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May 12, 2016

Where helplines are in need of help themselves

[This is an AHRC Statement.]
Hello. On 9 May 2016, Tanya Shrivastava, a 21-year-old journalism student, made a distress call to 1091, the toll free womens’ helpline. An intern with The Times of India, a prominent Indian newspaper, Tanya had just survived an attempted kidnapping right outside her newspaper office. As she dialled, her kidnapper was trying to get way.
What happened next? Did she get help? Was her attacker caught? Did one of the most prominent steps taken for enhancing safety of the women – following the infamous 16 December 2012 gang rape and murder of a Delhi student – deliver what she needed?
These are questions of hope. And, may they be blessed. But, they can only be asked if one chooses to remain ignorant of what happens to public institutions and structures in India over time. In short, the answer is no. Her call did not even connect.
Before disengaging, consider another recent case. A Delhi High Court judge caught in a massive traffic jam dialled the national 'dial 100' helpline service of the police. His call did connect. Hooray! But, it was not answered by anyone, despite his holding the line for over 5 minutes. Exasperated, he wrote to both the City Police Chief and the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court. The Chief Justice took suo moto cognizance of the distress call getting unanswered and converted his letter into a Public Interest Litigation. So now we have one more case – about an unanswered call – to add to 3 crore cases pending unresolved.
Now you can put this on hold, but remember that the third brainchild of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the aftermath of 16 December 2013 case has not even taken-off yet. On the basis of the recommendations of Justice Verma Committee, the MHA called for establishing a Nationwide Emergency Response System. The Justice Verma Committee envisaged that the public emergency response system would have the ability to dispatch an Emergency Response unit to respond to and close an Emergency call. Today, over a year since the plan was announced, the MHA has yet to find a service provider for the scheme. Last heard, the invited bids had been cancelled in January 2016.
One could argue these are crank calls, aberrations to the norm. But, these would ignore the overwhelming reality. More reports like this prove it. This is the typical response of the system for those in distress, seeking help from those duty-bound to provide it. Why these facts became news, is because prominent people were distressed, one a budding journalist and the other a High Court judge. They had access to the media that could vent their ire. Most Indian citizens are not so fortunate.
What if the man who was attempting to kidnap the journalist returned, the helpline phone call having failed? This is not a hypothetical scenario. It recurs in reality, and happened on that night on 16 December 2012 too, when the distress calls went unanswered, and the end result was something that horrified the nation and the world.
The fault is not with the helplines or those handling them. Follow the nest of wires to the source. It is the very character of the public institutions we have built and sustained where the problems rests and rots. The seed of these public institutions, from which the great big bureaucratic machine stems from, has descended from a colonial regime that perpetuated criminal disdain for citizenry. The Raj did not build institutions to deliver to people; it built what it needed to perpetuate itself. And, it did so in a way that no matter what the truth of these institutions, those that survived them could only live as court poets, by singing praises, even though the reality of these institutions was and is just the opposite.
The Helplines are but an extension of the public institutions that exist. The colonials have gone but the institutions remain the same, and have deteriorated further. They have no obligation to the people; there are no command responsibilities fixed to punish in case of wilful negligence and dereliction of duty; and there are no redress mechanisms in place.
In this sounds like a cross-connection, lets put this a little differently: why should an average citizen expect helplines to work if the police itself do not? Why should she expect a patrolling car rushing in to save her when she would almost certainly fear entering a police station alone? Getting deputed for handling the helplines cannot change the basic character of those in the police can it?
Having n number of helplines, unified or otherwise, are not going to change the situation. It is the abject failure of beat policing that enables the kidnappers to dare attempt to abduct a staffer of a leading newspaper from right outside her glossy office building, helplines or no helplines. It is the failure of the City policing that makes them certain of getting away. It is the abysmal failure of the police to get convictions even after decades long trials, which mitigates any fears budding kidnapping might have.
The Republic needs to restructure its Police, Prosecution and Judiciary in a way that raises the cost of crime. If it fails to do so, all the helplines that it sets up are doomed to fail. Citizens need to demand changes, not in laws or in helplines. They need to re-engineer their institutions. Over and Out.

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