Laws on sex abuse have loopholes that let off the guilty: Vinisha Nero

INTERVIEW: VINISHA NERO, NOMINATED MLA IN KARNATAKA ASSEMBLY, 2013-2018

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Not many are aware that there is a post of nominated Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Karnataka Assembly meant for Anglo-Indian community, which is similar to the regular MLA, without voting rights for Rajya Sabha. Vinisha Nero held this post for last five years. Hailing from Bengaluru, she also was the sole woman MLA from the city for the term 2013-2018.

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We spoke to her to understand what her role was and what she could do during her term.

Excerpts:

Not many people are aware that there is a nominated MLA in the Assembly. Would you explain the process and your role thereafter? Is it different from the role of elected representatives?

The Nominated MLA in a State Assembly represents the Anglo Indian Community, which is a constitutionally defined microscopic community in the country. We are the only community that fulfill all the three categories that are required to be a minority in the country – numerically, linguistically and religion. Because we are such a small number and needed to be protected, we are given political reservation so we are represented. We (the MLAs) are nominated by the Governor of the State. Two MPs (for the entire country) are nominated by the President of India. Every State is constitutionally bound to have nominated MLA from the community. But once you enter the State Assembly as a Legislator, there really is no difference in our role and responsibilities from the elected representatives.

Not much is known about a nominated MLA, so there are reservations about us. But there really are no different set of rules for us about what we can and can’t do. The only place we can’t participate is the voting for the Rajya Sabha elections. We also have to attend Assembly and participate in debates just like everybody else.

Unlike other MLAs who represent a constituency, you represent a community that is scattered all around the state. How did you prioritise areas to help the community?

Yes, the Anglo Indian community is spread across the state the largest being in Bengaluru. We have numbers living in Kolar Gold Field, Hubli, Hospet, Mysore, Kolar etc and other areas where the British had their base in a pre-independent India. When I came into the Assembly, I was very clear that I couldn’t not solve every problem there was. My first challenge was to let the community know that I was available to help them and they could reach out to me. The previous nominated MLAs have downplayed the power of their seat, not using the strength. With a scattered group like ours, it is a challenge to connect. So one of the first thing I did was travel to these places and meet the community at least five to six times during my tenure.

This effort of mine has garnered positive response because this was apparently the first time nominated MLA (who previously were Bengaluru-centric) had visited them. Many of them did not know they were entitled to benefits from government schemes, CM relief fund pensions etc. At my request the Chief Minister included the community in the state budget of 2016 and granted Rs 2 Crores for the upliftment of the community. My second priority was a Community Centre because we don’t have one in the whole of the state for us. I wanted a space that nurtured our cultural identity as Anglo Indians. The CM gave his permission for me to identify a civic amenities site for it. My idea is that this should be a self-sustaining space which can pay for its own upkeep, also generate revenue for the community in the longer run, provide employment for people and eventually house a shelter for those looking for help.

Now when I say a shelter, I don’t mean a permanent one. I personally believe everybody should work and earn their living. This shelter should be a stop gap arrangement for a maximum period of six months by which time people should be able to turn their lives around. I haven’t started work on the project yet, because I am still finalising the land and other requirement details figuring out where the community is larger in numbers. I don’t mind waiting it out because we are going to do this once, I’d want to get it right.

Since you aren’t limited by a constituency, your LAD expense report shows you have funded projects in KGF, Anekal Jigani etc. In the first year, almost Rs 90 lakhs have been spent on parks in Bangalore. How do you decide on what project you want to allot money? And each of these areas also have elected constituency MLAs as well who also have their own allotted funds. How do you explain this? What is the visible outcome of these expenditures?

My basic focus was to look at areas where Anglo Indians lived. The first project I did was a few parks in Austin Town because they were in a very dilapidated condition. Today after they have been upgraded, they have turned into spaces for the community where people meet and kids play. I have been requested by MLAs from other parties to help fund projects like bus stops etc in their constituency which I have obliged. One of them was from JD(S) in Shimoga. One can argue that they have their own LAD funds. But we have more problems than resources and I am not going to be building an bus stand meant only for Anglo Indians! It’s about the larger community.

