The United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government set up the Nirbhaya Fund in 2013 after the Delhi rape case of December 2012. Nearly two years later, the Rs 2,000-crore corpus lies largely unused. Ranjana Kumari, director at Centre for Social Research, an NGO that works for the safety and empowerment of women and girls in India, speaks to Manavi Kapur about the fund's current status and how it can be effectively deployed
How has the Nirbhaya Fund been spent so far?
There is no clarity on this, and so far, the fund lies in oblivion. In our knowledge, the government was in consultation with NGOs and bodies like the National Commission for Women for centrally-sponsored schemes. We gave inputs on the kind of crisis centres we would like to set up to address the issues of women's safety. The UPA government sanctioned Rs 1,000 crore for the fund in 2013, and another Rs 1,000 crore was added to it in 2014. Perhaps the UPA government put in the money more to please voters at the time, but there was no real roadmap of how the funds would be spent. This money has remained with the ministry of finance. The women and child development ministry was supposed to set up crisis centres modelled on those in Bangladesh.
Many women voted for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party for their agenda on women's safety. But it has been disappointing to see no concrete action taken so far. The women and child development ministry has not held any consultations with NGOs. What is more troubling is that we are hearing that the fund may be scrapped altogether. The 100 districts that were identified as those in need of attention for women's safety and security have seen no progress. I heard about a pilot project, but there is no communication from the government with NGOs or members of the civil society.
How can the fund be better spent for safety for women in the country?
I think it is important to have support and protection centres for crises management. This has to begin in a phased manner, first in districts that have high levels of crimes against women. These can act as one-stop points, offering a convergence of legal, counselling, police and medical aid. A part of this money must also be spent on campaigning and making women aware about laws. Some laws like the ones pertaining to domestic violence and sexual harassment at the workplace are fairly new. Awareness of laws and procedures can be both preventive and curative, in which case, even men need to be made aware of the punishment that offenders face.
The other major area that needs attention is making public transport safe for women. All of this has to be done under a comprehensive scheme. The government should re-establish the national mission for empowerment of women that was scrapped. The women and child development ministry's deafening silence on this matter is disappointing.
The fund was born out of an urban tragedy that received a lot of media attention. Will it be successful in addressing the issues that women from marginalised tribes and communities face?
A careful plan needs to be devised to monitor the implementation of law. Once this is done, it will create a mechanism for safety of women. But not making use of such a fund, including the emotions that were running high after this tragedy, will leave all of us who struggled on the streets for Nirbhaya dejected.
How is it different from other government initiatives and the Rs 150 crore that was allocated in this year's Union Budget to spend on women's safety?
Everything was a first about this fund, especially the fact that such a large sum was set aside for women's safety. It was heartening to see the government's commitment. Laws need to be backed with resources for proper implementation. Besides, this was a good result that came out of the Justice Verma Commission Report.
Do NGOs and organisations have access to this fund? What are the challenges you face while launching projects for women's safety and empowerment?
There is a huge struggle for NGOs to get access to government resources because of bureaucratic hurdles. Even for the Nirbhaya Fund, the process to apply for financing is in place, but this has not benefitted the functioning of NGOS in any real way. NGOs play a significant role in the society as a bridge between government and the people, but the same value is not attached their activities. And with every new government, the priority given to NGOs changes. It is a pity to see that even the women's helpline number on 181 is suffering due to lack of funds.