Mumbai: In the wake of the two recent crimes against women in Hyderabad and Unnao, which have caused outrage across the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has sanctioned Rs 100 crore from the Nirbhaya Fund for setting up and strengthening women help-desks in police stations. But the government's own data show that 91% of the 1,672-crore fund lies unused, even as projects have been sanctioned and money allocated to state governments.

Of Rs 1,672 crore sanctioned under the ministry of home affairs, only 9%, or Rs 147 crore, was utilised, according to a reply by the Ministry of Women and Child Development's (MWCD) in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament) on November 29, 2019.

The fund receives money from various sources, including the home ministry, the women's welfare ministry and the justice department. While funds allocated under the Department of Justice went completely unused, 20% of funds from MWCD were used.

The central government set up the Nirbhaya Fund in 2013, for enhancing the safety and security of women in the country, following the gang rape of a 23-year old paramedical student in Delhi on December 16, 2012.

"Underutilisation of the fund shows the apathy of the government," Abha Singh, an advocate and activist, told If the fund were used properly it would have ensured implementation of laws in the right manner and a lot of women would have received justice today. The money could have been used to keep the victims mentally sound, assuring them of their security and punishing the accused, she said.

Our fact-check reveals that the government has curtailed funding for existing women's safety schemes and channeled money into the Nirbhaya fund. Yet, the fund is underused, with the result that services such as telephone helplines and One Stop Centres to help violence victims are not operational everywhere, and trials continue to take long and lead to few convictions.

On December 5, 2019, a 20-year old rape survivor was set ablaze on her way to the court by five men accused of raping her, who were out on bail. This was just a week after a 27-year-old veterinary doctor was raped, murdered and set ablaze by four men in Hyderabad on November 27, 2019.

Incidents of crimes reported against women across the country are on the rise--cases reported per 100,000 women increased from 55.2 in 2016 to 57.9 in 2017--according to the latest available national crime data for the year 2017.

The objective of women help-desks is to make police stations "more women-friendly and approachable", the government press release said.

Nirbhaya fund remains underutilised

The MWCD recommends how the fund should be spent. The non-lapsable fund originally had a Rs 1,000-crore corpus in 2013-14, with additional infusions of Rs 1,000 crore in 2014-15, Rs 550 crore in 2016-17, Rs 550 crore in 2017-18 and Rs 500 crore in 2018-19--amounting to Rs 3,600 crore ($537 million) in total, according to the ministry's 2018-19 annual report.

Delhi received the highest allocation from this fund for projects under the ministry of home affairs, Rs 391 crore, followed by Karnataka (Rs 192 crore) and Tamil Nadu (Rs 191 crore). Telangana, where the veterinary doctor was raped on November 27, 2019, got the sixth biggest share (Rs 104 crore) but utilised just 4% of the sanctioned amount.

Maharashtra, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Daman & Diu, did not use any of the funds.

Reduced funds for women's safety

The Nirbhaya fund is supposed to be a supplementary fund for programmes to increase the safety of women.

But funds otherwise allocated for programmes for the safety of women for all states and UTs were 'drastically' cut down from Rs 313.30 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 81.75 crore in 2018-19, according to a report by the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs tabled in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Parliament) on February 7, 2019.

"The Committee wishes to remind the Ministry that the Nirbhaya Fund was intended to implement schemes which are technology-driven and which will significantly enhance the security of women," the committee said, recommending that funds under the Nirbhaya fund should not be spent for purposes, such as construction of buildings, that can be covered by normal funds. "Such allocations virtually defeat the purpose of the Nirbhaya Fund."

Delayed convictions

Cases continue to drag on despite the enhanced public scrutiny of such trials.

The pendency rate--cases pending trial at the end of 2017 per total cases for trial--was 89.6% for 2017, show data from the National Crime Records Bureau.

A sum of Rs 79 crore was released to 11 states and union territories (UTs) under the Department of Justice, of which none was utilised, according to the ministry's response in Parliament.

The government now plans to set up 1,023 fast-track special courts under the Nirbhaya Fund with an amount of Rs 767 crore, to decide 166,958 pending rape cases and other offences, the MWCD annual report 2018-19 said.

The conviction rate--convictions per cases in which trials were completed--for rape remained below a third in 2017, though at 32.2%, it marked an improvement from 25.5% in 2016.

"Today, the conviction rate for rape cases is low," Abha Singh said. "Had the fund been utilised properly, it would have ensured 70-80% conviction rate, giving them legal assistance and advice. The need of the hour is ensuring accountability, 100% conviction and better enforcement of existing laws."

Incomplete implementation of schemes for women

From April 1, 2015, the MCWD implemented the One Stop Centre (OSC) scheme for assistance to women affected by violence, such as police, medical, legal, psychological support and temporary shelter. Of the Rs 311 crore released across states/UTs for this, 14%, or Rs 43 crore, was utilised. Of the 728 OSCs approved, one in every district, 506 are operational across 33 states/UTs, according to MWCD's annual report 2018-19.

Around the same time, the MWCD approved the Women Helpline, a single uniform number 181, with an aim to provide 24-hour emergency and non-emergency response to women affected by violence. About 53% (Rs 24 crore) of the allocated funds were utilised, according to a reply to the parliament on November 29, 2019. The helpline is operational in 32 states/UTs and has managed more than 2.5 million calls, the reply said.

The Mahila Police Volunteer scheme used just 22% of the funds (Rs 3.6 crore of Rs 16.2 crore) released to 12 states. The scheme was implemented to estabilish a link between the police and the community to facilitate women in distress by reporting incidents of domestic violence, child marriage, dowry harassment and violence faced by women in public spaces.

The government did not focus on measures such as rehabilitation centres, counselling and remedial help, Singh said.

"The allocation of the Nirbhaya fund was reduced as it was not utilised which indicates a lack of accountability on the part of the government and bureaucracy," said Singh. The Ministry of Women and Child Development and National Commission for Women did not act responsibly, she added.

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