Four years after the rape and murder of a young New Delhi resident supposedly transformed our national consciousness, stories of India’s grim war against its women continue to be reported with metronomic regularity: The assault on the streets of Bengaluru on the New Year’s Eve is only the most recent. It should now be clear that outrage, high-sounding speeches, or even the most perfect laws will not make Indian women safer in the absence of thoroughgoing public policy reforms. The government’s data speaks for itself. In 2013, 309,546 cases of crimes against women were reported to police, rising to 337,922 in 2014, then falling to 327,394, suggesting that after an initial surge of hope, women were losing faith in the legal system. The reasons for this aren’t hard to find. In 2013, 114,785 rape cases were pending for trial. Of the 18,833 prosecutions that concluded, just 27 per cent ended in a conviction. In 2015, despite new fast-track courts and new laws, 137,458 cases were pending for trial, and convictions had risen only negligibly, to 29 per cent. The bleak truth is that for a woman seeking justice for a gender-related crime, very little has changed.
The path forward is simple, provided the state and central governments have the will to take it. The first step has to be making public spaces — streets, bazaars, public transport — safer. There are many ways to do this, but the backbone has to be law enforcement: The greater deployment of police officers, backed by better training and lighting and surveillance tools. India needs to take a hard look at whether it actually has the capacity to even begin to do this. Just last week, police officers seeking to protect two Delhi women harassed by young men were attacked by a mob. The country now has 144 police officers per 100,000 population, down from 149 per 100,000 in 2013, and well below the UN norm, based on orderly societies, of 220 per 100,000. It also needs more gender-equity: Only 122,912 of India’s 1,731,666 state police officers are women.
India can’t, however, expect change, unless it’s willing to invest in it. Enhanced community policing, for example, needs radical improvements in training and human resource standards; constables hired and paid on scales for unskilled labour cannot be expected to deliver modern policing standards. Forensics and investigation skills are, outside a handful of states, conspicuous by their absence. Finally, deep institutional reforms are needed so police forces become accountable to the communities they are meant to protect, to the law they serve, not governments: Filing a complaint to its processing has to become easier and woman-friendly. Most importantly, any crime against women — and not just rape — has to fetch severe punishment.
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