Afortnight after the bodies of three daughters of an impoverished Dalit widow were found in a well in a village in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district, the investigation languishes. The victims, aged 11, 8 and 6, went to school and never came back. After villagers gave up a nightly search, the police took their time to even accept a complaint. Two days later, the bodies were spotted. According to the police, the girls were raped before being murdered. The only arrest so far has been of a teacher of the school, who was found not to have realised that the children had missed their noon-meal, although she had earlier in the day forbidden two of them from leaving during school hours. It would appear from accounts of the sequence of events that had the police acted on time, the girls could have been found. Fifteen police teams were assigned to the case after the inspector who failed to act quickly on the matter was suspended. The insensitivity and class bias among sections of the law enforcement agencies are once again in evidence here. The sense of insecurity that poor policing and entrenched lawlessness could together engender varies only in scale between rural areas and urban regions. With the trauma of the gang-rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi last December still raw, the Bhandara case once again highlights the distance this country has to travel.

Incredibly, Maharashtra’s Home Minister, who claimed a little too prematurely last week that the case was “80 per cent solved,” has since blamed the residents of the village for not cooperating with the police. Many VIPs have been visiting the victims’ family. But such visits seem to have only added to the agony of the family and the problems of the police force which, while facing the heat for slow investigation, needs to deploy personnel for the visits and to manage simmering popular protests in the area. Amid all this, the tragic loser is none other than the mother of the victims. Civil society has been showing a growing sense of outrage over such horrific incidents, but the structures of governance ought to respond to it on a matching scale. The enforcement of a benchmark of zero tolerance for violence against women, especially children, cannot wait any more. As the Parliamentary Standing Committee examining the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012 that seeks to enhance punishment for crimes against women places its report before the House, with the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee forming the backdrop, the case for the enactment of the most stringent provisions for such atrocities stands further buttressed. The certainty and the severity of punishment should act as true deterrents.