November 07, 2013

Fragile safety of women in Odisha

Series of fatal crimes against women in last few years and the latest one in particular make clean examples of how efficiently and promptly the whole system works to ensure enhanced security to women in Odisha.
Death of woman teacher Itishree Pradhan, who was set ablaze in a school hostel in Odisha’s Rayagada district, has once again brought the issue of safety and rights of women to the fore again. Growing numbers of such crimes against women have raised serious doubt over the actions of Odisha government to ensure safety to the women in the state.
Worked as a contractual teacher at Tikiri Upper Primary School in Rayagada district, Itishree was set afire on October 27 and she finally succumbed to the born injuries after struggling for life for five days in a private hospital in Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
The mishap took place in less than a month of CM’s address at the Odisha Police Duty Meet, on October 5, 2013, where he said that his government had initiated several steps to ensure enhanced security to women in the state. In the same event, Naveen Patnaik also said, “Investigation of crime is one of the most important responsibilities of police. Such investigation has to be conducted efficiently and effectively. Police has to be impartial, firm and prompt in handling crime and criminals.”
Series of fatal crimes against women in last few years and the latest one in particular make clean examples of how efficiently and promptly the whole system works to ensure enhanced security to women in Odisha. 

She dared and died for it

As harassment by School Inspector Netrananda Dandasena gradually became unbearable, Itishree dared to register complain against him. She lodged her complain with local police on July 18, 2013; informed the district Collector and Superintendent of Police (SP) about her complaint. She also wrote to higher authorities including the Police DG, Women’s Commission and, even, the Chief Minister’s Office about the nonchalant attitude of local police and administration in her case. She informed everyone about the threat to her life from Netrananda Dandasena against whom she lodged the complaint. But all to no avail. Nobody heeded to her complaint and repeated letters till the 27 years old teacher was set afire in the school hostel she lived in.
With 90% of the body burnt, Itishree was shifted to a corporate hospital where she took her last breath on November 1, 2013.
Actions were started only after the victim teacher was torched. An Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) of Tikiri police station and the accused school inspector were suspended. The DI of schools was also suspended by the Raygada district collector for not taking action against the accused School Inspector Dandasena. On November 05, 2013, four government officials including the above three officials and the In-charge Officer of Tikiri Police Station were dismissed from their services.
After death of the victim, Odisha government also ordered an investigation by the crime branch into the case of sexual assault and murder of the contractual woman teacher.
But what still remains unanswered is – why after death? Why it didn’t happen when victim was very much alive and was desperately knocking all possible doors seeking action to ensure her safety? 

Everybody knew, nobody responded

She lodged an FIR at local police station, approached the district administration, wrote to the women commission, Police DG and the CM’s Office with the hope that somebody at some point would take her case sympathetically and initiate action.
Coming across the allegations made by Itishree, the Collector of Raygada district, S B Padhi, instituted a two member inquiry committee to inquire into the case and give a report. The committee headed by District Social Welfare Officer Sanghamitra Kanungo submitted its report in the end of August where the school inspector was held guilty. The committee suggested immediate disciplinary action against him. Keeping the safety of the victim teacher in view, transfer of Itishree to another school outside Kashipur block was also suggested in the report.
But no action was initiated on basis of the report submitted by the committee. What and who stopped the district authorities from taking action immediately is yet to be answered.
The complaint was not given any importance even at higher levels. The question comes here is, why did the authorities remain silent about the complaint lodged by the school teacher? Why action was not taken immediately against the school inspector? How the women’s commission too opted to remain silent on this? Who was protecting the School Inspector? How the CMO too missed it? Or, under pressure from someone, did the CMO intentionally kept the CM in dark on this particular case? But authorities are mum to give an answer to all these obvious questions.
When the Collector, SP, DGP and officials in charge of the women’s commission and the CMO are more in doubt for opting to inaction in the case, suspension of officials of local police station and mass education department seems to be an eyewash attempt to keep the senior police and administrative officials safe. 

Political connection

While stepping up campaign against Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his government over the death of lady teacher Itishree Pradhan, opposition parties in the state held BJD MP from Koraput Jayram Pangi responsible for police inaction and administrative callousness.
In a statement, claimed to be given before death, Itishree also blamed the Chief Minister, administration and local political leaders for what happened to her.  In her statement, as aired by a local TV Channel in Bhubaneswar on Tuesday evening, October 5, 2013, Itishree said that Netrananda Dandasena was a favourite of Koraput MP (Member of Parliament) Jayram Pangi.
However, political links behind such crimes against women is not new to the state of Odisha. Political involvement in crimes against women became issue since 1980 when Chhabirani Mohapatra, a woman journalist, was raped and murdered.
Fingers were also raised against senior BJD leaders in cases like a speaker of Odisha State Assembly assaulting a lady martial; rape and murder of Babina, a girl from Pipili; and the murder of an Ayush doctor Madhabilata in Puri. While former speaker Maheswar Mohanty had to lose his post for alleged involvement in the case of assaulting a lady martial, senior leader and then the agriculture minister Pradip Maharathi had to be sacrificed in Babina rape and murder case of Pipili in order to keep the face of BJD and the government led by it clean.
As the Urban Local Body polls are to be held in western Odisha this month and as the party is preparing to face the general polls early next year, such a face saving action from top BJD leadership cannot be overruled completely. However, who becomes the sacrificial goat this time is to be seen. 

Challenge before the Government

Soon after the death of the victim teacher, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik declared an ex-gratia of 10 lakh rupees as he did in a few previous cases like the Pipili rape and murder case and the Mahakalpada murder case where rejection of love appeal resulted in torching and subsequent death of a minor girl.
“Announcement of compensation has become a trend for this government leading one to believe that the Chief Minister is trying to safeguard the alleged BJD leaders by bribing the surviving members of the victims’ family,” said Janamorcha Chief and former BJD leader Pyari Mohan Mohapatra.
“Compensation is no wrong in this case because victim was the only earning member of the family. But it’s not all that the government should do. We need some strong laws to deal with such cases,” said N A Shah Ansari, an activist and founder of community radio station - Radio Namaskar.
According to NCRB, rate of crime against women in Odisha, in 2012, remained 58.79 per one lakh population of women in the state against a national average of 41.74. The state registered 31% increase, in compare to 2011 figures, in the number of cases of rape, the highest among the larger states of India.
So the challenges are enormous. Instead of keeping the safety of women limited to slogans and programme names, the state government needs to act strongly and promptly to stop crime and ensure enhanced security to women in the state.

This piece first appeared on November 7, 2013, at the HotnHitNews.

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