“We are told to disconnect the distress calls in less than two minutes. How am I supposed to help those affected by abuse in under two minutes?,” asks Savita, one of the 25 employees from the Delhi Government’s Women and Child Department. The 181 helpline was put in place under the Congress government in 2013 after the Nirbhaya gangrape case, as a measure to provide support to the distressed victims reaching out for emergency help in dire situations, often to report cases of harassment, domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
The employees first found out about the privatisation of the helpline to Cartel Infotech, based i’n Naraina, New Delhi, on March 6. 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 them, there was no official communication or information about this prior to the message. They were told that there was no change in the duties they performed and it was primarily a change in location.
Speaking to NewsClick, Savita explained, “When we went to the company, we were told to handle complaints in a manner in which private call centres do. However, we are a distress helpline and we found it difficult to function in the new framework laid down by Cartel.” The employee also added, “Not only was our office shifted, the facilities given to us were also cut down drastically. We are not given cabs any more, 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.” The employees mentioned that initially they were also being urged to resign from the Delhi Commission of Women, under which the helpline is based.
Also read: Arpit Hotel Fire a Grim Reminder of Rampant Flouting of Fire Safety Norms
Protesting against the changes, the 24 women employees have been staging a sit-in outside the secretariat for over 70 days now. A protest was also organised in Okhla on May 31. The employees have sought the intervention of the Delhi High Court and have argued in their plea that by privatising the 181 helpline, the government has “transferred a state function, which was in the interest of public safety and to ensure safety/protection of women and children, to a private party”. Accusing the government of abdicating its core duty to provide help to women in distress, the plea has sought the HC’s intervention to revert the move. Following this, a bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice Anup J Bhambhani on Wednesday sought the state government’s stand on the plea challenging its privatisation and allegations of data breach ever since the operations were shifted to Caretel Infotech in Naraina.
Speaking to NewsClick, Sajid Mujeeb one of the organisers of the protest said, “There are possibilities of a privacy breach and data leak that we have been suspecting. However, this is being completely sidelined.” He added, “We have reached out on multiple occasions to the Delhi government, Manish Sisodia and even the NCW but without any respite.” 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.
The issue of privatisation of government helplines is not new. In February earlier this year, in the case of a fire accident in New Delhi’s Arpit hotel based in Karol Bagh, it was found that there were many glitches both in terms of preventing the fire as well as the rescuing process. It was found that 101 – the emergency online number for fire emergency – was privatised and is manned by untrained employees which caused a delay in the fire fighters reaching the location and carrying out rescue operations.