From controversies surrounding her appointment to having FIRs registered against her, the RTI and women’s rights activist and Chief of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) Swati Maliwal has withstood all kinds of opposition that has come her way.
In a candid chat with Youth Ki Awaaz, Maliwal told us why she is perhaps the “angriest person” in the system, her experiences of working inside the government, and why she thinks Delhi is indeed “the rape and stalking capital” of India:
Shikha Sharma (SS): You quit a cushy, corporate job to become a social activist. Can you tell us a bit about this journey and why you made the transition?
Swati Maliwal (SM): During the last year of my engineering, I had become active in social work. I got placed in HCL after my graduation. There is this joining period of 2-3 months where you get leave. One day, I was crossing a school for underprivileged children and saw this really elderly gentleman teaching them. I met him, started sitting in his classes and teaching these children.
There were about 20 children in his class, and it increased to 80 in a month or two. That really inspired me. My interaction with these children also made me feel that there is much more that I need to learn about my country. Somewhere I also felt that if I take up that job, it would just be about more power, more money, more fashionable lifestyle, but I may not ever learn the truth. So, I decided that for one year I will work at the grassroots, and then take up some other corporate job. But then, one year converted into 10 years and here I am.
SS: You have been a social activist all your life. What has been your experience of working inside a government set-up like DCW? What are the good and the bad parts? What has the Commission done to work on women’s safety?
SM: When I came in (to DCW), I realised none of the computers were working, there were just 20 people working here. Cases were pending from anywhere between 6 months to 3 years, and there was no system to deal with them in an organised manner. The programmes were running without any monitoring. All this was very shocking. This was running like a typical sarkari daftar (government office), and I really wanted to change that.
So we did a few things. We first got more staff. We ensured each and every programme gets properly designed and monitored. For instance, under our leadership in the past 6 months, the 181 helpline has received over 3.16 lakh calls. The Commission handled 12,000 cases in 2017 while earlier 2,500 cases were handled. The previous chairperson in the last 8 years had handled only one case. That’s the difference that we have brought about. We take action on a case within 72 hours. We have increased empathy, increased resources and are making the Commission work as a non-sarkari place. We also happen to be the only Commission that works Saturdays.
SS: Women in this city, in this country don’t feel safe, and they are very angry that their government doesn’t care. The system doesn’t care. As head of DCW, don’t you feel angry about this sad state of affairs?
SM: I think I am the angriest person right now. I feel real anger. I also feel so sad and troubled because, at the end of the day, I know we can change the system. It is very unfortunate that we are not being able to do it. Look at the conviction rates. 31,446 crimes against women between 2012-14 in Delhi. 146 convictions. Please tell me how are we sending a message across to rapists and to people who abuse women that we take crimes against women seriously? We have people like Abu Azmi and G. Parmeshwar who are going berserk on national television, and bringing national and international shame to the country, and yet no action is taken. There is a lot of talk about women empowerment, a lot of talk – we Indians we are very happy in talking, we will have a lot of conferences and seminars, but where is the action? There is no action and it is very painful that for the past 4 years since Nirbhaya has died, nothing has changed for Delhi. Absolutely nothing.
SS: The law requires that we don’t name the victim/survivor in rape cases. Many, however, argue that there should be no stigma in naming the woman, since she has nothing to be ashamed out. Jyoti Singh’s father has also repeatedly said that he is not ashamed in naming his daughter. What is your view on this?
SM: I think the law is perfectly designed in that aspect. If God forbid, something like this happens to me, I will be able to come out in the open and talk about it because I have that kind of a strength. But that would also require a lot of struggle and fight because there is a stigma attached to this particular act of violence, however much we want to wish it away. Which is completely bizarre because, at the end of the day, the man who has raped should be the one who should be ashamed.
Unfortunately, for our system, it is not like that. So there are women who would feel very very scared of getting their name revealed and would not be able to come out in the open. The law is to protect such women. The law very categorically allows naming in certain instances too. If there’s a case and the girl gives her consent in revealing the name, it is fine. That is why I think that the law in its present state is OK because however much we try to destigmatise rape, absence of provision will really prevent women from coming out and reporting the crime.
SS: It is thought by some that commissions like the Delhi Commission for Women and National Commission for Women don’t have much teeth or powers to affect real change. What would you say to those who say this?
