Information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu held that the National Commission for Women had failed in the discharge of its responsibility towards its women employees.
The Central Information Commission (CIC) on Thursday pulled up the National Commission for Women (NCW) for failing in its duty as a “responsible employer” and its role defined by Section 10 of the National Commission for Women Act, 1990 by not acting on a complaint of sexual harassment filed by an employee from a minority community against a senior officer. The Act states that the NCW should “investigate and examine all matters relating to the safeguards provided for women under the constitution and other law” and “take up the cases of violation of the provisions of the constitution and of other laws relating to women with the appropriate authorities”. It has also come to light that another woman employee had also filed a sexual harassment complaint against the same officer.
In his final order, information commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu criticised the NCW for its handing of the employee’s case. “When the right of a woman is violated and rule of law does not work, she looks to the NCW for support and sympathy. If men violate the rights of a woman in the NCW office itself, and the rule of law does not work, where should she go?,” he asked.
In the 39-page order, Acharyulu brought out the details of the case, referring to the proceedings on July 20, when the victim had deposed before him. He noted how the complainant had made a “highly emotional appeal to the commission about continuous harassment by V.V.B. Raju, ever since he assumed office of deputy secretary and the First Appellate Authority (FAA) at NCW.”
“Asked to wait beyond office hours”
The woman employee has alleged that Raju would instruct her to obtain his signatures on the files personally, and would keep the files pending until she brought them. She also said that when she brought the files, she would be asked to wait for a long time beyond office hours. The victim informed the chairperson and her immediate boss about the conduct of Raju, but they were strongly defended him.
According to Acharyulu’s report, despite her complaint against Raju, “she was advised to take files to him as she was subordinate and she was appreciated by several officers for her work, her reporting officer also directed her to go to Mr. Raju personally with the files.”
In her submission, the victim added that when she refused, Raju attempted to mar her unblemished career. She also said that her salary was reduced from Rs 10,000 to 8,000.
The harassment did not end there. Acharyulu noted in his order that “three research associates (including herself) were not re-issued the contract and later, he issued appointment contracts to two others, thereby conspired to remove her on some complaints which were not filed by anybody.”
On why the accused officer acted the way he did, Acharyulu noted that “as V.V.B. Raju enjoyed complete support from the chairperson and others, he was emboldened to continue the sexual harassment. There was no action at all on her complaint, her colleague-witnesses were at the mercy of V.V.B. Raju and other officers for extension of their employment contracts and hence, could not fearlessly talk about truth of sexual harassment during the inquiry; everybody knew about his conduct, but none dared to give witness against him.”
The information commissioner also noted that when a woman research assistant, Rakesh Rani, “spoke about truth of his misconduct,” she too was harassed and other witnesses told her that they cannot risk their jobs and increments.
Acharyulu said that when the victim sought information on her case, “the public authority deliberately suppressed the information sought and that Raju prevented the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) from giving information. Raju also prevented the FAA from hearing the appeal.”
NCW chief’s role also criticised
Acharyulu has also raised questions about the conduct of the NCW chairperson, saying the “chairperson was having all support for Raju but no empathy towards her [the victim]; the chairperson did not consider her personal representation at all; the chairperson withheld the key files from her to deny her access under RTI; the chairperson instructed the office people not to speak to her, because of which none were communicating with her till she was thrown out, in spite of the CIC’s order to provide the documents for inspection.”
He said the victim-appellant also narrated how she was fighting the powerful people in the NCW. “It is evident that a woman-research scholar is not safe in the NCW itself. How can women from outside find any support or justice, when the chairperson herself supports the accused. Where should the victims go for help?” he asked.
Influence wielded to deny information
Stating that Raju continued to “wield influence to prevent the supply of information and other files to her,” Acharyulu said it was only after the intervention of the CIC that the inspection was allowed and the office claimed that a bundle of 950-plus pages were dispatched to the appellant. But, he said, these were “yet to be delivered”.
Referring to the July hearing, Acharyulu said, “Appellant was visibly upset at the presence of V.V.B.Raju during the hearing … she went on giving details of harassment – sexual and work related – for more than a year.”
The information commissioner also noted that while NCW officers defended Raju by saying that the appellant filed a sexual harassment complaint because her services were not continued, “the truth was spilled out” within minutes. He said that when the commission inquired into the dates, it was revealed that the internal complaints committee (ICC) had heard the complaint of sexual harassment of the victim and given its report on May 11, 2016, whereas her service was discontinued much later in November 2016.
