Perhaps it won’t surprise you that one year after the fund was announced the government is still at the starting line. But what if they intend to run backward?

By Revati Laul | 


(Photo credit: AFP images)

Sometimes, the word slow can be much worse than the word corrupt.  Compare stealing some money to get the job done with not getting it done at all. If anything is worse than the UPA government‘s mounting record of corruption, it is stasis. When a Rs 1,000 crore fund set up by the Finance Minister in memory of Nirbhaya lies dormant and abandoned for almost a year, slow takes on a new meaning.

On February 28, 2013, after Finance Minister P Chidambaram announced the fund in his budget speech, there were some positive ripples. Finally, it was said, one section of the UPA government was taking note of the nation-wide outrage after the Nirbhaya rape and the police mishandling of it. Chidambaram’s speech was followed up diligently with meetings between the Ministry of Finance and a clutch of other ministries that were expected to play a key role in figuring out how to use the funds to do something meaningful for the safety of women.

And then the wheels of the almost immovable government machinery began their slow and wonky grind. First stop, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) — the logical go-to for women’s safety, it would seem, until you look closer. An official in the MWCD described the scenario within that ministry to this reporter in confidence. “We thought the entire Rs 1,000 crore was coming to us. The Minister herself sat on a committee to plan how the money would be used.”

Then the penny dropped. MWCD officials discovered they had to formally apply for a portion of the funds that would be managed by the Ministry of Finance. In other words, this wasn’t exclusively their baby. With that realisation, the officials said, the MWCD’s ardor cooled a bit.

The MWCD’s task force, I am told, met only a couple of times. The result was a proposal for a Rs 300 crore project titled ‘Shubh’ – a word that translates to ‘auspicious’ and ‘good’.  ‘Shubh’ proposed to change the hearts and minds of Indian men towards women through “awareness programs.” While government-funded gender sensitization could have been useful, the MWCD proposal contained no details on what kind of programs should be rolled out or what research the proposal was based on. No description of what precisely would act as a trigger for change. “That’s for each state to come up with,” said an official while this proposal was still being re-written.

The Ministry of Finance took one look at it and sent it back with severe criticism for being too “vague”, with the “deliverables not defined clearly.” A chastised MWCD tweaked its original document and sent it back as a cabinet note for approval. In January, they were told to go back to the drawing board yet again. This time, the WCD officials came back with bruised egos. A senior official told this reporter: “The observations of the Ministry of Finance acted as a dampener. We are still digesting the feedback and no further work has happened on Shubh after that.”

With the MWCD dud staring it in the face and the financial year flying by, the Ministry of Finance began vetting ideas from other ministries. Six or seven ministries were sent letters – first in April 2013 soon after Mr Chidambaram’s budget announcement, then again in June, and a third polite reminder in September. Finally, Mr Chidambaram told his team he would have to turn into the stern school principal and deal with the matter himself. A meeting was called with the ministries meant to come up with ideas on the October 18, 2013, a good six months after the Nirbhaya fund was created. These included the Ministry for Home Affairs, Communications and Information Technology, WCD, Railways, Road Transport and Urban Development. This time, since Chidambaram chaired the meeting, proposals trickled in by December.

Whilst the MWCD proposal was tossed out, two others were finally approved in January 2014. Both have to do with setting up emergency response systems when a woman dials in to say she has been raped.

The first of these proposals is from the Ministry of Home Affairs and consists of setting up an elaborate system of switchboards and tracking systems so that when a woman calls in distress, the location is immediately GPSed, the co-ordinates sent to a police station and a vehicle dispatched to the spot ASAP.

The proposal for Rs 1400 crore, now cleared in principle, will set up control rooms across a whopping 114 cities over a period of nine months. The 57-page proposal explains in detail how the switchboards at these control rooms will be manned and operated. Now, the long process of shortlisting service providers and setting up tenders will begin.

There is just one rather large question that remains unanswered in these pages.  Given that police stations across the country are short staffed, given how many of them cannot even afford paper to file a first information report (FIR) or fuel for the police personnel’s motorbike, just how will the appearance of these control rooms change that? What is likely to change if the size, competence and sensitivity of the police staff remains the same and no budgetary allocation is made to aid this program? How will switchboards help if police stations in even big cities like Varanasi have too few vehicles to cater to the existing load of emergencies they have to deal with? Further, how will this program be pressed into service across 114 cities and be expected to deliver?