Let me give you one more example. Now we are not allowed to allocate funds to private institutions and none of the Anglo Indian educational institutions are government organisations. We are however allowed to give 15% to projects we would like to recommend. I chose the William Richards school in KGF which has about 1600 students from about 26 villages around there. The children were sitting under a 40 degree sun because they did not have a shelter. I funded a pavilion from the money at my disposal that now doubles as a open air auditorium because we have a stage and green rooms and toilets also built. Kids play under it, eat lunch and are so on so forth. It became a vibrant community space for everybody in the vicinity. I like to look at the larger picture and I like it when people benefit.

Being the only woman MLA from the City, where do you think the government has been less successful in making Bangalore safe for women?

There are many facets to this problem. The first one is the unchecked growth of the city. We have a floating population of lakhs of people. We also have a lot of people moving to the city making it a melting pot of culture. Many of them are young people who work very hard in IT companies and need some time off. Bangalore is a place that gives today’s youngsters the freedom to get some time chill out because it is a cosmopolitan city.

Another problem was that, Bangalore expanded very unscientifically and became 198 wards without first checking if we had the manpower to manage a city of this size. I think that was a big mistake. If the expansion isn’t a planned one, you are not going get the intended effect. Management and personnel can’t be an afterthought. Also we are not teaching our kids to be responsible citizens.

One of my suggestions at the Assembly is that we need to be focusing on the prevention of the crime. CCTVs etc can help catch the guy after the fact and that is not a guarantee either. To put it not so delicately, no guy is going to assault on a woman in front of a camera. It may just be a coincidence that the crime is caught on tape. But if we invest in teaching our sons about gender equality and sensitising them about issues of women empowerment etc, that will add up to a crime free society for women in the longer run.

But the topic of sex education in schools is such a taboo in the Indian context.

But this can’t certainly go on like this. We need to bring subject experts and take their opinions on this. We are not know-it-alls as MLAs.

But what is being done by the Government? And where have you identified a problem in prosecuting cases against women and children?

I am on the committee that deals with atrocities on women and children which is headed by Nalpad Haris. As members of the committee we have travelled to almost 26 districts in the State and my take on where the problem is, is that the system of redressal is very indifferent to those who come to it. The public prosecutors who fight the cases under POSCO – the law say that these cases must be concluded in a year. I have seen cases pending from 2010 in one office.

So I asked the man to read the law to me. At the tail end of it there is caveat “Conclude the case in one year… as far as possible”. That kills the law and these guys get off on technicalities. The bureaucracy needs to stop adding these loopholes in new laws. When the juvenile in the case of the Nirbhaya walked out recently, we couldn’t do anything about it because the judiciary and judicial system functions like that. We need to stop being hypocritical about our attitude towards women and say she is worshipped here and yet have laws that help people who assault get off.

But it is the Legislative that passes these law. How does one hold you, the MLAs accountable?

That is a difficult question and I agree it is a two-way street. But I have brought this up in the Assembly and pulled up the officers during my travel around the state as part of the committee work about this. The impact that we have seen is that, there has been a rise in appeals against acquittals of the rape and child abuse accused.

What are those numbers? Do you have figures on how much they have increased?

I don’t have them right now and I would like to give exact figures. But I can say this with confidence that they have definitely gone up.

What are the other areas you see a need for improvement?

Planning and execution, and a commitment to their jobs is a huge problem. The government can want to do many things, but the implementation by the bureaucracy is quite different. For example, something as simple as our textbooks. It frustrates me to see the number of spelling mistakes in them. We have number of committees to overlook these things and yet they have to wait till the last minute to get them organised. You know the entire year that the schools are going to start in June, so plan accordingly. Why is it so difficult? We spend so much time in the Assembly fighting over trivial issues which are so not important instead of discussing and debating these issues. One incident or matter can hold the entire state to ransom and the other problems just don’t get their due time. We need to stop this one-upmanship in politics. There needs to be healthy debates which is not happening

So how often have you been part a ‘healthy debate’ for a suggested measure that has made an impact? How often have you been able to speak up in the Assembly?

