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Chop the deadwood

The existence of the Commission gives the government a fig leaf that it has set up an authority. But what’s the use if it’s run by a bunch of vested interests? Lalita Panicker ponders.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2009 23:18 IST
Lalita Panicker

Like the foreign hand in earlier times, ‘political conspiracy’ has become the favoured phrase of those who get the unceremonious boot from positions of power and pelf. Will they ever admit that they were wrong? Not on your life as we see from the reaction of sacked National Commission for Women (NCW) member Nirmala Venkatesh who has been shown the door for her bizarre conduct in the Karnataka pub attack case. The redoubtable Venkatesh blamed everything from lack of security to the issue of pub licences to skirt around the fact that some sleazoid called Pramod Muthalik of the Sri Rama Sene was trying to get his 15 minutes of inglory by bashing up women in pubs. Instead of admitting to a serious error of judgement, she says that this was a political conspiracy to mar the image of Karnataka. Surely a task that dear old Muthalik was doing quite competently.

If Venkatesh fell on her face here, it is just another sign of how toothless and irrelevant the NCW has become today. After the sensational Scarlett Keeling case in which a teenaged tourist was raped and killed, Ms Venkatesh, yes her again, went on a fact-finding mission. And she came up with “Commission cannot say whether those involved are influential or not but there is something incorrect that is for sure.” That sure makes us feel a lot better.

When it was set up in 1992, the NCW was meant to aggressively protect and promote women’s interests. But with a politically-appointed chairperson and five other political appointees running it, it has done very little. Its recommendations are not binding and its pronouncements taken with a barrowful of salt by the powers that be.

Take, for instance, the case of women employees in BPOs being harassed. Like St. George to the dragon, the NCW rushed in. And chairperson Girija Vyas informed us that the NCW had written to the BPOs to frame guidelines on protecting women employees and implement them. Well, that should frighten them. Before Muthalik was a twinkle in our eye, in 2005, courting couples in Uttar Pradesh were pummelled by hooligans. The NCW did nothing at all. The issue of women from the North-east facing harassment, especially in Delhi, has come up before it many times but it has maintained a ladylike silence.

A former chairperson once famously told me that she had popped in incognito to rave parties in Goa and was shocked, nay appalled, to see women taking drugs and, horror of all horrors, dancing. Were they compelled to be there? No, she said, but she took up the matter at the highest quarter. A decided priority in a country where dowry deaths, female foeticide and all manners of abuse of women are rampant.

Former NCW member Syeda S. Hameed wrote movingly of her anguish over the completely ineffectual functioning of the body. She documents the heart-rending case of the sexual abuse of a minor girl by her father. Despite the best efforts of the NCW, the culprit got off scot-free, married again and lived happily ever after. The traumatised child received no justice. Similarly, she speaks of a maid who was sexually abused by her foreign service employer. The NCW’s efforts came to naught and the victim has not been heard of again. The principal of a tony Delhi private school was accused by several female employees of harassment. Despite the NCW’s intervention, he went on to retire a happy man.

Yet the existence of the NCW gives the government the fig leaf that it has set up a competent authority to deal with women’s issues. It is neither competent nor relevant. So why keep up this pretence? It is not a pretty sight and does nothing for women’s rights to see the kind of squabbling we are seeing in the Venkatesh case. The NCW today is nothing more than a haven of rest and recreation for a bunch of vested interests. Scrap it and replace it with something that will work, something that does not depend on political patronage. If it cannot be effective, if its writ does not run anywhere, why waste taxpayers’ money keeping it afloat? Women are muddling along with no help from the NCW anyway. Doing away with it would be welcome gift to women as International Women’s Day approaches.