On a day when the Ministry of Women and Child Development presented a proposal to the Cabinet to strengthen the National Commission of Women Act, 1990 by vesting more powers to it, women rights activists expressed their reservations even though they welcomed some of the proposed changes.
The proposed changes will make sure that the commission has the same powers as the NHRC, giving it the powers of a civil court to conduct judicial proceedings. Currently, the commission has powers of simply summoning, but with the changes, defaulters will have to pay up to Rs 5000 for not appearing. The selection of the chairperson will be taken care of a committee headed by the prime minister, and only a retired judge will be appointed.
Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research, who was part of the committee that drafted the Bill that brought up the Commission lamented that the NCW has become a “political parking place” for governments in power. “Every government comes and changes the members to make way for people in the party. The chairperson’s capacity is akin to that of a secretary. The NCW is a shadow of what we envisioned it to be. There was a struggle that went it to realise the committee,” said Kumari, adding that she is hopeful that some of the proposed changes might help in the better functioning of the commission. Jagmati Sangwan of the AIDWA agreed. “There was no implementation of the NCW Act in full spirit,” she said.
Kumari, along with women’s movement activists Margaret Alva and Vimal Thakur had been a part of the drafting committee of the NCW Bill which was passed by the Parliament in 1990. The first chairperson of the Commission, which came into being in 1992, was Jayanti Patnaik. Over the years, the commission has drawn a lot of flak for being a non-functionary body. While the last chairperson Mamata Sharma created a furore in 2012 for blaming the dressing choices of women for inciting violence, its member Alka Lamba slipped out the identity of the victim in the Guwahati molestation case.
Kumari was skeptical of the proposal to have a retired judge head the women’s body. “Judges have a limited understanding of social issues. Recent verdicts have shown us that judges can be gender insensitive. Only a women’s activist can understand these issues,” she said.
The outgoing chairperson, Mamata Sharma, who has spoken about less funds has time and again pointed at the uselessness of the Nirbhaya Fund. “They allocated Rs1000 crore in 2012, and not a single penny was used. The allocated it again in 2013. We are always cash-strapped, some of it could have been directed to us. The last government did not pay heed to our recommendations,” she said.
In 2013, the NCW had heard a total of 19393 cases, of which there were 1035 rape cases. In 2014, they have already heard 14219 cases. Of these, there were 673 rape cases.