In response to the gruesome gang-rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad, Telangana, the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh recently passed the Andhra Pradesh Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in the State Assembly. Known as the Disha Act, it envisages, among other things, the completion of an investigation into especially heinous crimes against women and children within 7 days and trial in 14 working days, and reducing the total time for conviction in court to 21 days from the existing 4 months.
Two women civil servants, Dr Kritika Shukla and M Deepika, have been appointed by the State government as Special Officers to implement the Disha Act, 2019.
“Dr Kritika Shukla, presently the Director of Women Development and Child Welfare, has been given an additional charge as DISHA Special Officer. M Deepika, who is the Additional Superintendent of Police (Administration) of Kurnool, has been transferred and posted as DISHA Special Officer,” an official statement read last week.
Speaking to The Better India (TBI), M Deepika (IPS), who will operate at the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP) in the Disha Cell created within the state’s Crime Investigation Department (CID), talked about the responsibility before the administration in addressing the public’s anger.
“We have started working to ensure that a robust framework is in place to complete investigations within seven days. The government is appointing special public prosecutors to help with the drafting of chargesheets, improving the capabilities of forensic labs, hiring quality medical doctors, particularly gynaecologists since we have trouble getting timely reports and enlisting quality cyber experts. In essence, the state administration is trying to enable the creation of an ecosystem to speed up investigations,” says the 2014-batch IPS officer.
She adds that every district will have a special team, headed by an officer of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) rank, which can focus solely on heinous crimes against women and children. They have also started a programme along the lines of a neighbourhood watch group, called the Mahila Mitra Committee.
“It will include local women residents and a Mahila Mitra coordinator from our side, and bring to the notice of the police any serious crimes against women,” she states.
To ensure complaints are registered in cases of violence against women, victims can file a Zero FIR. Instead of making the victim jump through hoops to file a complaint, she can register a complaint in any police station without bothering about whether the case falls in their jurisdiction.
The police officer concerned just has to register the FIR and transfer the case to the station concerned. Also, there is a Disha Station in every district, which will take up the responsibility.
“This shift in responsibility will ensure that police personnel are more forthcoming in registering FIRs. Our Director-General of Police has also started a sensitisation programme for all personnel to ensure they understand the gravity of such crimes and how seriously it’s being reviewed. We regularly hold video conferences in all the districts, and he has been stressing that crimes must be registered. Also, we have women Mahila Mitra coordinators at every station, and they are responsible for ensuring cases are registered. The system in place seeks to ensure greater accountability,” argues Deepika.
The state has three regional forensic labs in Andhra Pradesh—Vijayawada, Tirupati and Vizag. For DNA, serology and cyber analysis, these labs need better equipment and the state government has already earmarked budget for it, and experts are being hired accordingly.
For a collection of forensic evidence on the police’s end, special teams are being formed. In each wing of investigation, specialised people will oversee their responsibilities.
A critical issue which many have highlighted with regards to the Disha Act, 2019, is its watertight timeline. Is it possible to investigate every rape case within 7 days?
“The 7-day period is for cases where substantial and conclusive evidence is available. For example, in cases where CCTV footage is available or the accused can be clearly identified beyond doubt. So, if it’s a whodunit, the Act does not say that you have to investigate the case within seven days. In cases where the accused is not identified, there are no clues available and the victim is either deceased or not in a state to identify the accused, we have more leeway,” says Deepika.
Similarly for the courts, judgements have to be reached in 14 days only in the event of substantial and conclusive evidence.
Another point of confusion is the death penalty for crimes against women and children. The death penalty only applies in cases of especially heinous crimes and not for every rape committed in the state.
Moreover, each Disha Station will seek to address specific crimes. Not every case of sexual assault, dowry deaths, or domestic violence will be overseen by them; the standard law and order machinery will investigate these cases.
Only grave and heinous crimes committed under Sections 326A (acid attacks), 354A (sexual harassment), 376 (which includes gang-rape) and POCSO Act, among other provisions, will be taken up by Disha Stations.
The new law also has provisions for harassment of women in cyberspace, where jail time extends from two to four years. Besides, the state will now establish, operate and maintain an online register called the ‘Women & Children Offenders Registry.’
Calling it a huge responsibility, that brings with it high expectations, Deepika mentions that she is nevertheless, fired up about the experience.
“The initial months are very crucial to see whether this Act makes a difference to the system. The timelines afforded to us poses a great challenge, but I am looking forward to it and hope to do my best.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)