On Deepavali morning, NCR-based Dr Sweta Singh, was leisurely sipping coffee. With some free time at hand, the gynaecologist decided to take online consultation queries on Practo, an online platform based out of Bengaluru, which allows people to connect with a variety of doctors and medical specialists. Little did she know that the query she would accept that day would leave her shocked, angry and give her sleepless nights in the days to come.
“I ejaculated on the vagina on a virgin who has not yet hit puberty. Is there any possibility of pregnancy? If yes, what is the way to avoid? (Sic)” the query read. A horrified Dr Sweta realised that this was a case of child sexual assault. She then asked the person the age of the girl, and was horrified when the 34-year-old man replied, “10 years.”
“I cancelled his consultation. […]Once my hands were shaking less, once my head wasn't reeling, once I was crying a little less, I spoke to my friend Anushree K. She banded together a group of people and with their guidance I registered a formal complaint against this patient. However I didn't have access to his details,” Dr Sweta wrote in a Facebook post on November 8, which has since gone viral.
She reached out to Practo as well and says that the organisation cooperated in giving the man’s details like name, phone number and IP address as they appeared on his Practo profile. The man appeared to be based out of Pune, Maharashtra. TNM has a copy of the complaint filed with the Greater Noida police by Dr Sweta and a Practo representative as co-complainants.
She also tweeted to PM Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Sudhma Swaraj and Puducherry governor Kiran Bedi for help. “I gave a small statement of what I needed help with. They were the only ones I thought could and WOULD help. I spent my Diwali waiting for them,” Dr Sweta said on Facebook. “My heart breaking into a million little pieces as I watched them posting tweets about Diwali etc. on Twitter but not bothering to help a real little form of Lakshmiji,” she added.
Thanks to Dr Sweta’s viral Facebook post, the National Commission for Child Rights (NCPCR), whom she had also emailed, got in touch with her and asked for the details of the man who sent the self-incriminating query.
Meanwhile, Practo also responded, filing a complaint about the issue with the NCPCR on November 8 as well as with the Bengaluru Commissioner’s office on November 9. They filed a complaint with the Puttenahalli police station a day later on November 10.
With all this action, it would appear that things would move quickly to apprehend the Pune-based accused. Sadly, that has not been the case. “It has been nine days today. There is no news if the man has been arrested,” Dr Sweta tells TNM.
Delay in investigation?
According to information TNM received from NCPCR chairperson Priyank Kanoongo’s office, the government body wrote to Bengaluru DCP South Annamalai K after it got to know about the case. They asked the DCP to conduct an inquiry, register an FIR against the accused and also to investigate whether Practo has caused intentional delay in reporting the incident. The NCPCR was insistent that Practo should be charged in connection with the incident.
Section 19 of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act entails mandatory reporting of sexual crimes against children, and also if one has knowledge that a sexual crime is likely to be committed against a child.
However, Practo maintains that they have been prompt and cooperative with the investigation and have provided details of the accused to concerned authorities. DCP South Annamalai tells TNM that they had not yet found evidence of negligence or delay on Practo’s part. "We believe what we have done is as per the law. We have registered a case under Section 8 of the POCSO Act against unknown offenders. We have not found any evidence of negligence or delay on the part of Practo as of now. Further investigation is on in this regard," Annamalai said.
A Practo spokesperson maintains that the company has been prompt and cooperating with authorities. “We are appalled by this incident and are deeply concerned about the safety and health of the victim. […] there is no question of any delay on our part in providing information. We have been co-operating fully with the concerned authorities. […]We have provided all the information we have about the accused to both the police authorities and the NCPCR without any delay. We remain concerned about the safety and well-being of the little girl and are committed to assisting the authorities in whatever way we can. We are in constant communication with the local police authorities to facilitate appropriate investigation,” a company spokesperson told TNM.
Meanwhile, the Greater Noida police have not filed an FIR in the regard while an FIR has been registered under Section 8 of the POCSO Act (sexual assault) in Bengaluru. Police sources in Bengaluru confirmed that officers are planning to go to Pune to apprehend the accused.
What if Dr Sweta had not flagged the alleged offender?
Practo also clarified that the platform is not one where queries from people and patients are visible to the public. “The incident occurred during a one-on-one, private conversation between the patient and the doctor. This is an encrypted chat and not a public forum. Any conversation between a patient and a doctor is confidential and we are not privy to it. This is why all such chats are encrypted on our platform. The platform has been designed to meet global standards and to cater to sensitive interactions between doctors and patients. This is more so because healthcare data are subject to data protection and privacy regulations,” a Practo spokesperson said.
This essentially means that if you want to speak to a medical specialist and raise a query, a backend person at Practo would not be able to see your query or the nature of it. They would only see a request to speak to, say, a gynaecologist. The relevant gynaecologists on the platform would then receive a request, and based on whether they are free, they can accept the query. Only that particular doctor would be able to see the query and chat with the patient then.
And while in this particular case, any person who came across such a query or statement would have been mandated to report it under POCSO’s mandatory reporting clause (section 19), it has remained subject to personal discretion, given that cases of child sexual abuse are frequently hushed up.
Had Dr Sweta not flagged this case then, it is possible that it would have gone unreported – which makes it even more crucial for the alleged offender to be apprehended as soon as possible. The gynaecologist remains distressed because the alleges child rapist is still roaming free. “It breaks my heart,” she tells TNM. “My own anger and anxiety after this have shocked me. People like him don’t think twice about molesting a child because they are easy to scare and silence. It is difficult for kids to bring this up or fight for themselves. If we, as adults, don’t change this situation, who will?”