A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest calling for justice for the rape and murder case of an eight-year-old girl in India. Photo: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP

India, over the years, has gained a reputation for being the most dangerous country for women in the world. But as crimes against women rise, the federal government is barely spending budgeted funds, according to official data.

In 2012 a brutal gang-rape of a student in a moving bus in Delhi led to enormous public outrage. The following year, the government set up a fund to try to make life more safe for women across the country. It was called the Nirbhaya (‘without fear’) Fund, as criminal laws prevent the naming of rape victims, and is a non-lapsable corpus body, which means it does not have to return unspent cash to the government at the end of a fiscal year. Cash in the fund should be used to support schemes to boost women’s safety.

But a breakdown of the Nirbhaya Fund’s spending over the last five years reveals a strange lack of usage of money released for schemes by the states and union territories. It also shows that only 42% of funds have been released for projects since 2015.

Set up with an initial grant of 10 billion rupees in 2013, disbursement of money only gathered pace over the past four years. The Nirbhaya Fund swelled up to 36 billion rupees in 2018 through allocation in finance budgets.

At least 26 projects were approved and funded through this – 11 proposals from the Home Ministry, eight from the Women and Child Development Ministry, three from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, two from Ministry of Railways, and one from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and IIT Delhi, and one from the Department of Justice.

However, the process is extremely bureaucratic. Proposals received from states or national ministries for cash via the Nirbhaya Fund have to undergo scrutiny from various concerned ministries and departments, states and territories prior to consideration.

They are then assessed by the Empowered Committee, an inter-ministerial committee set up with the secretary of the Women and Child Development as chairperson. WCD is also the nodal ministry.

After that, a proposal still requires an approval of ‘competent authority’. From time to time, the executive committee appraises, recommends and reviews projects proposed by different departments.

Recently, a parliamentary reply about the Nirbhaya Fund tabled in the Lok Sabha (the lower house in Delhi) revealed that the incumbent BJP government had set aside 56.7 billion rupees (nearly US$800,000) for 30 projects – but only spent 24% (13.77 billion rupees) of that on schemes for women’s safety over the past five years.

Indeed, the data reveals that many projects received zero funds despite getting approvals, with spending by Delhi and the States for 11 important projects also zero.

Child-sex cases delayed

While the government announced plans to set up 1,023 Fast-Track Special Courts, it did not release any funds at all for the project. This was despite funding of 7.67 billion rupees being approved from the Nirbhaya Fund empowered committee in 2018.

The Fast-Track Special Courts are responsible for handling cases pending trial under the Rape and Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act.

The Delhi High Court had directed the state government to establish fast-track courts after the infamous ‘Nirbhaya rape case’. But only 664 fast-track courts are currently operational around the country and according to the National Crime Records Bureau as many as 90,205 cases are still awaiting trial.

Recently, the Supreme Court also expressed shock over the high number of cases involving sexual crimes and children.

According to the Press Trust of India, more than 24,000 First Information Reports were filed across the country in the first six months of this year alone. But only a quarter – 6,449 cases – have gone to court. And to date, rulings have only been made on 911 cases – about 4% of all cases registered.

The Organized Crime Investigative Agency, the agency that exclusively probes human trafficking cases, was also not given any funds to help its work. Some 832 million rupees was sought for its work in 2015. Three years later, approval was given for ‘sub-projects’ under a Cybercrime Prevention against Women & Children proposal worth 289 million rupees, but these funds have still not be released.

According to data made available by WCD Union Minister Smriti Irani, the eastern state of Odisha has used less than 10% of the budget allocated to it under the Nirbhaya Fund over the last five years. The state has waited for two years to receive 1.1 billion rupees for police to implement a ‘Safe City Project’. Odisha has reported 12,996 rape cases over the last six years, including 2,502 cases in 2018. In the first five months of this year, there were 937 more rape cases recorded.

Recent reports also show that cases of rape and molestation against women jumped on Indian Railways in 2018.

Despite this, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways spent zero funds for the Provision of a Video Surveillance System at Konkan Railways, which connects Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka states.

