Mumbai

Manodhairya: a landmark scheme with flawed execution

Drafted to provide immediate relief to victims of sexual assault, its effectiveness is hampered by committees which reject and ignore petitions

Pooja Gaikwad* stood behind the door of the living room of her house. The 17-year-old had paused, smiling, as she went about her household chores, as she heard her little sister Aarti*, aged 11, chat with a neighbour. In a few seconds, she froze. It wasn’t idle chatter of school or the locality she was hearing. Aarti was telling their neighbour that she had been raped and tortured by her older brothers. Pooja knew she had to speak. She went into the room, and, weeping, let out her own secret: their brothers had been raping her too, for the past four years. Worse, their mother knew about it. Not just that, when Pooja asked her mother to make it stop, the woman had burnt her with red-hot iron rods. Aarti broke down too, and said that their mother had burnt her too, on her hand and cheek, only a week ago. The neighbour, overwhelmed by the girls’ anguished story, rushed to the nearby police station, and got the boys and their mother arrested.

This was in early 2015.

Soon after the arrests, the sisters were moved to a children’s shelter in Mumbai, where they still live. The State has done nothing to help them with their ordeal, or to rebuild their lives. The tragedy is that Maharashtra actually has a scheme designed for just this: the support of victims of sexual assault. And while the Gaikwad sisters’ plea for compensation was entered in the proper way, there hasn’t been even a reply, let alone the granting of what is due to them.

“For a victim of sexual assault, rape is not their greatest tragedy,” says Audrey D’mello, advocate and also Programme Director, Majlis Legal Centre, a women’s rights forum which has provided social and legal support to over a thousand victims of rape in Mumbai. “It is surviving that assault, one day at a time, every moment at a time. There’s need for a great deal of mental and physical rehabilitation. With these minor sisters, that hasn’t been the case. The girls’ father works as a butcher. Their family is poor. Had they been awarded the compensation, which they duly deserve as per the norms of the scheme, the girls could have availed of better schooling, better standard of living, and perhaps, a better future. But now, even two years after the complaint was registered, they haven’t received the compensation, and the committee, which awards the amount, hasn’t even told them why. They just haven’t responded.”

The compensation that Ms. D’mello refers to is part of a programme that the Maharashtra government introduced in 2013, the Manodhairya Yojana (literally, self-confidence scheme or plan). It is meant to help instill self-confidence in survivors of sexual assault. It provides monetary compensation of between ₹2 lakh and ₹3 lakh to girl children and adult women, as well as other forms of support, legal, medical, psychological and vocational.

The Gaikwad sisters are not the only sexual assault survivors who have been denied their rights despite the scheme.

Sujata Shinde*, a 14-year-old from suburban Mumbai, was raped by man who promised to marry her. (There can be no concept of consent from a minor: even if she had explicitly agreed to sex, it is still statutory rape.) She made an application before the Manodhairya Board, but wasn’t awarded compensation. She petitioned the Bombay High Court in early March this year.

The HC Bench came down heavily on the State government for its ‘ruthless’ and ‘insensitive; attitude. Ms. Shinde was granted a compensation of ₹1 lakh. When the HC asked the state government why she was not paid the maximum amount, ₹3 lakh, the lawyer appearing for the government, told the court that the case was of “consensual nature.” Irked, the Bench stated that a 14-year-old could not be expected to understand or take such mature decisions and realise the consequences. “We don’t like how the government is approaching the issue,” the judges said. “This is a very heartless attitude. It is the government’s obligation to help such victims. [The victims] are not beggars, and this is not charity. It is their right. We are surprised at the laxity on part of the officers, and pained at their attitude.”

A landmark scheme

The Manodhairya scheme came into being in the aftermath of the brutal gangrape of a photo-journalist in Mumbai’s Shakti Mills in August, 2013.

