads (district executives) would be held Dec 28, Dec 30 and Jan 1, 2011.

‘The elections will be held for around 27,000 seats and 50 percent reservation means almost half of the seats would be occupied by women candidates only,’ he said.

According to him, each panchayat has one post each of ‘pradhan’ or president and ‘up-pradhan’ or vice-president and five to 21 posts of ‘panch’ or ward members, depending upon the population of the panchayat. Only the post of ‘up-pradhan’ is not reserved.

As many as 3,195 panchayat presidents and vice-presidents, 19,159 panch, 1,651 block samiti members and 240 zila parishad members will be elected.

Besides reservation for women, there is also a provision of 15 percent reservation each for the Other Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes. In both the cases, there is also a quota within the quota for women.

Interestingly, the districts with odd number of panchayats will see women getting extra seats.

Swarup said 1,598 panchayats out of the total 3,195 would be governed by the fairer sex.

‘It’s the initiative of the state government to be fair with the fairer sex. The aim is to hand over the rural power to women as they are more sensitive to the local issues,’ BJP state coordinator for panchayat elections H.N. Kashyap said.

A remote Kamru village in Kalpa block of Kinnaur district has unanimously elected an all-woman panchayat.

The panchayat has 1,100 voters – mostly tribals.

‘It was the unanimous decision of all the voters to have an all-woman panchayat,’ newly-elected president Sunila Negi said.

Social activist Rattan Manjari, who is again contesting the elections as an independent zila parishad member from the Pooh block in Kinnaur district, said: ‘It was a path-breaking decision to empower rural women.’

About 19,000 polling booths will be set up for 46.11 lakh voters, who include 2,332,121 men and 2,278,881 women.

‘Rural women help Himachal fight open defecation’

Rural women in Himachal Pradesh have emerged as the driving force behind wiping out the menace of open defecation, a global expert said here Sunday.

‘The women have proved themselves as instrumental towards bringing about behavioural changes in the orthodox Indian society about sanitation and hygiene,’ said Christopher Juan Costain, regional team leader of Water Sanitation Programme of South Asia.

Addressing the concluding session of a three-day workshop here on ‘Sustainability and Rural Sanitation Initiatives in India’, he said the state has become a role model for other states in India to imbibe the spirit of women empowerment.

He said Himachal Pradesh has also set an example for others in areas like leadership of both government and non-government functionaries and motivation coupled with effective role of the panchayati raj institutions for making the total sanitation campaign a grand success.

Kamal Kar, head of Community Led Total Sanitation foundation of Kolkata, said the awareness level of people of Himachal Pradesh to keep their surroundings clean was extremely high.

The state’s gram panchayats (village councils) have been playing a pivotal role in achieving the targets under the central government’s total sanitation campaign for villages, he said.

Himachal Pradesh is poised to become totally free of open defecation by this year-end.

Himachal asked to give details on its tainted officials

The Himachal Pradesh High Court has asked the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state government to place on record the list of its officials facing corruption and other charges.

Taking note of the government reinstating officials against whom investigations under the Prevention of Corruption Act are on, a division bench of Chief Justice Kurian Joseph and Justice Kuldip Singh has asked the government to furnish a list of the tainted officials Wednesday.

‘A complete list of the tainted officials shall be furnished against whom investigations are in progress and also the reinstated officers against whom cases were under investigations under the Prevention of Corruption Act,’ the judges said in a ruling given Thursday.

They also directed the government to inform the court ‘what steps it has taken to expedite the trial or investigation against such officers and explain if the government has applied its mind before passing the order of reinstatement of such officers’.

The court observed that the government in its affidavit had said that it was committed to eradicating corruption.

‘On the other hand, the government is reinstating such officers who were caught red-handed by the vigilance department or any other state or central agency,’ the judges said.

A senior official of the vigilance and anti-corruption bureau told IANS that the it registered 271 cases against government officials and functionaries from January 2008 to Jan 31, 2010.

He said that charge sheets have been filed in various courts against 65 people and seven have been convicted during this period.

The prominent officials who were facing charges but have been reinstated are Sher Singh – former drugs controller, Subhash Ahluwalia – principal private secretary to former chief minister Virbhadra Singh, and Sanjay Gupta – former General Industries Corporation (GIC) managing director.

Ahluwalia, a 1989 batch IAS officer, was arrested by the vigilance bureau in October 2008 on charges of illegally amassing wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income by misusing his position.

IAS officer Gupta was arrested by vigilance sleuths in July 2009 on charges of corruption and possessing an unaccounted Rs.2 lakh in cash. He was booked for irregularities earlier as well in Kinnaur district.

Similarly, Drugs Controller Sher Singh was caught red-handed while accepting a bribe of Rs.5 lakh in the Baddi-Barotiwala industrial belt.

Interestingly, the high court order seeking details on tainted officers came on the plea of Sher Singh, who is demanding a stay on the departmental proceedings against him.

He pleaded that the departmental inquiry and the criminal trial could not run simultaneously.