Well, one thing I suggested and spoke at the Assembly was that we make the Vidhana Soudha paperless. We spend so much of money on paper and it isn’t doesn’t help the environment. That is being implemented. I spoke about desalination plant in Mangalore. I have also spoken about one issue that is very close to my heart which is creating better facilities for the differently abled.

Can you elucidate on that?

This issue is very dear to me because I have a son who was born deaf. Today he is doing his masters in the US in social work and the support system they have there makes life easier for him. Our children who are differently-abled here also just need opportunities to bring the best out of them. I have spoken about the need for a facility for those after their schooling because till then they should be mainstreamed. My son was and that was great help to him. And I am not thinking about only Anglo-Indian children but disabled children all over the state. Any administration just needs a little bit of commitment to deliver on its promise and stop fighting among themselves.

That speaks to the fact that you are not a politician! (She laughs out loudly) So how difficult has it been for you as an unseasoned member of the assembly to understand and have the system deliver for you?

When I first came into the Assembly, the first couple of months I just observed the way the system works. I had gone in mentally prepared for the system not to work for me. It was not going to work like the corporate sector (where I worked in) where you send an email and promptly get a reply in six minutes and you can close the mailbox for the day at 11.59pm. But what I did was to build rapport with people because that works everywhere – whether it was the security guard or office staff in CM’s office. I also took a hands-on approach where I would walk in with my request or files by myself. At the beginning, the ministers were quite surprised and I was told that the PAs have to do this. But I realised things were getting delayed because of this whole back office mechanisms because the staff’s responsibility was to protect the minister or MLA. I also realised I could get a better response if I went there by myself instead of sending my PA. That’s because it takes a while, even for the political leaders, for the penny to drop that there is a nominated MLA. At the beginning, every time I reached out to one of them, their first question was “which constituency”. After i explained I was nominated, it still took them awhile to figure it out. If I threw in an assistant into this mix, things would get delayed further. But by and large, these guys were accessible once they caught on. As a private citizen, one of the advantages I had/have is that I can simplify the problem. My approach is that I focus on the solution and not the problem. I am not here to take on somebody else’s position. My statement is simple – we have a problem, let’s work as a team and solve it.

But do you think that you have the advantage of simplifying matters, because you are a nominated MLA and don’t have to worry about party high commands and the pressure of elections?

I guess so. But I have been fortunate to have people from the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) who have been very supportive. Not all of the MLAs are rogues and have to work very hard.

How easy is it to be a woman MLA given how misogynistic the political arena is? How easy is it to get them to listen to you?

I think it is an advantage to be a woman. Especially with me, their immediate reaction was “how do we deal with this lady”. The way I dressed (I have worn business suits and skirts to meet with delegates), my persona, everything comes into play – so the response was a little reserved. But I had all my ducks in a row about what I wanted to achieve. I cannot change the system by myself. But I set out to change the world around me and that clarity helped.

What are the areas of governance that you had a problem with which needs to be made more accessible to the public? Can it be more transparent?

There is a system in place but the implementation is where governance fails. For me to deliver for my community, biggest challenge has been the perception about my community in the governance class. Now we are a bunch of people, who work hard and party harder. So the perception is that there is alcoholism and drug issues – but lack of education is one of our social problem. We like our dresses (which is now a huge rage among everybody) and all of that. Most of the general public carry this image of us very similar to Julie (the famous movie from the 70s where the protagonist belonged to an Anglo Indian family). But our contributions to various fields have been enormous. Most people don’t know who Anglo Indians are. We are the only community in India which has Indian attached to our name. We are very proud of it and we are not foreigners. We were a product of the social circumstances of that time and this has happened all over the world. Our love for our country is unshakeable. We have given India 43 Air Marshals and Rear Admirals. Our contribution to the postal and telegraph services, railways, nursing, secretariats and teaching has been unparallelled. Hopefully the community centre I proposed will also eventually accommodate a museum about the Anglo Indian contributions to our country.

