Nagaland yet to appoint regular ombudsman for PLHIVs

A public signboard in Kohima calling for political will towards addressing HIV/AIDS issue. (Morung Photo for representational purpose only)
A public signboard in Kohima calling for political will towards addressing HIV/AIDS issue. (Morung Photo for representational purpose only)

Activist alleges ‘internal arrangements’; Official blames COVID-19 pandemic for delay 

Atono Tsükrü Kense
Kohima | April 13

NGOs working with the People Living with HIV (PLHIV) population in Nagaland have expressed discontent with the alleged “internal arrangements” of designating an Ombudsman without following the laid down rules given by the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017. 

They opined that it could invite “contempt of court” while the State Health department, among others, cited COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the delay.

As per an RTI filed by a concerned citizen seeking information in regard to the appointment of Ombudsman, the Health Department responded that the appointment was made on temporary basis for a period of six months, with effect from September 22, 2020 or till the appointment of a full time Ombudsman is made, whichever is earlier.

When enquired on why the post was not advertised, the department responded in the RTI that the arrangement was made when the State was fully engaged with the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such, “only temporary arrangement was made and hence, advertisement was not made.”

Speaking to The Morung Express, a person working with key population stated that though “internal adjustment of appointment/designation on temporary basis has been made, but they have not followed the HIV and AIDS rules Act, and it can invite Contempt of Court.”

“Appointment was made bypassing the Act as well as district session judge, civil society who also has the right to be appointed as Ombudsman,” he said. 

While the department justified the internal arrangement citing financial constraints, he maintained that “the justification that the health department does not have budget to appoint an Ombudsman is unacceptable. This is not a lookout of just the Health Department but the State Government.”

Under the 2017 Act, which came into force on September 10, 2018, the Nagaland Government was directed to appoint at least one ombudsman to redress the grievances of People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIVs) within six months.

However, the State Government reportedly requested for more time from the centre just before the expiry of the six months time period in order to prevent contempt of court. It was not until September 2020 that the Nagaland State AIDS Control Society (NSACS) appointed a director from the department as the Ombudsman.

According to the Act, an Ombudsman must be a retired district and session judge, or anyone who has minimum ten years working experience having extensive knowledge in matters relating to public health or health delivery system, or a qualified healthcare provider who is a physician or a person working in NGO with similar experience and knowledge.

This appointment came just before the expiry of the six-month period following the notification issued by the state government dated March 3, 2020.

 “In exercise of the powers conferred by Section 49 read with Sections 23, 24 and 25 of the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 the Governor of Nagaland is pleased to notify the Appointment of Ombudsman Nagaland Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) (Ombudsman and Legal proceeding) Rule 2019 with immediate effect,” the notification read.

Ombudsman crucial for redressing grievances 
As per 2017 Act, the Ombudsman “shall upon a complaint made by any persons, inquire into the violations of the provisions of this Act, in relation to acts of discrimination and providing health care services by any persons.” 

Further, in cases of medical emergency of HIV positive persons, the Ombudsman shall pass such order as soon as possible, preferable within twenty-four hours of the receipt of the complaint.

However, several NGOs working with PLHIVs were piqued that the department had not notified any of the NGOs regarding the appointment.

The frustration stems from the fact that there have been instances of stigma and discrimination of PLHIVs in the State, particularly in workplaces and healthcare services which often go unreported. Even for reported cases, redressal through the legal system takes time.

NSACS clarifies 
On the appointment of the Ombudsman, NSACS Project Director Dr Vikato Kinimi said that “although the Cabinet notified to appoint an Ombudsman within six months time frame, the file was delayed due to the pandemic.”

“And as the date was soon expiring, we decided to designate a director from the department,” he reasoned.

He said that the appointment of the Ombudsman “did not have a salary component and advertisement of the post without salary would not attract any applicants. We had a discussion and designated an officer.”

Dr Kinimi also claimed that Nagaland could appoint an Ombudsman through a Cabinet decision while adding that several states are yet to appoint the same.

 “We are a little ahead of others,” he said. 

Along with addressing stigma and discrimination, the Act also stipulates enhancement of access to services, provision of free diagnostic facilities and ART to PLHIVs, creating a safe workplace in healthcare settings to prevent occupation exposure, and strengthening system of grievances redressal.

The Act also stated that a complaint officer must be appointed at establishments with more than 100 persons and 20 in case of healthcare settings to dispose of complaints relating to violations of the provisions of this Act.

An independent body like an ombudsman can play a major role in protecting the rights of PLHIVs especially in a State which ranks third in HIV prevalence in India.