Stating that the victim had filed the RTI application on December 21, 2016, seeking information on the action against her, Acharyulu said the conduct of the NCW’s other officers “proves that Raju enjoys enormous support from these officers and that the appellant was victimised for raising her voice against sexual harassment.”
Defence of the accused
For his part, Raju defended himself, saying he was “not the FAA in the said matter and the FAA had called the applicant and given a personal hearing in this matter.” He argued that “there is no question of obstructing access to information to the applicant by him, as had been alleged in her second appeal.”
Raju submitted in his defence, “As such, the undersigned has not violated the law either in dealing with the RTI Act or the principles of natural justice, which could attract a case of conflict of interest.”
The appellant and her counsel, however, alleged the NCW probe into her case of being a sham “as most of the witnesses could not open their mouth against Raju as they are all at his mercy for extension of their contractual appointment. There was one employee who stood by the truth but was victimised by the administration for it”.
NCW failed as a responsible employer
The information commissioner held that the NCW had failed in the discharge of its responsibility towards its employee. “With the powers given by the statute, the NCW should have taken up her oral representation or the RTI application or the written complaint as the complaint to the NCW and should have conducted a hearing as per the NCW statute. It appears the NCW has not only failed as a responsible employer at first instance in responding to her complaint and RTI request, but also as commission and a statutory authority,” said Acharyulu.
Lax probe rewarded with remuneration hike
Referring to the proceedings of the ICC, which was constituted to probe the victim’s complaint, Acharyulu said, “The committee has not disposed of the complaint in a judicious manner as has been mandated in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (Act No. 14 of 2013).”
On the reasons for the laxity, he said: “The members in the ICC were contractual staff of the NCW. How can it be expected from a contractual staff to go against the management? And this contractual staff was later enormously rewarded by increasing their remuneration two-fold without any adequate justification.”
Pointing to anomalies even in this exercise, Acharyulu said: “The order increasing remuneration states that the expenditure involved is to be charged under plan head ‘Research Studies’, whereas their work does not correlate to ‘Research Study’ in any manner whatsoever. Even the witnesses who gave statements before the ICC were also adequately compensated for their contribution, by doubling the remuneration without any justification.”
NCW erred in dealing with appeals
Accusing the FAA of not following the principles of justice, Acharyulu said, “The NCW should have appointed another authority to hear her [the victim’s] first appeal.” On her second appeal about sexual harassment by a deputy secretary, her rights under the 2013 Act and right to information under the RTI Act, he said, “Surprisingly, the NCW did not respond to her complaint nor conducted inquiry properly, and disregarded the guidelines of the department of personnel and training (DOPT), the Supreme Court and the 2013 Act.”
Acharyulu said the victim had applied for a complete set of statements given before the ICC on June 3, 2016 and had referred to the guidelines of the DOPT issued in respect of the role of the ICC in the matters of sexual harassment at workplace. He noted that the Supreme Court had, in April 2004, directed that the reports of the complaints committee shall be deemed an inquiry report under the Central Civil Services (CCS) rules. Subsequently, the rules were amended to provide that the complaints committee would be deemed to be the inquiry authority.
‘Another woman employee had also complained of sexual harassment’
The victim, he said, had also alleged that procedures were not “adhered to in her compliant and also in that of another female staff (name withheld) against the same official. All this while the NCW maintained quietus on the issue and slowly and slightly favoured the official and subverted the entire enquiry”. Even after the inquiry report was submitted, she said that “it did nothing than to wait for an opportunity to throw her out.”
CIC decries attempts at “forum shopping”
Acharyulu also rejected the petition by the present CPIO of the NCW, R.C. Ahuja, for referring the case to a larger bench terming it a “forum shopping attempt by the CPIO”. He noted that Ahuja had sought the transfer alleging bias on the part of this commissioner. “The language and narration of Ahuja in this petition reflects his disrespect and contempt towards this commissioner. Being different CPIO representing the public authority, Ahuja made illegal allegations, adopted insulting language and attempted for forum shopping. His petition is illegal, unethical, opposed to decency, and reflects overall effort to conceal the information from the appellant in violation of RTI Act. From the language, tone and tenor of this petition, it appears that Mr. R. C. Ahuja, has no regard for RTI and CIC and such an officer, is bent upon resisting the disclosure of information that could be given under RTI Act,” Acharyulu wrote, wondering how can an officer with such “anti-RTI and anti-CIC attitude” decides first appeals under RTI Act.