SM: I feel we have a lot of teeth. The only problem is we don’t exercise it and then we blame the acts. If you look at DCW, in a short span of one and a half years, we have made ourselves so powerful that the entire establishment is right now attacking the Commission to silence it. We have a lot of power, we can summon, we can issue arrest warrants, we even summoned the police commissioner when he failed to give us data on crimes against women for 6 months. The entire data came soon after, and he even allowed us to research in 3 police stations. So when you want to exercise your power, you get your power, you are able to draw it. It is also why we are under so much attack. Because we are powerful. However, what is required is protection. We are right now faced with rapists, molesters, we are faced with vested interests who are very high up in the entire system and we are all alone fighting it out, and there is absolutely no protection. I think we need protection, powers we have quite a bit.
SS: In your tenure as the head of DCW, you have really gone after brothels in GB road. Has anything come of it? What is the Commission doing there?
SM: Even in GB road, we were under a lot of attack. Why? Because it is a multi-million dollar industry running three kilometres from the parliament. There are 5000 women. Each woman is being forced to sleep with 30 odd men, and women are being sold like food tokens. And there are these tehkhanas (dungeons) where there are stocking up 15 women. It’s a horrible and horrifying situation happening three kilometres from Parliament, but no action has been taken.
The Commission has started work on 2-3 aspects. One, we are trying to identify who own these brothels, because it is very interesting that the entire system is telling us that we don’t know who the owners are, That cannot be true. And the ITPA categorically states that if a minor is recovered, the owner of the brothel has to be behind bars. Never has that happened in the history of GB road. I am of the opinion that such a huge racket cannot run without the complicity of the system and authorities.
The other thing we are trying to do is to demolish these tehkhanas, because it is inhumane. We issued notices to MCD asking them why these illegal structures haven’t been demolished and instantly they said we are setting up a survey team. The third and most important thing is that we want these women to be rehabilitated, because until you work towards rehabilitation- when this whole thing finishes, where will these women go? So we have issued notices to the Women and Child Development Secretary of Delhi Government to find out if a rehabilitation policy has been developed because we have been raising this issue for the past one year. And we want to know what exactly has happened.
SS: You have also taken on the racket of placement agencies running in Delhi. What has been happening there?
SM: Placement agencies are running a huge nexus in Delhi. They need to be immediately regulated for which we had issued a notice to the labour department asking them how many placement agencies are there, and how many are licensed. They told there are 100 odd placement agencies, and only one is licensed. We had issued a notice to them, and they had assured us that all will be licensed. Now enough time has passed, so we will be sending out another notice. We have also asked them on the status of the bill that is meant to regulate placement agencies. We will be working on these two aspects. It is extremely important that these placement agencies be regulated, not just for the workers, but also for the employers.
SS: Do you really think Delhi is the country’s rape capital? Or is just an exaggerated claim like some people say?
SM: We are now the stalking capital also. The fact is that there is no doubt we are the rape capital of the country because almost six rapes are committed every day. It means one rape every four hours. An 11-month-old girl was raped in Delhi recently, there was a four-year-old girl who was raped and murdered, the very next day a three-and-a-half-year-old girl was raped and murdered. The number of cases are just staggering. Like when you had asked me are you angry, I am really very angry because the Commission is visiting each and every place, and all these little girls who are being raped, I am going and visiting them in hospitals. And their pain is becoming our pain, and entire Delhi is reverberating with this pain.
SS: What is the problem? And why are the governments not able to work out a practical solution to this problem?
SM: In Delhi, there is a very strange problem of conflict of interest with lots of stakeholders. We have requested the Centre to set up a high-level committee with Rajnath Singhji, Arvind Kejriwal, the police commissioner, LG and DCW, and we have requested them to meet two times in a month, because the fact is that there is no decision making happening at the top. Being a special state, the blame just gets passed on and no work is being done. I just feel very sad that not a single women’s safety meeting has happened in the capital in the last one year.
This problem does have solutions. We need to increase convictions. but how will they increase? One, you need to have proper investigation. There are two aspects to that – increasing police resources and accountability. Presently, the police commissioner doesn’t even have a software to assess how many chargesheets are pending in each police station. When we asked for data, he told us that 50% cases of crimes against women in 2014 had not been investigated until Feb 2016. Jab investigation nai karoge, toh kya saza hogi? (If you won’t conduct the investigation, how will you punish the culprit?)
The second thing is forensic labs. We issued a notice to the forensics lab and were informed that 7500 samples are pending, out of which 1500 samples have putrefied. These could be gangrape victims, these could be any kind of victim, just because their name doesn’t appear in the media doesn’t mean they have no life. We need to work on this. And the third is the number of Courts. These things can be changed. I am sure convictions can be increased if we all set up a system. And Delhi being the national capital, we need to bring out a model. However, what is happening? Nothing.