By Neha Mehal
Violence against women has received unprecedented focus in governance and politics in the aftermath of Nirbhaya incident. Along with comprehensive reform of the Criminal Law Act in 2013, enhanced governance became a priority to urgently tackle widespread violence against women. Hence, in the budget of 2013, the then Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ for empowerment, safety and security of women and girl children1. Set up with an initial corpus of 1000 crore, it received an additional grant of 1000 crore each in 2014 and 20152. The fund would finance several schemes for making public spaces safer for women and for rehabilitation of victims of sexual assault and violence.
Some of the major schemes approved for implementation under Nirbhaya Fund are:
- Introduction of SOS button in phones which would be used by the PCR (Police Control Room) to trace distress calls. Initiated by the Ministry of Home Affairs in consultation with the Ministry of Information Technology, it would be launched in 157 cities in two phases and has an expected outlay of Rs. 1000 crore.
- A pilot scheme of setting up an SOS alert system in trains in central and western zones through a railway helpline.
- Installation of CCTV cameras and GPS in public transport in 32 towns each with a population of over one million. The scheme proposed by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has a budget of Rs. 1700 crores.
- Setting up of nirbhaya centres near government hospital in every district as first point access for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The scheme is proposed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development with an expected budget of Rs 244 crores.
- Victim compensation fund for rehabilitation of victims of acid attacks.
- Programme named ‘Shubh’ for mapping vulnerabilities and identifying areas and categories of women who need special protection measures such as women in prostitution or widowed women
Background to the Fund
The need for urgent safety measures has been repeatedly stressed at several points in time by various committees and the Supreme Court while observing the shortcomings in laws and governance in preventing violence against women. Most recently, The Justice Verma committee, which was set up after the widespread protests in the wake of the Nirbhaya incident, had recommended use of CCTV cameras and GPS in public transport, public emergency response system to make public spaces safer for women3. The Justice Usha Mehra committee, which was set up to look into Nirbhaya incident, too made an important recommendations of setting up crisis centre for victims of gender based violence and assault for easy access to legal and medical facilities4. Interestingly, the Ministry of Home Affairs had also suggested setting up of such crisis centre in its advisories to state governments and Union Territories to curb violence against women5.
In addition, the Supreme Court (SC) has also actively acknowledged the need for urgent measures to safeguard and rehabilitate victims of sexual violence. Realizing the limitation of sections 294 and 509 in dealing with rampant sexual harassment in public, the SC issued guidelines to states governments to install CCTV camera in public spaces to prevent harassment and assault6. Further, it passed several judgments directing state governments to create fund to compensate victims of acid attacks to alleviate their trauma and financial burden of treatment. However, compensation funds created by states were meager and inadequate for the rehabilitation of victims. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has created a 200 crore Victim Compensation Scheme to partially finance the scheme in coordination with state governments. It provides a minimum of 3 lakh compensation to acid attack victims7.
Thus, setting up of the Nirbhaya Fund has given boost to the reforms and initiatives which had been in the pipeline for sometime. However, it has failed to reach the level of approval and implementation for want of political will and funds.
Critique of the Proposed Schemes
Although the schemes proposed under Nirbhaya fund have been recommended by various institutions and agencies previously, the changes they have gone through in the process of approval have left many of the schemes without much strength to make a difference at the grassroots level.
One of the major schemes under this fund is Technology enabled emergency response system. The scheme, launched in its first phase in Jaipur and Delhi recently, download of a panic button software in smart phones to be used in distress situation to send signal and location to police control room (PCR) for help. But Justice Verma Committee had recommended a simple hotline as the basis of emergency response system to benefit larger number of persons and suggested use of Smartphone based panic button as technological addition to the system8. Thus, this scheme has come under criticism for being exclusive as its technology and smart phone based security system safeguards only a certain class of women while leaving a large section out of its reach.
In February 2015, the ambitious scheme of Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) to create one stop crisis centre in every district to provide legal, medical and psychological support under one roof to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence was also downsized by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). It has approved construction of only one centre in every state in order to reduce the cost of the scheme from Rs. 244 crores to Rs. 18 crores9. As one centre in every state is highly inadequate to cater to victims from all over the state, it negates the basic idea of the scheme to provide easily accessible crisis centre’s to treat victims sensitively and prevent their revictimization in the medical-legal process in order to allow more women to come forward to report crime.
Also, the Victim Compensation Fund, set up with the intention to rehabilitate the victims of acid attacks medically, emotionally and allow them to pursue legal proceedings to the end, falls short of its stated goals. The compensation under the fund can be accessed by the victim only when court passes judgment in the case10 and not when FIR is filed. As legal proceedings are long drawn process requiring substantial time and financial resources, the compensation process denies speedy relief to victims, which is the crux in incidents of acid attacks.
Progress and Problems of the Fund Over Last 2 Years
Nirbhaya Fund, meant to fight crime against women, is one of the few women specific schemes to have budget over 1000 crores. Majority of schemes for women have budget outlay of less than 100 crores. Therefore, it symbolized urgency in dealing with sexual violence against women by initiating effective multipronged measures. But successive governments of UPA II and BJP have received criticism over slow pace of fund utilization. To begin with, the 1000 crore amount was credited to the fund’s account only in January 2014, ten months after its formation. And, by the end of 2015, only 200 crores had been sanctioned out of the fund for emergency SMS alert project and safety of women in public transport11.
The lengthy inter-ministerial coordination for project approval has also created problems in implementation of Nirbhaya Fund schemes. Each ministry is required to send its proposal to the Department of Economic Affairs, which controls the corpus of Nirbhaya Fund, for approval and disbursal of funds. This has contributed to substantial delay in approval and implementation of the schemes inviting widespread criticism from the Supreme Court and media. Thus, in response, the central government has recently made Ministry of Women and Child Development the nodal ministry for submission and approval of schemes under Nirbhaya Fund due to its expertise in issue of women and in order to expedite the process of approval of schemes12.
Even as the bureaucratic loopholes are being plugged to save the scheme, there are larger changes introduced by the budget 2015-16 which raise concern over government’s commitment to tackle violence against women. Two significant projects meant to operationalize rehabilitation schemes under ‘compensation for the victims of rape’ and ‘domestic violence against women act’ have been cancelled in the union budget due to non-utilization of allocations made in 201313. Both the initiatives took nearly decade to reach the stage of legislation and finally when they did, their operationalization was hindered by lack of political will and gender sensitivity in governance structures.
The unconcerned approach regarding implementation of women specific schemes may further impact efforts to curb violence against women. Majority of substantial reforms that were demanded in the aftermath of Nirbhaya incident such as more women in police force, a special crime cell in every district to investigate violence against women come under the ambit of state governments. MHA has issued several advisories to state governments since 2013 to implement these reforms. Interestingly, similar advisories to curb violence against women were also issued from 1995 to 2007 but hardly any of them reached the stage of implementation14. Therefore, it remains to be seen if future of suggested reforms turns out to be any different from previous occasions.
When Nirbhaya fund was set up in 2013, it was received with mixed expectations by the women rights’ activists and civil society. Though, it symbolized government’s commitment to strengthen the institutions of governance to allow empowerment and safety of women. But a closer look at the schemes and operation of the fund proves their inadequacy in curbing crime against women in any significant manner, reinforcing the doubts that the fund may end up as mere tokenism. Fortunately, now that the MWCD has taken over as nodal agency for Nirbhaya fund, it may well utilize the opportunity to overhaul the present inconsistencies and bring about more concrete and substantial schemes to tackle gender based violence.