At the height of India’s #MeToo movement last October, the government announced it would set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) to look into what structural changes can be made to the legal framework to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. It turns out, now, that the panel has been dissolved.
The announcement came soon after then Minister of State for external affairs, M.J. Akbar, resigned from the Modi government after several women brought sexual harassment charges against him.
The GoM comprised some of the most senior Union ministers in the Modi government: Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, Maneka Gandhi and Nitin Gadkari. At the time, they were Union home minister, defence minister, women and child development minister and water minister respectively. Gadkari was, in fact, minister of Road Transport and Highways, Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, and Shipping.
Nine months later, a Right to Information (RTI) request filed by The Quint has revealed that the committee has been dissolved. Moreover, the government has said that it will not disclose the minutes of any of their meetings.
The RTI had asked for the number of times the GoM met, the dates of all the meetings and the minutes of each meeting. It also asked for a copy of the recommendations which this group was supposed to make within three months.
This information has been denied under Section 8 (i) of the RTI Act. This section is invoked to justify not disclosing information which “would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence”.
The government, in October, had promised to look into existing laws and policies on sexual harassment and recommend ways to strengthen them. It also claimed to have wanted to come up with ways to ensure that justice was being delivered with “time bound implementation.”
India’s law to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace was hailed as a major step but in time it has become apparent that the law has several loop holes and shortcomings. For example, it allows a woman to make her complaint only within three months of the offence having taken place. The members of sexual harassment committees are also picked by the workplace administrators or higher ups. The woman is bar, meanwhile, barred from talking about her case, even after the inquiry committee has finished its inquiry.
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There is little recourse available to a woman who is unhappy with the findings of the sexual harassment committee or for a woman who may have faced reprisal for complaining about sexual harassment. It has been left up to workplaces to constitute these committees and the quality of members on it is also dependent upon the discretion of those who run the company.
The Wire had reported in May about how some women are barred from making complaints under the law too. For example, women who may have experienced sexual harassment at the hands of a judge or the Chief Justice of India, are not allowed to make complaints under this law.