The education system was largely forged by us. Yet we are perceived as a bunch of affluent merry makers while the truth is we also have financial issues and have mellowed down quite a bit. Now the rest of the city has taken over (laughs). This happened to somebody I had sent to a local Tahsildar’s office to collect her welfare cheque and she was turned away because she didn’t look poor enough since she had some ‘gold’ on her. The officer refused her request. What she didn’t know was that, our culture is such, we like to dress well (even with limited means) when we step out and the ‘gold’ was stuff she had picked up on the road side. Another lady who was 82 was turned away because she didn’t look old enough despite giving her birth certificate.

In the last four years, have you been able to recognise an area of governance that you think you are good at and would like to continue forward?

The progress with regard to the women and child rights under our committee for the matter has been enormous in making people accountable. Our dialogue with police, public prosecutors, education department has been very satisfying. We have had open houses to get an idea with issues at the ground level. Now for example, rape victims are entitled to a compensation of Rs 3 lakhs, but when the victim is a child below 14 years, this is one and half time so the entire thing comes up Rs 4.5 lakh. Now this is a government order. Yet not one of them to my knowledge has got the this compensation. Where were our public prosecutors and Home department questioning this? This compensation is not at the discretion of judge. This was where the Government stepped in and pulled people up to follow the letter of law. So I am very happy with that. But the problem is huge and it will take more than laws alone. We need committed people in the bureaucracy to help this. There is lethargy which is creating a problem.

Given the fact that you are nominated to represent a minority community, is it practically possible to keep religion out of politics?

In India it is not possible to keep the two separate. We are not going down any road where I see this to be changing.

You were in the private sector before you came into the Assembly which is known for its big fat pay cheques. Do you think the monetary compensation is enough? How much is it for nominated MLAs?

You are right. I worked for companies like Microsoft and Cisco where I enjoyed all perks accorded to a senior personnel – business class air travel, five star hotel stays the whole nine years. As an MLA, I travel in trains, cars on non-existent roads etc. While I was mentally prepared for a substantial pay cut, when I got my first pay cheque, the basic was about ten percent of what I made during my time in the private sector. Trust me, I did have a ‘Whoa!’ moment there! When the perks get added (we get paid extra for committee meetings and travel and all the other benefits), the MLA’s salary comes up to about Rs 1.4 lakhs, and then it sounds substantial. But in my case I looked at it practically. I didn’t have a huge lifestyle to support. It was just my husband and me since my son is grown up. A substantial portion of my salary goes to providing books to school kids. Clearly you are here to serve the people and that is what your focus needs to be on.

Do you plan to continue in public life? How would you go about it? Has this stint convinced you to enter politics full time? Are you hoping for a second term?

Well.. if they give me a second term, I’d be happy take on that privilege. But I was actively involved with community work even before this and will continue to do so. You shouldn’t be hankering after a post to do good work.

What has been your biggest learning from being an MLA. What would you offer as advice to the next nominated MLA? How can a nominated MLA make his/her role more impactful?

The first thing you need to do is to make sure that you have a focused approach to three or four key issues so you can deliver efficiently. Having a hundred things on your plate won’t help. As a woman, be very sure of who you are and what you bring to the table. Speak up wisely. Don’t miss opportunities when they present themselves and be able to recognise them.

Note: An earlier version said nominated MLAs have no voting rights, but the fact is that they cannot vote only in Rajyasabha elections. The article has been modified accordingly.


About Manasi Paresh Kumar 46 Articles
Manasi Paresh Kumar is Engagement Editor for Bengaluru Citizen Matters.