The director of the fund at the Ministry of Finance, Hari Srivastava, seems to think these are small details. He says this control room facility is only a start and once it gets off the ground, these details can be worked out in partnership with state governments. The fact that none of these questions have been accounted for yet is alarming.

The other big issue is that this proposal only covers cities. The Ministry of Finance says this decision is a response to the National Crime Records Bureau data where higher numbers of rape are recorded in cities than in villages. Does that have to do with higher incidence of rapes in cities or better reporting of the crime? We don’t know. Of course, it can be argued again that this is only the start of an initiative and a Rs 1,000 crore fund can’t change everything.

A further component of this system links this venture with the Ministry for Information and Technology. It has been asked to tell all cellphone operators to create an emergency panic button on phones and also create downloadable apps for existing phones that work as an emergency button. These will be linked with the control rooms and feed into the database and emergency response systems. So far, the Ministry of Communications and IT had a preliminary meeting with cellphone manufacturers, who said they would respond in three months. At the end of February 2014, that is where the matter stands.

The second proposal that has been given the green light is an emergency response system under the Ministry of Road Transport. When implemented across 32 cities, it will be mandatory for all public transport vehicles – buses, taxis and autorickshaws – to install surveillance systems, or their licences will be cancelled. The surveillance includes cameras that can store upto seven days of data, and transmission facilities that connect these cameras to common servers so this data can be accessed immediately in case of a complaint. Once again, the plan is to set up call centers and technical operations to alert the city command and control center when a crisis happens. How the police will respond to the crises reported and what persons and vehicles will be made available for this is still unclear from the proposal on paper.

Still, it can be argued that the setting up of GPS-linked surveillance on all public transport is a good thing. The proposal says the operational cost will be borne by the ministry for the first couple of years, and if needed, for an additional two years. After that, the permit holder will have to pay the cost of operating this surveillance system. At this stage of incubation, it may be too early to draw out scenarios of angry bus drivers refusing to pay for on-board CCTVs, even if that is the first thought that springs to mind.

The cost of this second project is Rs 1,000 crore. And it’s been cleared just as the Finance Minister announced an additional 1,000 crores to be added to the Nirbhaya fund in the UPA’s interim budget in February 2014. The ministry, clearly undaunted by the present situation in which the fund has literally been pulled out of the ER on a still sputtering lifeline, says that thousands of crores more will be made available when the current sum is utilized. For now, they are still at the starting line. To puts things in perspective, Rs 2,000 crore is a tiny speck in India’s overall budget expenses of Rs 5,55,322 crore (planned budget expenses for 2013-14). Another pet project for women and children, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), had nearly 9 times that budget, or Rs 17,700 crore, in the financial year 2012-13.

One year after the Finance Minister told people his government was going to do something concrete for the safety of women, two projects have been just about been cleared on paper.  Both follow from the presumption that the most pressing need to secure women is greater surveillance.

Whilst civil rights groups and NGOs working on violence against women have regularly used their decades of work and experience to draw up wishlists of what urgently needs to be done,  they say that expertise cannot be seen in the projects that have been green lighted by the government. For instance Anuradha Kapoor, who runs Swayam, an NGO in Kolkata that deals with violence against women, says that police reforms are a crying need, that urgent work is needed in the way in which FIRs are registered or not registered, that bus drivers and cops need training in how to treat women, as do emergency service staff at hospitals. Suneeta Dhar, who has spent a lifetime working on these issues and is now a director with the Delhi-based NGO Jagori, says her top priority would be to create good one-stop centers for women across the country. Centers where they get medical aid, legal aid, a shelter to live in if they have nowhere to go.

What if some of these gaping holes could be plugged?

Instead, a surveillance-heavy government has responded by turning the Nirbhaya fund into a desi version of the George Orwell classic 1984. From now on, Big Brother may be watching. Even if there is no budgetary provision to convert the watching into doing.

An appeal from the Ministry of Finance: Suggestions and proposals for the Nirbhaya fund from all concerned citizens, NGOs and civil rights groups are welcome and can be emailed to the Joint Secretary, Budget, Ministry of Finance, Rajat Bhargava ([email protected]).

Revati Laul is an independent journalist who has worked in television and print. She is based in New Delhi and tweets at @revatilaul.

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