It's characteristically an Indian revolution in which words have been more than willing, while the spirit has maintained its usual reticence, not budging even an inch. As a consequence, the largest and supposedly the most efficient prison for women in the world - meant to be an institution for integrating the socially misfit members of the second sex into the mainstream - is in the process of becoming a social eyesore and worse, a factory producing delinquents.
The jail, which sprawls across an area of 6.5 acres in Tihar, was meant to be based on the 'revolutionary' concept of a women's prison run by women. And though it took almost a decade of careful planning and a whopping Rs 7 crore to give shape to this idea, what has finally resulted is a doddering, floundering apology of a rehab centre. India's most elaborate and expensive experiment in prison reforms is crawling along blindly with inmates roundly declaring it a change for the worse.
The first impression for some had, however, been awe-inspiring. Confronted by the sheer magnitude of the place, many jaws dropped in amazement. One of the inmates even went to the extent of exclaiming: "Yeh to Ashoka Hotel hai!"
That, however, is a far cry now. What with the downslide having begun from the first day itself. Built to house 400 women prisoners, the place already had 145 extra residents as on the inaugural evening. But that is hardly of any concern for the hard-boiled jail administrators, accustomed to cramming over 10,000 prisoners in Tihar's four jails. They feel the new women's prison is spacious enough to accommodate double the current number. And that could soon become a reality, considering the daily influx of prisoners charged, ironically, with crimes against women and drug trafficking.
This reality is invariably out of sync with the official rhetoric. IG (prisons) Kiran Bedi's brave words, for instance: "This is not any building to lodge women prisoners, but a concept for rehabilitating and re-integrating them."
The only reason why words like Bedi's pass muster is because of the deceptive appearances. The new jail does, in fact, indicate a change for the better. Its campus, with low-lying blocks rising from patches of green, is certainly respectable, if not quite five-star. The dormitories, in eight wards spread over the premises, are a welcome contrast. Their walls are as yet unblemished by soot stains and there is none of that mad scramble for space to sleep. Each of the eight wards has four barracks, two large enough to house 20 inmates comfortably, and two smaller ones for those who prefer the intimacy of 10 room-mates.
It was in a desperate attempt to decongest Tihar's overcrowded jails that the prison administration first decided to build a separate prison for women, similar to the other four prisons in the complex - rows of barracks with an intimidating double gate and watchtower. But somewhere along the way came Bedi, who insisted on a jail that would provide the amenities and space to lead a more dignified and productive life.
Avers she: "It's a prison for the 21st century built for optimum mobility and activity." Ironically, these are exactly the two things the new jail lacks. Says Suneeta, a teenager arrested for theft: "I spent 12 days in the women's ward of Tihar jail and time passed so quickly that it felt like one day. But three days in this new jail is like three years."
The barracks may have been overcrowded in their old ward, but the inmates at least had the luxury of being let out into the open courtyard at sunrise. There they spent their day in various activities, or merely gossiping until the 7. 30 pm headcount.
Complains inmate Shabnam: "It's been three days now since we were shut in, and some of the children have been suffering from diarrhoea." Shabnam's daughter was born in the old women's ward, where mothers often depended on their fellow prisoners to act as midwives during childbirth. The new women's jail, on the other hand, boasts of a 10-bed hospital with five doctors and an ambulance for providing pre-natal and post-natal care. But inmates like Shabnam are sceptical because as of now it's empty buildings with no staff.
And with the gradual return of routine horrors of internment, her scepticism is bound to harden into certitude. By the first morning, for instance, the luxuriously white-tiled bathroom with a flush toilet and a tap began to stink - the familiar foul stench of choked drains and overflowing urine.
Besides, the authorities seem to have clean forgotten that an institution also needs staff to meet its lofty ambitions. At least, 200 new posts have been created, but recruitment wasn't conducted during the three-and-a-half years of building the jail.
With eight new wards and no new staff other than those roped in from the home guards, the jail's all-woman supervisors have resorted to the only means of monitoring the prisoners: to keep them locked up as long as possible.
It took three days, for instance, for the new jail superintendent, Sunita Sabharwal, to discover that the women had not been let out of their barracks. She then ordered that the prisoners be let out into the open space outside their ward "for some fresh air". The microphones, installed across the sprawling premises to provide soothing music to the inmates, suddenly buzz into life: "Kandhayi Devi, Lakshmi, Kabutri Kailash Mandal..." intones a static voice in the manner of railway station announcements.
Sandwiched between enforced hours of idleness and tranquiliser-induced sleep is boredom, the most difficult of afflictions that the inmates fight in this so-called experimental reform centre. There are a few like Kajol who paint their lips and nails in order to kill time and keep their minds working. While there are others like Kabutri, who have given up and have allowed time to kill them - she sits crouched in depression.
Bedi points out: "Just getting women to run the prison is not good enough. They have to be trained to run it as a rehabilitation centre rather than as a punitive centre." Well-intentioned her efforts might be, well-informed they are definitely not. Says she: "Doesn't matter if the administration is tardy, at least the infrastructure exists for anyone who wants to make good use of it."
That this revolution is not a tale of redemption is best understood by those who are bearing the brunt - the prisoners themselves who have unwittingly become guinea pigs of an unwarranted experiment. One of them pithily sums up the hopeless situation: "Jail to jail hai. All we want is to get out of here as fast as possible."
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