How serious is Modi about the well being of women?

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As the election fever hots up, the BJP – seen as the front-runner across most opinion polls – is dishing out a campaign which is a heady cocktail of Hindutva and promises of development. Having comprehensively failed in 2009 when it tried to make the Advani-Manmohan Singh fight a personality, rather than an ideology contest, the BJP this time seems to have wisened up.

Though, like Advani, Modi’s campaign too projects him as a larger-than-life figure, with the most recent slogan ‘Har Har Modi’ giving him the place of ‘Mahadev’, his PR machinery is usually quick to balance such outward expressions of Hindutva with something more palatable for the urban masses – such as economic growth. Most recently, the focus has now shifted to women’s safety, which in post-Nirbhaya India is yet another urban buzzword.

While supporters hail Modi for the development Gujarat has witnessed under his stewardship, critics often say that his ‘development messiah’ image is an organized effort to wash off the stains of 2002. The BJP usually cites the clean-chit given to Modi by the SIT to rubbish such claims, but his image isn’t spotlessly clean across all parameters. In the context of women’s safety, nothing can be a bigger indictment of the ‘Modi Model of Governance’ than the conviction of former Gujarat cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development – Maya Kodnani – in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre.

One would imagine that the fact that Modi not only defended, but also assigned the WCD portfolio to a woman who later went on to be convicted of orchestrating the massacre of several innocent women and children, and the embarrassment that he faced in the Snoopgate scandal would make Modi a pariah when it comes to women’s safety – but apparently PR, and collective amnesia around election season work wonders!

Not only is Modi not seen as a man who does not take the safety of women and children seriously, we are now seeing the emergence of a Ramboesque image of NaMo in this regard as well! But how serious is Modi about Women’s safety indeed?

Let’s give Modi the benefit of doubt and look beyond the Kodnani verdict though. Let’s examine what he has done for the safety of women in Gujarat post 2009. Here, two prominent initiatives standout – both of them being helplines – the first being ‘1091 Police HEART Helpline for Women and Children’ launched in 2013 and other being ‘Abhayam Women’s Helpline – 181’ which was launched just last month. The focus of this post is the latter but before that let’s examine the initiatives pertaining to the well-being of women that were present before Abhayam.

Gujarat, prior to the launch of Abhayam had already launched a widely acclaimed 108 Medical Emergency Helpline in 2010, which is run by GVK EMRI (which as the press release for Abhayam claims is also present in 16 other states in India). While 108 wasn’t a women centric service, there were positive reports that suggested that the services were being utilized majorly by tribal women. Soon enough, Modi launched an additional service named Khilkhilahat which utilized the phased out 108 vans in conjunction once again with GVK-EMRI in 2012. And finally the HEART Helpline was launched early 2013. Between 108, 1091 HEART Helpline and Khilkhilahat, one can say Gujarat has a sufficient number of women-centric services. Which brings to the question – why another helpline?

One might argue thar Abhayam is merely Gujarat’s installment of the 181 helpline mandated by the centre post-Nirbhaya. But that is where the question of whom it plans to benefit emerges. While the 108 helpline follows a PPP model across the country, 181 is essentially meant to be run by the State Government, as was the case in Delhi. The Government of Gujarat, on the other hand, adopted the PPP model in this case as well, by roping in GVK-EMRI once again. While GVK has successfully run medical emergency helpline services across the country,  the question to be asked is what expertise did GVK bring to the table with regard to women’s safety? None at all. In fact, if insider information is to be believed, the development of the helpline protocols, and the training for the employees was outsourced to external NGOs and institutions like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences by GVK. This makes GVKs involvement in the whole project questionable.

While it is true that the centre had directed each state to introduce a helpline service for women, Gujarat could have done without one, given the numerous helpline services that already existed. In fact, even a cursory glance at the press releases of 1091 Police HEART Helpline and ‘Abhayam Women’s Helpline – 181 reveals an extensive amount of duplication of services.

For example, both HEART and Abhayam promise ‘rescue in emergency situations’. While the press release for Abhayam states that it will be synchronized with the existing helpline services, it appears that both helplines have independent rescue services. While HEART is essentially a Police helpline, Abhayam’s idea of ‘rescue-officers’ is rather vague. Further, the HEART helpline clearly mentions that the location of the caller is tracked automatically, regardless of the phone being used. Abhayam’s stance on the same is not clear. However, if a service which purports itself to be a counselling helpline does track the location of its callers, while at the same time promising “that information given at the time of call will be kept undisclosed” we are heading back towards Snoopgate territory.

But that’s not the only way Abhayam makes Modi’s committment towards these issues suspect. While the helpline went live only in February 2014, recruitment for the same happened as early as October 2013 (see image). Insider information reveals that the recruitment and in fact the entire training process for approximately 50-60 staff members was completed within the month of October itself. In other words, the helpline could very well have been launched as early as November 2013. However this could not be done as Narendra Modi was on the campaign trail. In other words, an additional project which essentially duplicates a service already in place was delayed by 4 months as Modi was unavailable to inaugurate the service. What’s more is that Modi himself did not inaugurate the service in the end!

While the BJP criticized the Aam Aadmi Party for the shutting down of the 181 Helpline in Delhi, despite Kejriwal’s claims that he had sanctioned payment for the helpline staff till 31st March 2014 – one wonders how the BJP justifies keeping 60 idle staff members on payrolls for 4 months.

If one were to calculate the cost to the taxpayer for the salaries paid to these staff members for the 4 months they were idle, it works out upwards of Rs. 30 lakhs (the salaries for approx 60 helpline counsellors are believed to be around Rs.15000/-). While 30 lakhs is small change around election season, it is still a waste nonetheless.  On the other hand, if the employees were not paid until the helpline began, that would be grossly unjust as the delay was not a fault on their part. At the same time, while GVK-EMRI claims to be not-for-profit initiative, there is no clear information with regard to the amount paid to GVK for these initiatives.

Abhayam also has a bizarre age cut-off for access of its services (14 years and above), and initially will launch only in Ahmedabad city, Surat City and Gandhinagar District. The helpline however is being touted as a 24*7 state level free helpline.

While the intention is certainly noble, the fact that (yet) another PPP has been handed over to GVK-EMRI which has no demonstrable experience in women’s safety, the launch of HEART helpline merely a year ago and the utterly limited scope of Abhayam – makes one wonder whether Modi is serious about Gujarat, or about the well-being of women at large, or whether the helpline is yet another pre-poll publicity stunt!

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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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