A 26-year-old woman Jaya* facing sexual harassment at her workplace contacted me about a year ago. She ran a design firm with another partner and was being sexually harassed by her co-partner, who had expressed romantic interest in her. She had clearly indicated to him that his advances were unwelcome, but he persisted, asking her to meet when she had no work with him and making sexual advances. By virtue of him being a co-partner having, equal access to the resources of the firm, he then started harassing her by blocking her access to the work-email and making the work environment difficult.
What does a woman faced with such a situation do? Who does she report to?
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (The Act) came into force on 9thDecember 2013, 16 years after the Supreme Court laid down guidelines in the Vishaka judgment. The provisions of the Act apply to all workplaces, public, private, organized or unorganized and seek to prevent and redress sexual harassment faced by women at workplaces.
“The Act provides for the setting up of Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) at all workplaces having more than 10 employees and for Local Complaints Committees (LCC) to be set up at the District level in all other cases, where women facing sexual harassment at the workplace can make complaints and seek redress. The question however is, whether ICCs and LCCs have actually been set up?”
Jaya’s firm had less than 10 employees and thus no ICC, so I told her to approach the LCC in South Delhi, which I would put her in touch with. This is how I started searching for LCCs in Delhi. I found out that there was not a single LCC set up in Delhi. Sub-Divisional Magistrates in the South District, had no clue about a statute mandated LCC. Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) who I contacted just to be sure, informed me that despite due efforts on their part, LCCs had not been set up till date. Jaya approached the women’s helpline and got temporary relief in the form of a written apology upon police intervention. The situation may however have been different had there been an LCC she could have approached.
At about the same time last year, A UK based organization Sisters For Change in partnership with Munnade, an NGO in Bangalore, Karnataka released a report regarding sexual violence faced by women workers employed in the garment industry in Karnataka. The statistics in the report were shocking; women not only faced sexual harassment but also rape and intimidation at the workplaces and most of these establishments had no ICCs where women could complain. The report notes that 1 in 7 women garment worker has been raped or forced to commit a sexual act, 75% of the workers reported that there was no functioning internal complaints committee in their factory.
Gathering information on LCCs is still easier, through news articles or notifications available on the Internet, it seems that, the only way to gather information on ICCs would be to survey all workplaces having more than 10 employees or file RTIs with the State Governments which may not be available in the absence of appointed District Officers. The Act provides for monitoring and implementation of the provisions of the Act through the intervention of a District Officer to be appointed by the appropriate government. Annual reports containing information pertaining to the number of cases filed, if any, and their disposal are to be submitted by ICCs and LCCs to this District Officer, who in turn forwards them to the State Government, which is required to monitor the implementation of this Act, carry out inspections and maintain data. Thus, appointment of District Officers is essential for proper monitoring and implementation of the Act.
The information regarding the appointment of District Officers is not readily available, unless an RTI is filed. A simple internet search reveals that the state of Maharashtra issued a notification in 2014, appointing a District Officer to exercise and discharge functions under the Act. Such information with respect to other states is not known.
Recently, an anonymous blog posted by Indian Fowler on the internet made allegations of sexual harassment against Mr. Arunabh Kumar, founder of an internet entertainment company The Viral Fever (TVF). From the post which has since been deleted, it became amply clear that the author of the post had no avenue for a complaint, there was no ICC at TVF despite them having more than 10 employees. Eventually, the author and other girls who had been (allegedly) harassed by Mr. Arunabh Kumar filed an FIR u/s 354A of the Indian Penal Code [Sexual harassment] and went ahead with criminal prosecution. While this was happening, All India Bakchod (AIB) a leading comedy start-up was very vocal and active on twitter regarding the TVF controversy and sexual harassment at the workplace.
Taking this opportunity to gather information about ICCs, I contacted them and asked if they had an ICC, they were quick to reply that they did and I could get in touch with one Mr. Praful for details, whom I wrote to,and got no reply. I wrote back to AIB about this, and did not receive a response.
In my experience, while working on matters pertaining to sexual harassment, I realized that many a times companies having more than 10 employees did not have ICCs, because they did not know they were mandated to constitute an ICC. This too indicates a lack of awareness and initiative on the part of employers.
One would think that the situation is far better at Government workplaces, but on May 11th 2017, but an article published on The Wire suggested otherwise. The Article details how the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, which is affiliated to the lacked an Internal Complaints Committee when a complaint was made. On the other hand, the Minister for Women and Children Ms. Maneka Gandhi recently announced the launch of an e-platform, which will enable women employees of the central govt. to file complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace.
Four years into the Act and here we are, with few ICCs and fewer LCCs. It is interesting to note here that the guidelines laid down in the Vishaka judgment itself call for a Complaints Committee in order to have a proper complaint mechanism ensuring redress to the victim and time bound disposal of complaints. Thus, technically speaking, Complaints Committee ought to have been in place 1997 onward, when the judgment was rendered.
“It is worth noting that the Act provides for a penalty of Rs.50,000/- where an employer fails to constitute an ICC or take action with respect to any complaint.”
In the absence of notified District Officers in the first instance, there is no effective monitoring of the Act since employers have nothing to worry about in case of non-compliance and thus various workplaces continue to have no ICCs, very few LCCs have been set up in districts as mandated by the Act.As a consequence of this, there may also be no data keeping on number of cases filed and disposed, which ultimately affects the implementation as well as the monitoring of the Act by the State Government, ensuring that women have no option but to approach the police station for criminal prosecution, leaving the Act redundant.
Thus, though the Act may be well intentioned, we certainly have a long way to go as far as implementation is concerned.
Radhika is a Delhi Based lawyer at the Chambers of Senior Advocate Indira Jaising.