New Delhi: A women’s safety helpline called ‘181’ started after the 2012 Delhi gang rape has now been abruptly handed over to a private company that has not only changed the manner in which complaints are handled, but also removed security systems for its women employees.
Started by the Delhi government in 2013 by then chief minister Sheila Dikshit, 181 is allegedly being made to run like any other call centre.
Till the first week of March this year, it was being operated from the Delhi Secretariat, where a control room was set up for it. Now it operates from a call centre office — Caretel Infotech in Naraina.
Speaking to ThePrint, 181 staffers said they had been told to change the way they handled calls from women in distress.
“We have been told to wind up a call within two minutes,” said Savita, a supervisor at 181 who has been with the helpline since 2013. “How can we do that when our duty is to provide counselling to women who are in distress?
“What if a woman is under stress and showing suicidal tendencies? We cannot hang up on such women. We need to keep talking to them until we send help,” she added. “We cannot tell them sorry your time is up.”
The women employees of the helpline used to get late-night cab drops and a female police constable for security. That has stopped now, some staffers told ThePrint.
“Not only was our office shifted, the facilities given to us were also cut down drastically,” said an employee who did not wish to be named.
“We are not given cabs anymore, even for night shifts, so women have stopped working night shifts. Earlier, a woman constable stayed with us when we worked late nights, all that has also been stopped,” she added. “Some of us have also faced indecent behaviour from employees at the private company.”
The women who work in the new set-up have also allegedly been asked to resign from the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), the original authority handling the helpline.
Protesting against the changes, the 24 women employees have been staging a sit-in outside the secretariat for nearly a month now.
“If DCW or Swati Maliwal has a problem with us, the employees, they can sack us or replace us with someone else, but why are they compromising on the quality of the helpline by handing it over to private players?” asked Anita, a senior caller with 181.
Under the ‘Nirbhaya fund’, announced by the central government in the aftermath of the 16 December 2012 gang rape and murder, a certain amount is allotted for running of the helpline.
How they were informed of privatisation
On 6 March, the employees of the helpline received a message on an office WhatsApp group, asking them to report at the private company the next day, instead of the Delhi Secretariat.
According to the staffers, there was no official communication or information about this prior to the message.
Although their supervisors told them that their roles would remain the same, the private company is said to have sent out a different message.
“When we reached the said office, which is Caretel Infotech in Naraina, we were told that we had to resign from our jobs at DCW and start working with the private company as their employees,” said Savita.
What call centre and Delhi govt have to say
When ThePrint called up Caretel Infotech office, two employees, including a senior executive who did not wish to be named, confirmed that 181 was now run from their office and “managed” by the company.
The senior executive refused to divulge further details, only saying that the company had a third-party involvement in running the helpline.
According to the official website of the company, Caretel Infotech is part of Dalmia group, a leading Indian conglomerate.
The company description states that it has “well-established processes, confirming [sic] to ISO 9001:2008 & ISO 27001 and ISO 22301 standards”, providing “call centre services, IVRS [interactive voice response system] development, BPO services, software development, data entry and consulting”.
Calls and messages to DCW chief Maliwal and Delhi government’s official spokesperson Nagender Sharma remained unanswered. This report will be updated they respond.
A Delhi government officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the 181 staffers will still get their salaries from DCW, though the work will be handled by the private company.
Problems with the software
According to the women, the same company had designed a software for 181 in 2013, which they said did not work well and kept freezing.
“After the private company’s software did not work, we requested the government to take help from Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi to design the software for us,” said Khadijah Faruqui, who was the first consultant for the helpline.
“The women had been working on the software for the last many years without any complaint. The government is now reverting to a failed software,” Faruqui added.
“There are many issues with handing over the operations to a private company, apart from diluting the quality of the helpline,” she said. “It will also pose a risk to women’s personal data.”
According to the staffers, the helpline received 1,500 to 2,000 calls per day before the changes kicked in. The callers primarily complained about domestic violence, and not being able to get autos and transport late at night.
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