The Delhi Commission of Women (DCW) has been unable to release the salary of 95 of its staff members for the past three months.
And in a strange turn of events, the commission has blamed its own member secretary, Alka Dewan, appointed directly by Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung, for the logjam.
But who is Alka Dewan? How can DCW's own member secretary single-handedly freeze the salaries of 95 staff members for three months straight? What was the need to appoint her? And most importantly, what is her contention?
How Dewan was appointed
Alka Dewan, IAS, Special Commissioner (VAT), was a direct appointee by the Lt Governor. She was given additional charge of being member secretary on 4 October this year.
Former member secretary Archana Aurora had to leave abruptly for personal reasons, and Jung chose to override the Chief Minister's nomination for a replacement and appointed Dewan.
"A member secretary presumes an important role, because she has experience in rules. At the same time, there is no more power or authority vested in a member secretary than a commission member, apart from authenticating decisions of the commission. She gives expenditure sanctions and that includes paying salaries. In the present situation, she has refused," explains Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the DCW.
Questioning the legality of the appointment
According to Maliwal, three things make Dewan's appointment as member secretary illegal.
One, she already holds a full-time position as an IAS officer in the VAT department, and has been appointed as a part-time member secretary within the DCW. The commission needed a full time member secretary.
Two, she was appointed without the Chief Minister or the women and child development minister's approval.
And three, Maliwal says she finds Dewan lacking in empathy and understanding when it comes to women's issues.
For example, Dewan was supposed to sanction field visits. But she called the survey to understand the condition of women in Delhi's night shelters 'irrelevant'.
And then, there's this. "The previous member secretary appointed 40 staff who help the DCW function even now. Dewan is treating the DCW as a govt department. If we have to buy a pen or disburse salaries, it has to go through the finance department. Each request could take up to six months to get approved. If we do that, the autonomy of the commission gets subverted," says Maliwal.
Maliwal's letter to CM
Maliwal has written a long letter to Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on the matter.
"...in withholding the salaries of the entire contractual workforce of the Commission for the past 2.5 months. Despite being fully aware of the facts, the member secretary is defying express orders of the Commission, including its directive for release of salaries of 95 persons engaged on emergent short term assignments to assist the Commission in the discharge of its statutory functions and are currently responsible for operating crucial programs of the Commission such as the 181 women helpline, the Mobile Helpline Program and the Rape Crisis Cell and others. The actions of the Member Secretary are severely hampering the work of the Commission and if not remedied immediately, would virtually lead to closure of the Commission."
Mess made by Delhi govt?
When the DCW was reconstituted in June last year, the statutory body had the capacity to appoint only 20 permanent members. As part of the reconstitution, the number of posts was increased to 29.
Maliwal, however, had bigger plans, and realised that 29 people could only do so much to handle complaints in a city known as the rape capital of the country.
Within a month, she drafted a request to increase the number of permanent positions within the DCW to 258.
While she waited, her file kept getting stuck in what she calls the "bureaucracy of the Delhi Government."
In fact, her letter to Kejriwal states: "...the entire programs and activities of the Commission with respect to fulfilling its mandate under the DCW Act is presently being operated only through the short term contractual workers appointed in the Commission. As on date, two requests of the Commission, viz. a request made in October 2015 and a request made in September 2016 for creation of 223 posts, are presently pending with the government."
It was only at the end of last year that the the DCW decided it would wait no longer, and start hiring staff on an "emergent contractual basis". There was too much work at stake - the 181 women's helpline, the rape crisis cell, field visits, and more.
Taking a leap of faith, Maliwal hired 95 staffers. These were qualified staff given salaries as little as Rs 12,000. Several of the employees are themselves experienced activists, acid attack victims and victims of sexual violence, who feel the need to reach out to those in similar situations of abuse.
The plan, all along, was that once the Delhi government approved the plan to expand the permanent positions, these employees would no longer be contractual.
Before and after Dewan
During the period between hiring these employees and Dewan's appointment, the DCW handled 11,696 cases.
It also gave over 55 recommendations under Section 10 of the DCW Act.
It launched three programs: Acid Watch and Rehabilitation Cell, Crime against Women Research Cell and Anti Human Trafficking and Rehabilitation Cell.
It attended 2.16 lakh phone calls in the past six months on its 181 helpline.
It handled 5,733 Sexual assault cases dealt by Rape Crisis Cell Lawyers
Once Dewan stepped in, she termed the contractual positions 'unlawful', and choked the salaries of those who made this voluminous amount of work possible.
Who is really to blame?
But the real question is this: why did Maliwal not use her goodwill with Kejriwal to lobby hard for the permanent expansion of the DCW? Why was her request for a rightful expansion of one of Delhi government's most important bodies not addressed?
"The reality is that there is a larger bureaucracy at play. There are issues within the Delhi government, because of which, we're being made to scrounge for staff. My own file is stuck at a very junior level within the women and child development ministry, despite my desperate attempts to move it. It is yet to reach the Chief Minister," says Maliwal tiredly.
What the future holds
Dewan's term ends this month, as she is retiring. But the L-G is said to have plans to reappoint to the DCW full time as a retired IAS officer.
According to the DCW Act, the Delhi government has the power to nominate and remove the Member Secretary, in case such a person "refuses to act or becomes incapable of action". The power is vested in the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
As the tussle over the DCW gets worse, it is the 95 staffers, who have gone unpaid for three months, who have to take centre stage.
When the protectors of human rights themselves become the abused, it is an alarming wake up call that should cut across the political divide.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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