The Abhaya Project was proposed by the Andhra Pradesh government to ensure safety for women and children during transport. A proposal seeking 1.38 billion rupees was submitted in 2016, but less than half of that amount was released (586 million rupees) – and absolutely no funds were outlaid on the project.

Gross underutilization of funds

There were other examples showing that funds released for many projects to ensure women’s safety were grossly underutilized.

The Integrated Emergency Response Management System under the Ministry of Railways was a project that sought to provide around-the-clock security to women at railway stations, by strengthening security control rooms, deploying more Railway Police and installing CCTV cameras. Railways officials sought 5 billion rupees. Only 3 billion rupees was released, but a paltry 500 million rupees has been used so far.

A major share of the Nirbhaya Fund – more than 28 billion rupees was approved for ‘Safe City Proposals’ for eight cities – Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Lucknow. However, less than a quarter – 7 billion rupees – was approved and spent.

Delhi is a hotbed of sex crime, yet the record of city officials in addressing this problem is dismal. As many as 13,803 crimes against women were reported in the national capital – 38 every day – in 2016. Delhi topped a list of 19 cities with populations more than two million that year, as IndiaSpend reported.

It also witnessed the gruesome ‘Nirbhaya rape case’. But, city officials have used less than 1% of the Nirbhaya Funds allocated to it.

The Delhi High Court pointed out on July 31 that 30 billion rupees was lying unused in the Nirbhaya Fund and that it must be mobilized to “prevent crime, rather than waiting to compensate the victims of sexual assault.” It also directed the Delhi Police and Aam Aadmi Party government to prepare an action plan to make the city “crime free for women.”

In an attempt to curb rising incidents of violence against women, the Delhi government recently announced free rides for women in public buses from October 23, 2019. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also inaugurated the installation of 300,000 CCTV cameras and approved a proposal on free rides for women in Delhi Metro two months ago.

The high crime rate in Delhi was followed by Assam, Odisha, Telangana and Rajasthan. West Bengal, which also had a high crime rate used less than 1% of the money it had been allocated.

Emergency response? Delhi spent nothing

Funds for an Emergency Response Support System (ERSS), a pan-India single number for all emergencies, were not released in the three years from 2014 to 2016. Subsequently, 2.93 billion rupees were released over the past three years for the Home Ministry proposal. But Delhi, given 24 million rupees, spent nothing.

Meanwhile, an 835-million-rupee project to boost women’s safety on public transport by Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation, but only 402 million rupees was released and just 311 million rupees was spent.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, reported the most crimes against women in 2016 – 49,262. That is roughly six every hour. The infamous Unnao rape case, in which ruling BJP’s MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar was accused of raping an underage girl, gives an insight into the state of women’s safety in Uttar Pradesh.

The One Stop Centre Scheme, aimed at providing integrated support and assistance to women affected by violence, also remains underutilized. Some 2.8 billion rupees was released but just under 500 million rupees were spent. Apart from West Bengal, Delhi was another state which did not use any cash from the Nirbhaya Fund to set up One-Stop Centers.

Swati Maliwal, head of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), told NDTV that lack of coordination between city officials and the WCD ministry had delayed these centers being set up. Currently, there are 170 One-Stop Centers across the country, but none in Bengal and the capital.

However, despite a poor record among the states for using money given to them, the national government has continued to provide funds for such schemes.

A state like Bihar, which reported 13,400 crimes against women, did not use even a single rupee out of 52 million rupees for One-Stop Centers between 2015 and 2019. But Bihar was still given a further 39 million rupees in 2019. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh didn’t use anything from 19 million rupees given for the Women’s Helpline Scheme, yet it was granted 4.65 million rupees again in 2019, according to The Hindu.

These statistics paint a dismal picture for women safety and security across the country, suggesting deeper issues such as ignorance and a lack of care about these issues by male officials.

The Nirbhaya Fund, which was supposed to protect women, has not been able to play as crucial a role as required to safeguard women’s rights.

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