Ever heard of Dowry Prohibition Officers? Even educated people may not have heard of them, despite the fact that they were 'created' by a 1986 amendment to the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act (DPA). Their role was largely to monitor dowry demands, report the matter to the police and prevent harassment of women by their in-laws and husbands. They were to make DPA more effective.
Much was heard about these officers at a recent conference organized by the National Commission for Women (NCW) together with the Indian Law Institute. One or two officers were present at the conference, but it turned out that they wear many hats, and dowry is just not a priority.
Take H C Chidanand, Deputy Director of the Women and Child Development Department of the Karnataka state government. "I am in charge of implementing 42 departmental schemes. I don't have time to go and book cases and then attend the court."
Other overburdened officials performing the role of Dowry Prohibition Officers (DPOs) in their states are the tehsildars (revenue and administrative officers) in the districts and police officials in sub-districts. Most of them are not even sensitized to the issues involved.
In Rajasthan, the State Welfare Officers are meant to fulfill the role of DPOs. But they are too busy to help any dowry victims. "It is clear that the response of the state government has been lukewarm," said one speaker.
The National Crime Records Bureau says there are over 6000 dowry-related deaths every year. But several activists and women groups claim that over 25,000 women are killed for dowry every year.
Asha Ramesh, an activist, pointed out that officials working in the Crimes Against Women Cells in Uttar Pradesh are not even aware of the existence of a Dowry Prohibition Act.
Margaret Alva, Member of Parliament, felt that the clause in the dowry legislation which says, "State governments may provide for appointment of as many DPOs as it sees fit", should be changed to: "State governments shall appoint DPOs". She also pointed out that mere legislation is not enough, as awareness does not percolate down to villages, and the police do not register FIRs (first information reports) against in-laws because they don't want to intervene in domestic disputes.
During the conference, Purnima Advani, NCW Chairperson, said that instead of expecting people to knock at the doors of the state machinery, "We need to go out and help victims of rape and dowry. This is how proactive governance should be conducted in this country."
Several useful suggestions were made during the conference on how to concretize the provisions of DPA. One was that volunteers from NGOs, instead of government officials, should be appointed as full-time DPOs. Another was that a community watchdog committee should be constituted to monitor and prevent the giving and taking of dowry.
It was also pointed out that appointment of full-time DPOs could have a preventive effect, just as the presence of traffic policemen deters people from breaking traffic rules. "This is relatively easy because in India, marriages take place during certain auspicious days of the year."
Some enthusiasts also suggested that DPOs draw up a list of gifts before a wedding, signed by both parties and also by an independent witness. The DPO must keep a copy of the list, and in case of a complaint, help restore the bride's dowry to her.
Another pertinent point stressed by NCW was that doctors should be sensitized about this social evil, so that they faithfully record the dying statement of dowry victims and conduct post-mortems where foul play is suspected. Their role is crucial in nailing the in-laws who cause physical harm to women victims.
Supreme Court judge B N Srikrishna said that a social reform legislation is only as effective as the level of awareness of society. DPOs should be committed persons who interact with members of the community. They also have to be aware of such facets of ancient Indian culture as the fact that there is no such thing in the scriptures as "demands" for dowry.
However, the conference speakers did not seem to arrive at any future strategy to make DPOs more visible.
Ravindra Singh Garia of Lawyers' Collective, an NGO that (among other activities) provides legal help to dowry victims, says the whole purpose of DPA was to create a separate mechanism for dealing with dowry cases. But if the usual law enforcement machinery handles these cases - as in states like Haryana where Sub-Divisional Magistrates are also DPOs - they should at least go by the spirit of the law. But for that to happen, social perceptions about dowry have to change.