Nitin Jugran Bahuguna
Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan
There is an air of expectancy among the 200 odd women sitting huddled in the main town hall of the dusty town of Sawai Mahopur, situated about 200 km away from the state capital Jaipur.
The low murmur of voices is abruptly stilled as the meeting is called to order and commences its deliberations. A name is called out and a woman struggles to her feet, shuffling slowly towards the podium, her poise and confidence strengthening with each step she takes. By the time the woman, Sukhi Devi, reaches the stage and takes the mike offered to her, she has her speech prepared and beseeches the gathering to give her justice. Her husband has married again and brought the other woman into their home. He is also threatening to throw her out of her home.
“Where will I go? What will happen to me and my children if we are thrown on the streets? I have no money”, cries Sukhi Devi passionately. The group on the podium, consisting of the Chairperson of the Rajasthan State Women’s Commission (RSWC), the District Collector of Sawai Madhopur district and the Superintendent of Police besides other senior officers of the social sector department, hold a rapid consultation and give their verdict.
Sukhi Devi’s case is to be immediately referred to the Additional Superintendent of Police for follow-up action and her husband will be hauled up. She is assured that she will not be rendered homeless.
Another woman steps up to complain that her husband has stopped going to work and spends all his time drinking and gambling. “When I ask him for money to meet the household expenses, he only abuses me. Please help me”, she pleads. The Chairperson of the RSWC, Mrs Tara Bhandi, assures her that all steps will be taken to counsel her husband. “We will talk to your husband and ask him to give you money so you can run your household smoothly”, she tells the distraught woman. After a brief exchange with the SP, a date for hearing with both parties is fixed for two weeks later.
As the morning progresses, case after case is heard as women from different villages in this district pour out their grievances in the hopes of getting speedy justice. Their laments do not fall on deaf ears, for this unique forum or public hearing has been especially created to give them space to air their problems related to all types of violence, whether domestic or in the sphere of public service delivery issues and gender disparity and to get them on-the-spot redressal through the government machinery.
Conceptualised by UNICEF, the Public Hearings are held by the RSWC, an autonomous body set up by the Government of Rajasthan, which has the status of a civil court. It has the power to investigate complaints brought before it by women and recommend to the government to take action on it if the inquiry reveals that the woman is indeed the aggrieved party.
The preparation for a hearing starts a couple of weeks before the meeting. A credible NGO working in the field is mobilized to support the women and encourage them to bring their problems to the Commission’s hearings. Over the last three years, public hearings have been conducted in 30 districts of Rajasthan, informs Ms Kusum Bhandari, RSCW Registrar and former District and Sessions Judge.
“This is not just an opportunity to speak out about the atrocities and violence they face in their everyday lives, but also a chance to get justice with the guilty being punished”, explains Ms Bhandari. She claims that of the total 7991 cases brought before the Public Hearings since their inception, as much as 86 per cent of the cases have been resolved.
The process of public hearing of complaints cuts short the time for redressal through the normal government channels or via the convoluted and expensive legal route, states Ms Shikha Wadhwa of the state UNICEF office. “The platform is also a useful channel to hear the voices from the grassroot and get a good feedback on how the system is serving and reaching out to the poorest of the poor, she adds.