Recent incidents of rape have stirred the conscience of the nation. Even as India reels from the shock of the cases in Kathua (Jammu and Kashmir) and Unnao (Uttar Pradesh), there are more such incidents being reported almost on an everyday basis, such as the ones in Surat (Gujarat) and Nadia (West Bengal).
These barbaric incidents at various parts of the country have once again put the spotlight on India’s poor track record in protecting its women, almost five years after the brutal Nirbhaya case, in which a young medical intern was gang-raped and tortured in a moving bus in South Delhi.
This case had led to changes in India’s legal system, including the passing of stricter sexual assault laws, and the creation of fast-track courts for prosecution of rapes. Recent cases have also led to legislative changes. At least four states – Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, and Arunachal Pradesh – have introduced the death penalty for rapes of minors, defined as below 12 years of age. According to news reports, the Centre is also contemplating amending the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act to introduce the provision of the death penalty for raping minors aged below 12 years.
Understanding the issues concerning violence and crimes against women are critical to generating sustainable solutions to the problem. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a government of India agency, collects statistics and information on crimes. These crime statistics, especially those on sexual violence, tend to suffer from under-reporting. In fact, some studies have found that reported crime rates and actual crime rate could have a negative correlation, due to other issues like education, legal infrastructure etc.
Keeping this in mind, we take a closer look at the data.
Rape accounts for about 12% of all crimes against women. The distribution of reported cases (shown below) is quite uneven across the nation.
India’s average rate of reported rape cases is about 6.3 per 100,000 of the population. However, this masks vast geographical differences with places like Sikkim and Delhi having rates of 30.3 and 22.5, respectively, while Tamil Nadu has a rate of less than one. Of course, one must be careful in interpreting these state-wise differences as these are ‘reported’ cases and could suffer from under-reporting.
Even India’s average rate of 6.3, which is not very high when compared with the rest of the world, suffers from under-reporting. According to a recent report by the Livemint, about 99% of cases of sexual violence go unreported. If true, this would put India among the nations with highest levels of crimes against women.
India’s cases of reported rape have seen a massive jump in the last few years, mainly owing to the outrage and awareness created out of the unfortunate Nirbhaya case. Reported cases jumped by a massive 26% in 2013, the highest in the last 15 years, mainly driven by an increase of reports in the states of Northern India, like Rajasthan, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh. The trend is also mirrored for all crimes against women, and not just rape, which also saw an increase of 26% in 2016.
What could possibly account for these differential rates? Looking at state-wise differences in legal institutions, economic indicators, and social indicators could provide possible answers.
Good proxies for the state of the legal system are the conviction rates for crimes against women, and the amount of time taken to investigate cases.
While the conviction rate for all crimes against women stands at a measly 19% across India (compared with an average conviction rate of 47% for all crimes), again, there are wide differences across different states. Northeastern states, quite notably, have relatively high conviction rates ranging from 25% to 70% (with the exception of Assam). On the other hand, states like West Bengal, Gujarat, and Karnataka have rates of less than 5%. Data on conviction rates for rapes as well follow the same trend, with an all India rate of about 25% in 2016.
While it is difficult to generalise results for the entirety of India, a scatter plot of conviction rates and reported cases of rapes per 100,000 of the population indicates a slight positive correlation, alluding to the fact that better chances of conviction encourage the reporting of this crime. Of course, higher conviction rates should also act as a strong deterrent against committing crimes, and this could be a reason why the correlation is not very pronounced.
A troubling observation is that while cases being reported have increased over the last five to six years, conviction rates, unfortunately, have remained stagnant to slightly falling. It is important to note that conviction rates refer to only cases which have completed court proceedings in the current year. They do not include cases that carry forward, which incidentally are a large number. At the beginning of 2016, over 118,537 cases of rape were pending at the courts. At the end of the year, the pending cases went up to 133,813, an increase of 12.5%. For crimes against women overall, pending cases increased from 1,081,756 to 1,204,786. Of course, this is a consequence of the larger inefficiency in the judicial system which had pending cases increase from 9,012,476 to 9,703,482, a truly staggering number.
What’s more, it is not just slow court proceedings that are an issue. Over 16,500 cases, or just under a third of reported rape cases in 2016 were pending investigation by the police at the end of that year. For all crimes against women, the number stood at 164,181, or exactly a third of the cases. The highest number of cases pending police investigation as a percentage of all cases was the highest in Manipur at 84% and Delhi at 62%, and lowest in Rajasthan at seven and Haryana at 15%.
There are wide-varying differences in GDP per capita in Indian states, with Goa, the richest, having a GDP per capita of Rs 260,000, over ten times that of Bihar, the poorest, of only Rs 24,572.
The scatter plot of GDP per capita and reported rapes per 100,000 of the population has a positive correlation, indicating that higher levels of income and associated benefits have a positive impact on reporting of rapes. Again, one must keep in mind that there may be two effects at play here – firstly, higher income may encourage women who have faced this crime to report it more openly, but at the same time it may also act as a deterrent against the violent sexual behavior.
Similarly, the correlation between the poverty rate of a state and reported cases of rapes per 100,000 of the population is negative, indicating that states with lower poverty rates tend to have a higher reporting of rapes per 100,000 of the population.
Sex ratio, or the proportion of females per 1,000 males, is an important indicator for the position of women in society. Due to the legacy of female infanticide, several states in India have very low sex ratios.
Here, we observe a clear negative correlation between sex ratio and reported cases of rape. It seems likely that state with higher sex ratios have lower reported cases because the actual number of cases is lower.
Unlike the relationship with sex ratio, there exists a positive correlation between the female literacy rate of a state and reported cases of rapes per 100,000, indicative that women are more likely to report crimes with higher levels of education.
Interestingly, better levels of social indicators, economic indicators, and legal institutions tend to be correlated with higher levels of reported crimes for most indicators; indicative of the underreporting of sexual violence crimes in India. While stricter laws are a welcome step in dealing with the problem, they are not enough. As observed, stricter laws in the aftermath of the 2012 Nirbhaya case have led to higher levels of reporting but not necessarily to higher conviction rates or quicker investigations. Thus, what is required is an overhaul of the current legal infrastructure in place to deal with these cases in a quicker and more efficient manner, along with other remedies of social welfare, economic growth, awareness programmes, sex education etc.
Haryana, a state known for its dismal sex ratio, has recently reported that its ratio has improved to 914 girls to 1,000 boys. Not long ago, it used to have one of the worst indicators in the country with a ratio of only 879 to 1,000 boys in 2011. While it still has a long way to go to ensure gender parity, the state has achieved progress through of a combination strong laws, their strict enforcement, and innovative awareness campaigns like ‘Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao’. It’s time to implement a similar holistic approach to deal with sexual violence across India.
Sujan Bandyopadhyay currently works for CAFRAL, Reserve Bank of India and holds an MSc in Economics from LSE.