Feature story

A voice for victims

Disha works with victims of violence and crimes to help ease their path to justice, rehabilitation and compensation

Victims of crime deserve to have access to justice, assistance, restitution and compensation, but the policies and practices of our system are not good enough to reach these to them.” There’s a hint of despair in Pravin Khandpasole’s tone as he explains the ground realities facing those who have suffered violence in their lives.

But Mr Khandpasole, not one for dwelling too long on downsides, prefers to concentrate on solutions. That’s the objective with which he and his wife, Jyoti, established Disha, an Amravati-based voluntary organisation that supports victims affected by violent crimes.

Set up in 2008 and operating in Maharashtra, Disha is involved with victims and their families, the community and the official apparatus to create a more responsive criminal justice ecosystem.

‘Equality in access to justice’ is the objective for Disha, which has been backed by the Tata Trusts since 2014. A cornerstone for the organisation is its ‘victim assistance programme’ (VPA), which helps victims of violent crimes — including homicide, domestic violence and sexual assault — with legal guidance, counselling and rehabilitation, and through advocacy.

Support or help desks at police stations for those approaching the authorities, legal interventions, emergency aid, assistance in availing government schemes, training and educational sessions with the police and the judiciary — Disha and its social workers go a long way to ensure that the pathway to justice is smoothened.

Disha got started in Amravati district and then extended its work to Pune and Yavatmal districts. In an environment where the victims of crimes are not the priority, making headway has not been easy. “In India the legal system is focused on ensuring that offenders are punished,” says Mr Khandpasole. “Key laws rarely refer to victims. We wanted a paradigm shift in this system.”

Victims don’t suffer in isolation; there are their families to consider as well. There are instances where family members come under pressure to drop cases, where protection from the police is slow in coming. Disha has stepped forward in such circumstances to provide victims and their family, especially those from poor backgrounds, with moral and social, legal and procedural support.

Call for compensation

From its inception, Disha has been advocating with the Maharashtra government to formulate laws or amend existing ones to ensure compensation for victims of crimes. It has filed public interest litigations in the Bombay High Court seeking government compensation for dependents of victims.

Pravin Khandpasole conducts a training programme at the Maharashtra Police Training Academy in Nashik as part of Disha’s efforts to sensitise police personnel about dealing with victims of violence and crime

Showing the way back

Prithi (name changed) is one of Disha’s beneficiaries in Amravati district. Sitting in a dark room in her home, she narrates the tragedy that struck her life in 2018. “My eight-year-old son was going to school when he was kidnapped and brutally killed.” The child was from an earlier marriage and Prithi’s second husband, a heavy drinker, was hostile towards the boy. “When the police caught him, he admitted that he had killed my child,” says the distraught mother.

The police were understanding but the killer was soon out on bail. “He called me and threatened me,” says Prithi, “but thanks to Disha I have become bold and am not worried now.” Social workers from the organisation often call at Prithi’s home and, help her manage her life and look after her six-year-old daughter. Disha has also provided legal help and encouraged her to take up odd jobs. “They coordinate with government officials to make things easy for me,” she adds.

Apart from homicide cases, Disha also supports victims of rape and sexual assault, where, in a majority of the cases, the perpetrator is a relative or a neighbour. One girl was barely four when she was sexually abused outside her house by a minor boy in the neighbourhood. After the attack, Disha volunteers helped the victim heal physically and psychologically, and also encouraged her to commence her education.

In the context, Maharashtra Victim Compensation Scheme (MVCS), enacted in 2014, has been a boon. The scheme ensures payments of compensation up to 200,000 for loss of life, permanent disability, acid attacks, etc. “The amount is low but the legislation is a welcome step,” says Ms Khandpasole.

In another instance when an 11-year-old was sexually assaulted by her neighbour, the support and guidance provided by Disha volunteers helped the victim’s mother fight the community which was compelling her to not file a police complaint. The child is now a sprightly teenager, an expert at tailoring. She shyly shows off the dresses she has stitched, saying she wants to become a dressmaker when she grows up.

Another victim, a young boy, had been assaulted by a neighbour when he was seven. He has now grown into a lanky teenager, very protective about his younger brother and close to his mother. These are the people that Disha helps — through rehabilitation, counselling, legal backing, educational support and by providing livelihood opportunities. True to its name — which translates as ‘direction’ — Disha shows victims of violence and crimes the way back into the light.

Jyoti and Pravin Khandpasole, the couple who founded Disha

Women and children take up much of Disha’s attention. Its team works closely with women whose husbands have been killed by relatives or neighbours. “The wives often bear the brunt,” says Ms Khandpasole. “Apart from the loss of a loved one, they also face alienation, especially if the perpetrator is a person of influence in the neighbourhood.”

Disha also manages help desks at more than 30 police stations in rural Amravati. Mr Kishore Tawde, the assistant police inspector at the Asegaon-Purna police station, believes Disha’s volunteers have been doing remarkable work by resolving domestic disputes, helping needy victims and by reducing the load on the police. “Such social service is very useful, especially in sensitive cases involving women and children,” he says.

The support groups that Disha runs encourage victims and family members to move on with their lives. Children need extra care. “Their education is often disrupted, so we try to bring them back into the stream and we help young adults with skills development to improve their employability,” says Ms Khandpasole.

Collaboration and close cooperation with the district administration and the police department are vital planks for Disha. It has developed training modules for the police and conducted training programmes at the Maharashtra Police Academy in Nashik and other police training centres. Disha also holds training sessions with the judiciary, medical officers and public prosecutors to sensitise these key stakeholders.

In spite of all the effort, Mr Khandpasole is concerned that the progress being made is slow. “If you check the status of MVCS, it sometimes seems that things are as pathetic as they were in the past,” he says. Lack of push and commitment have undermined a scheme that came into force after Disha had filed a public interest litigation to ensure compensation to needy and poor victims across the state.

Crime aplenty but...

Official figures reveal that in most districts in Maharashtra with significant crime rates, there were few recommendations for compensation by courts and the scheme was hardly ever availed. In Mumbai, for example, there were 154 murder cases in 2016, but none of the dependents were recommended for MVCS. In Pune, out of 259 murders, only four applications were received for compensation — and they have yet to receive any payments.

“The scheme won’t work if victims and their relatives do not get guidance on processes or necessary documents,” says Mr Khandpasole, who believes that change will come only by working within the system and pushing for appropriate responses from judiciary and government officials. The Khandpasoles are keen that India should, like many developed countries, adopt the ‘victim impact statement,’ which allows victims to talk about their hardships and also takes into account their need for rehabilitation while passing an order or judgement.

Victims of crimes need to be heard, and then some. By shining a beam on their rights and their requirements, Disha has provided a voice to the powerless and the legal wherewithal for them to fight back.

A Disha volunteer educates a victim about her rights and ways to avail welfare schemes