A bill providing for stringent punishment for crimes against women, including rape, and also defining acid attack, stalking and voyeurism as criminal offences, was on Thursday cleared by the Union Cabinet.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 also lowers the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16 years and makes 'rape' as a gender-specific offence under which men only can be charged for it.
The bill, brought against the backdrop of the December 16 Delhi gang rape, provides for minimum jail term of 20 years for rape which may be extended to 'natural life' of the convict in jail.
There is also provision for death sentence if the victim dies or is left in a 'persistent vegetative state'.
Stalking, voyeurism have been defined as criminal offences in the bill. Sustained stalking will be a non-bailable offence.
The bill had divided the Cabinet at its special meeting on Tuesday and was referred to a Group of Ministers to sort out differences on various aspects of the proposed law.
The GoM finalised the draft yesterday amidst the government's keenness to expedite the bill that will replace an ordinance promulgated on February 3.
The bill uses the term 'rape' which will be gender-specific, in contrast to the gender-neutral 'sexual assault' as proposed in the ordinance.
The bill also lowers the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16 years. In the ordinance, it was 18 years.
The measure, on the lines of the ordinance, has not touched on the issue of making marital rape a separate offence.
Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath, who has been opposed to lowering the age of consent to 16 years, is learnt to have raised the issue again in Thursday's Cabinet meeting, sources said.
The issue of age had led to lengthy inter-ministry consultations with some arguing that it should not be reduced. Sexual intercourse below the age of consent is considered statutory rape.
The government decided to drop the term 'sexual assault' and replace it with 'rape' following demands by women's rights groups who had maintained that laws should be more gender sensitive than gender neutral.
Defining acid attack as a separate IPC offence, the bill proposes a punishment of not less than 10 years to a maximum of life imprisonment, the sources said.
Repeat offences of voyeurism, inappropriate touch, gesture and remarks have been recommended as non-bailable offences, they said.
Provisions seeking strong action against those filing false complaints were dropped from the draft bill Wednesday as there was consensus in the GoM that existing provisions under the Indian Penal Code were adequate to deal with such cases and it was only a matter of enforcing them, the sources said.
The other proposal in the measure is understood to be on replacing the provision in the ordinance which has prescribed life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for those in authority committing rape. Now, a person in authority convicted of rape will have to spend rest of his "natural life" in jail.
A person in authority has been described as a police officer, a personnel of the armed forces, a doctor or a staffer of a hospital, a jailer or a warden of a remand home.
A fresh proposal now makes it mandatory for all government and private hospitals in the country to provide free medical treatment to women victims of any form of sexual violence.
Hospitals and similar facilities will not have to wait for the police. They can straight away start treatment after informing the police.
The refusal to do so will now be a criminal offence and will attract a one-year jail term for senior functionaries and the staff on duty of hospitals found guilty of turning away victims of sexual violence needing immediate medical care.
The bill has to be approved by Parliament before its recess from March 22, failing which the ordinance it proposes to replace would lapse on April 4.
Against the backdrop of some parties such as the Samajwadi Party having serious reservations on certain provisions of the ordinance claiming they are prone to misuse, the government has convened an all-party meeting next week to discuss the bill cleared by the Cabinet today.