Consider the December 12 tragedy. After the news hit the headlines, a visible gathering of outraged protests near Raisina Hill galvanised the police into action. The rapists were apprehended in record time. There are none of the usual doubts about the victim’s story that assail women reporting rape. Under the uncomfortable glare of the global media, the victim, her chances of survival minimal, was flown to a Singapore hospital for treatment — a privilege never extended before or after to other victims. She dies, and the court case is fast-tracked — again, a privilege that is extended to few rape victims.
A woman MP conspicuously breaks down in Parliament. A leading newspaper assigns the victim a nauseating nickname, which unfortunately, has become shorthand for the tragedy. Sonia Gandhi and her son entertain a visit from some protestors late at night. To what purpose? Nobody knows to date.
What happens next? One good thing: Rape legislation is strengthened, though minors inexplicably remain outside its purview. And one weird thing: The 2013 Union Budget announces a Rs 1000 crore “fund” to promote women’s safety. Its chief function is to propose and implement plans for women’s safety.
But here’s the obvious practical thing that the Delhi state administration could have done in the immediate aftermath and that is to ensure that public transport systems function efficiently. The tragedy occurred because auto-rickshaw drivers refused the victim and her friend a ride — an age-old problem that involves a perverse incentive system that governs this form of private transportation (much of it owned by local politicians and police officers). So the two were forced to fall back on the services of an illegal private bus service manned by six miscreants.
This essential problem of an efficient public transport market is still to be addressed. Only the Delhi Metro, under a separate administration, addressed the issue of women’s safety from the start of operations and deserves credit for following through efficiently on this founding operating procedure. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s solution is to make all bus travel free and appoint marshals on buses. The efficacy of the first idea is open to dispute but the second is certainly a practical one. As in all things Indian, however, it suffers from poor implementation. As one of the newly appointed marshals point out, they lack even rudimentary equipment (not even a lathi ) or training and can do little if groups of men decide to harass women passengers.
In 2014, India voted in a new prime minister with a stunning majority. On August 15 of that year, he spoke eloquently about India’s rape culture: “Those who commit rape are also someone’s sons. It’s the responsibility of the parents to stop them before they take the wrong path.” Yet the Delhi Police, which comes under the central government, is yet to undergo the kind of gender sensitisation programmes that will not only enhance women’s safety but also encourage them to report such crimes. In the UK, for instance, the starting point for a rape investigation by the police is to believe the victim’s story. In India: It’s still a case of inflicting maximum humiliation on the woman. And the PM has nothing to say when “someone’s sons” from his own party committed horrific rapes in Kathua and Unnao.
As the fierce controversies that followed those two rapes exemplified, the issues degenerate into political point-scoring beti bachao, beti padhao is the obvious way to go. But when an economic slowdown forces women’s participation in the workforce to new lows, such forces of social progress are likely to stagnate too.