Kolkata: In the five years between 2000 and 2005, migration and a growing number of women in the workforce has seen West Bengal go from being one of the safest states for women in the country to a not-so-safe one, with crimes against women rising 69% in this period, well ahead of the national increase of 10%.
That’s according to a study titled “Trafficking in Women and Children, Child Marriage and Dowry: A Study for Action Plan in West Bengal.” The increase in women-related crimes comes in the context of the overall number of crimes in the state remaining nearly the same between 2000 and 2005.
Compiled by Biswajit Ghosh, a professor of sociology at the University of Burdwan, the study is supported by the department of women and child development and social welfare of the West Bengal government, and Unicef.
“With greater awareness, more and more people are coming forward to report crimes,” says Ghosh. “With more and more women and children leaving the safety of their homes to work in a society that is still very patriarchal, they are subjected to all sorts of crimes,” he adds.
According to the study, which uses figures from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 7,043 crimes against women in the state in 2000, or 5% of the 141,373 nationwide crimes against women that year. In 2005, that number jumped to 11,887, an increase of almost 69%. That year, the national tally was 155,553, making the state’s contribution to it 7.6%.
According to data from NCRB, the state still ranks 13 in terms of the number of crimes against women (it was ranked 22 in 2000). Delhi is the most unsafe state for women in terms of number of crimes.
The study may point to a larger problem related to the safety of women in West Bengal, but S.N. Haque, the secretary of the department of women and child development (which supported the study) doesn’t think so.
“Crimes against women are rising all over the country anyway,” he says. “We are trying to empower women by initiating income-generating schemes,” he adds, responding to a question on how his government planned to address the issue.
The study also says that 58.35% of the crimes involve torture and cruelty by spouses—the highest share of crimes against women in West Bengal.
“The grinding poverty in the closed (tea) gardens has forced many families to move to big cities for employment and when they come here, they are faced with all sorts of crimes,” says Indrani Sinha of non-governmental organization Sanlaap, which works for the rights of women and children. “And when the parents stay back but send their children out, they are not only trafficked but crimes are also committed against them once they are moved out,” she adds.
Sinha also blames the lack of development in rural areas and immigration from other states for the growing crimes against women.
“A lot of the recent ‘economic boom-fuelled’ development has led to massive displacement with poor families coming in from across the border to work in West Bengal,” Sinha says.
Women representatives of political parties say that statistics do not always capture the violence against women, especially the poor. “In general, much of the violence against women is not being captured by statistics such as the crimes against migrant women or poorer agricultural labourers, who face violence, sexual or not, on account of their poverty,” says Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Brinda Karat, who was nominated as a member of the upper house of Parliament from a seat in West Bengal. Karat says that she has not seen the West Bengal study.
“There is an attempt in states to hide the problems of women than to address them. That is because they have weak judicial processes and slow crime investigation and inadequate policing,” says Mahila Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi. The Mahila Congress is a part of the Congress, the leading party in the United Progressive Alliance government that is in power at the Centre. While the CPM supports this government without being part of it, the party and the Congress are traditional rivals in West Bengal.
“It is a fact that crimes against women have risen sharply over the last three-four years in West Bengal. This is unfortunate because West Bengal used to be known for respecting women,” says Kiran Maheshwari, a Lok Sabha member and president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mahila Morcha.
The study also notes that crimes against women are comparatively higher in those districts where people belonging to backward sections and minorities are dominant.
Prof. Ghosh says the number of crimes against women in West Bengal has increased despite overall crime rates remaining about the same. The total number of cognizable crimes under the Indian Penal Code in West Bengal rose by a mere 0.87% (from 65,834 to 66,406) in the period under review. “This is a peculiar situation where the state is not otherwise affected by rising number of crimes but crimes against women, particularly domestic violence and dowry-related crimes, have increased significantly,” adds Ghosh.
The NCRB data also reveals that the share of trafficking-related crimes in overall crimes against women has actually decreased, from 11.33% to 9.88%. “This means that crimes against women, other than trafficking, have increased in far greater proportion in West Bengal,” Ghosh says.
Pragya Singh and Ashish Sharma contributed to this story.