The statistics are startling—1,005 cases of rapes of minors were reported in Odisha in just the first six months of 2019, an average of 5.58 cases a day. These were the figures presented in the Supreme Court during the hearing of the suo motu PIL registered on the initiative of CJI Ranjan Gogoi in July. Though Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 3,457 cases, the incidence of child rape in Odisha is amongst the highest in the country when the state’s population is taken into consideration.
A white paper on the law and order situation in Odisha that the state government presented to the assembly on July 28 states that rape cases increased by 13 per cent in the past year, jumping from 2,221 in 2017 to 2,502 in 2018, an average of seven a day. More worryingly, other official data suggest that a majority of the victims are minors.
Replying to a question on the issue in the assembly in May 2018, chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who also holds the home portfolio, revealed that as many as 4,749 cases of child rape had taken place in Odisha in the four years between 2014 and 2017. The figures presented by the CM prove that child-rape cases have risen in the state over the past few years. The figure stood at 1,050 in 2014 and rose to 1,212 in 2015. After a negligible fall in 2016 (1,204 cases), the number again increased to 1,283 in 2017.
“Child-rape cases are seldom investigated seriously, which often leads to acquittals,” says activist Subhashree Das.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, the state witnessed an alarming 400 per cent rise in the number of child-rape cases between 2012 and 2016. As the incidence of the crime rises, the rate of conviction in the state remains abysmally low—just 6.1 per cent between 2014 and 2018. “Child-rape cases are seldom investigated with the seriousness they deserve, which often results in acquittals. The investigations and trials often drag on for years, reducing the chances of conviction. Unless the police at the ground level is sensitised regarding the gravity of the problem, such crimes will continue to happen. It is good that the Supreme Court has now asked for special courts to be set up in every district that reports more than 100 cases under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. But as of now, not a single POCSO court has been set up in the state,” says social activist Subhashree Das.
After the Supreme Court rap, however, things appear to be changing. On July 26, an Angul court awarded what is touted as the first death sentence under the POCSO Act to a rapist just six months after the crime. The convict, 22-year-old Anama Dehury, had raped a 12-year-old and smashed her head with a stone, killing her on January 20 this year. The case served to highlight the new trend of rapists killing the victim to escape punishment under the stricter laws.
Activists point out that minors are more vulnerable to rape because they might not be able to resist such acts as the assaulter is invariably stronger than them. “What makes them particularly vulnerable is that the victim knows the rapist in almost 90 per cent of such cases,” says DGP Rajendra Prasad Sharma.
Concerned at the burgeoning cases of child rapes, authorities in the state instituted a series of initiatives to arrest this trend. Last year, Odisha Police launched Paree Pain Kathatie (tale for a fairy), a campaign to bring attention to sexual crimes against children that was implemented in technical collaboration with UNICEF. About 12 lakh people participated in the campaign in which 15 vehicles, christened Paree Express, traversed the state for a fortnight, covered 1,377 venues and clocked 44,000 km. But if the number of cases registered in the first six months of 2019 is any indication, the campaign failed miserably.
Das says that activists are soon going to launch Dushkarma Nibaran Abhijan, a statewide movement against rape to sensitise people regarding the issue. It remains to be seen though if this campaign will be more effective than the government initiative.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar