The Stillborn Nirbhaya Fund

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Sound of fury Protests following the gangrape of the 23-year-old Nirbhaya
Sound of fury Protests following the gangrape of the 23-year-old Nirbhaya. Photo: Shailendra Pandey

It all began with a grimace on the face of Indira Jaising. As India’s first woman additional solicitor general, she was addressing her fellow panelists in Delhi across a long white table where an independent think tank had just released a gender scorecard. Jaising, reacting to a remark on how the government had taken a few steps forward by announcing the Rs 1,000-crore Nirbhaya Fund in this year’s budget, frowned. And then said solemnly: “That money is still sitting in the Ministry of Finance, unspent.” She went on, “I have now, as additional solicitor general, had my first brush with the government from the inside and it’s appalling how slowly our bureaucracy moves.”

Propelled by this clear demonstration of disgust from one of the country’s top legal authorities, we went looking for answers to the Ministry of Finance. A senior official, sitting with his head in his hands and not wanting to be named, informed us that the ministry had done its job. It announced the fund and then sent letters to all ministries, asking them to send proposals for how they’d like to spend it. “We wrote to the key ministries five times, and hardly any proposals have come,” he said.

So far, they have three very tiny proposals. One from the Ministry of Home Affairs, of not more than Rs 50 crore, focusses mainly on strengthening all-women police stations. “That’s something the ministry should in any case do from their own budget. The Nirbhaya Fund isn’t for routine repair work,” a senior official lamented.

Another proposal, similarly small, has come from the Planning Commission. This one focusses on repairing women’s hostels.

The third one is something the finance ministry initiated and handed over to the Ministry of Information Technology. It’s the only interesting idea so far: creating a red ‘panic’ button on all cellphones in India. The calls would feed into a common server that tracks the location through the SIM card.

The three proposals taken together, if cleared by the Cabinet, won’t account for more than Rs 150 crore of the Nirbhaya Fund. And then there is a large, blinding full stop. The Ministry for Women and Child Development says they thought the entire Rs 1,000 crore was coming to them and that they had formed a task force in May, chaired by “the minister herself” (Krishna Tirath), to plan how the money would be best used. “Then we were informed the money would stay with the finance ministry and we have to send in a proposal for a part of the fund,” said a ministry official who did not want to be named. The task force met only twice. And are still drafting their proposal. A glimpse of their third draft, if indicative of things to come, is guaranteed to put more than a grimace on discerning faces. The roughly Rs 250-crore proposal focusses primarily on prevention, by changing mindsets. The list of how this will be achieved is long and vague. It features awareness programmes, sensitisation programmes and “social branding”, which was explained to this reporter as celebrity-endorsed events. There will also be legal training to panchayats, women and “local response units such as Anganwadis, hospitals and police stations”. It will map vulnerable populations and action research that finds creative solutions to conflicts. The roadmap for how all of this will come together, what each of these elements means and what concrete shape it’ll take is not in the proposal.

A good chunk of the Rs 250 crore is sliced into thin slivers of Rs 1.5 lakh per district per year, allocated for half the districts of India for three years. How will districts use this to change perceptions and mindsets? “That’s for each state to come up with their individual plans, which they have to draft and send back to us. We’re keeping it flexible,” said an official, adding, “We admit lots more work is still needed on the proposal.” He also blamed the Ministry of Finance for everything. “We aren’t clear whether the Rs 1,000 crore is to be spent over one year or many, what chunk of it we can apply for, etc.” Why didn’t they simply call the Ministry of Finance to ask? There were no answers.

We’re told that the formality of placing the Nirbhaya Fund as a budget supplementary will happen during the monsoon session, allowing for the funds to be released. Released into what is a question that is still, terrifyingly, blowing in the wind.

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Revati Laul has been a television journalist and documentary film maker for most of her 16 year career. Ten of those were spent in NDTV where her reports included everything from the aftermath of the Gujarat riots to following truck drivers into ULFA infested Assam. Then about a year and a half ago, she decided to tell her stories in indelible ink instead. Most people said she made an upside down decision but she firmly believes she’s found food for the soul. She was hired by Tehelka to write on politics. For her this does not mean tracking the big fish but looking closely at how the tiny fish are getting swallowed and by whom. On most days though, she can be found conversing on her other two favourite subjects – fornication and food. Fiction is another friend of hers. A short story she wrote called `Drool’ was published in an anthology of young fiction by Zubaan. She is also founder member of the NGO ‘Tara’ that looks after underpriviledged children.

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