The Manodhairya resolution implemented by the WCD Department in October 2013 states that a relief and rehabilitation board would be set up in every district of Maharashtra to grant compensation to victims of sexual assaults and acid attacks. The requirements are simple: the victim must file a first information report (FIR, a document prepared by the police when they are informed about a cognisable offence). An application can be rejected only if the date of the offence is before October 2, 2013, or if the charges in the FIR are not covered by the scheme.

Ujjwal Uke, former principal secretary of the State’s WCD Department, who was instrumental in drafting the scheme, said, “If you read the government resolution, the committee has no discretion to decide on the merit of a case if the basic criteria are met. Their role is formal: they only have to ensure that the amount reaches the victim’s bank account.”

The Yojana’s SOP reads: “The Committee (while awarding compensations) should not ask for any other evidence such as medical reports, statements of witnesses, panchanamas [a document prepared by an investigating police officer], CA Report [Chemical Analysis report] etc. as these are part of the investigation. The Committee should not scrutinise the FIR to check for inconsistencies or contradictions. This is the function of the judge at the time of the trial.”

According to the resolution, each district committee is headed by the respective district collector and its members comprise the police superintendent, the district medical officer, a chief public prosecutor, a woman social activist who has worked for the empowerment of women and children, and the district women and child development officer. In short, the scheme ensures that the committees have important stakeholders and authorities who can ensure that victims get the requisite assistance immediately.

Arbitrary decisions

According to RTI data from the state’s Women and Child Development (WCD) Department, 276 cases were referred to the Manodhairya Board in Mumbai city between October 2013 and March 2017. Of these, only 155, or around 56%, survivors were granted compensation. The WCD Department, Mumbai city, in its RTI response, has not mentioned the reason for these rejections despite being asked about them categorically.

While matters aren’t perfect in other parts of the State, the statistics are markedly better there. In Jalgaon, Sangli, Osmanabad, Bhandara and Nagpur, the average is around 86%. (See box alongside.)

Women’s rights activists and NGO workers say that what the HC called the State’s ‘heartless attitude’ is only one of several reasons why the Manodhairya Yojana, on the surface a landmark rehabilitative effort, is now failing in execution.

The Hindu reached out to Pankaja Munde, Maharashtra’s Minister for Women and Child Welfare, for comment on the execution of the scheme. Ms. Munde and her office did not respond to repeated calls and text messages.

Ms. D’mello says, “Unlike the procedure mentioned in the scheme, the Committee calls for case papers, the investigating officer, pieces of evidence. They are scrutinising, judging, and rejecting compensations, even in cases where the two basic criteria are met. You can notice that in the case of the 14-year-old girl, who approached the Bombay High Court. The Committee has put on the judge’s robe there as well, declared that the girl doesn’t deserve the maximum amount because she had consensual sex. They don’t realise that they’re not on the Board to moral police or to judge. Judgement is the court’s job.”

Instead of providing immediate relief to victims, activists say, the Mumbai Board is arbitrarily denying compensation. “Victims should be awarded the amount as soon as these criteria are met,” says Pouruchisti Wadia, Associate Programme Director at Mumbai-based NGO Sneha. “But that’s not happening. Very often, the decision on these compensations is subjective. We are not in favour of the committee deciding whether or not a victim deserves compensation.”

According to sources privy to Manodhairya Committee discussions in Mumbai, compensation is usually rejected because the Board either concludes that the victim doesn’t deserve it (usually in cases of consensual sex) or that she doesn’t need the amount (usually in cases where victims come from a sound financial background).

A Mumbai-based women’s rights activist, who asked that her name not be used as she interacts with Manodhairya Committees, says, “They do not usually give reasons for rejections. They know that if they did, they would have to argue against the law. So, whenever they feel that a case doesn’t merit compensation — irrespective of the criteria — they simply don’t respond. We assume that a plea has been rejected if we do not hear from them for six months.” She cites the example of a four-year-old girl raped by a neighbour in the eastern suburbs, in August, 2015. Despite an application and several follow-ups, there has been no response from the Board. Even more frustrating, she says, “There is no room for reprieve. The victim cannot file an appeal before the Board. The only option is to approach the High Court.”

“The Manodhairya Yojana is unique,” Ms. D’mello says. “It provides immediate relief to victims: within 15 days of an FIR being registered. This is to ensure that victims get instant financial assistance along with other systems of support. But this is seldom practised. The cut-off date is hardly respected, and compensations are not usually awarded in the designated time period. We have to do several follow-ups so that the victims receive the amount.”

Asked why compensation was so often not granted and replies not given, Deependra Singh Kushwah, Collector for suburban Mumbai — who was summoned by the Bombay High Court over Ms. Shinde’s petition — only said, “We are not rejecting compensations arbitrarily unless there are too many issues.”

Manodhairya: a landmark scheme with flawed execution

Quantum of compensation

The Bombay HC, addressing the petition filed for Ms. Shinde, stated that the compensation given to sexual assault and acid attack victims is “insulting.” The petitioner’s advocate had informed the court that while Maharashtra offers ₹3 lakh as the maximum compensation amount, Goa has provisions for ₹10-lakh compensations. Responding to the advocate’s concern that Ms. Shinde was from a poor family, the court asked to State to look into revising the amount to ₹10 lakh. “There is no application of mind in deciding the scheme,” the Bench said. “The amount is inhuman and comes across to be a mere formality. Is ₹2 lakh, that too in a city like Mumbai, enough? The child will not even get proper education. The amount is shameful, and needs to be re-looked at.”

Not all agree with the HC. Ms. D’mello, for instance, feels that though other states award higher compensation, ₹3 lakh is practical, implementable, and can provide the requisite help to a victim.

More than the money

According to the Yojana, the Board, depending on the victim’s needs, should provide the victim and her legal heirs with shelter, counselling, psychological expert service, medical help, legal assistance, educational support and vocational training. The aim is “to secure for them restorative justice.” Victims are also eligible for support under any other State government scheme, for example, employment assistance or help with starting a trade or business.

But this doesn’t happen either. “Even the other forms of assistance — counselling, psychological expert service — are not in place,” Ms. Wadia says. “For minors who have been sexually assaulted, the Children’s Welfare Committee arranges for counselling. But for adults, there is no such provision, although these forms of support have been clearly prescribed.”

(This is not just in Mumbai. According to RTI data, in Sangli district, none of the 169 cases referred to the Board could avail of the supplementary assistance; in Osmanabad, only one of 52 survivors got immediate medical support, and in Bhandara, nine of 129 survivors got ancillary support.)

Manoj Patankar, district WCD officer for suburban Mumbai, argues that minor victims get every form of support they need under the supervision of the Child Welfare Committee. The poor statistics for adult victims, he said, is because “most of such survivors want to keep their identities protected because of the social stigma associated with sexual assault. It’s because of this that even if WCD officers try to establish contact with the victims, they often choose not to reciprocate.”

Fatal flaws

Before this scheme, activists say, there was no government support for victims of sexual assault. It was the result of social activists raising the alarm, and a lot of thought and research was invested in drafting it.

Another women’s rights activist, who also asked not be named because she interacts with Manodhairya committees, condemned what she called the “unjustified insensitivity” of these committees. “The scheme is meant to restore the dignity of these women and children, help them overcome the physical and mental trauma they’re haunted with after the incident. We cannot afford losing this idea to judgemental committee members or their lackadaisical approach.”

Ms. Uke, one of its architects, concurs: “The committees should perform their function effectively because this is the only scheme which goes beyond monetary relief. It provides manodhairya to such survivors, the will to go on. And it does that by providing immediate relief on basis of a complaint, not a trial or judgement. We do not want the survivor to wait for years before the court judgement arrives. We want her to get the relief when she needs it the most: immediately after the offence.”

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 10:53:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/manodhairya-a-landmark-scheme-with-flawed-execution/article18962091.ece

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