The government, at the height of the #MeToo movement last October announced it was setting up a Group of Ministers (GoM) to analyse and make changes to the structure of the legal framework to include and thus prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. It appears that the panel has been dissolved.
The announcement was made after then Minister of State for external affairs, M.J. Akbar, resigned from the Modi government on several instances of sexual harassment was brought up and many women filed charges against him.
The GoM had some of the most senior Union ministers in the government: Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, Maneka Gandhi and Nitin Gadkari.
A Right to Information (RTI) request recently filed by The Quint nine months after the announcement revealed that the committee has since been dissolved. What’s more, the government has refused to disclose the minutes of any committee 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 had initially promised to scrutinise existing laws and policies on sexual harassment and recommend changes to strengthen them. It claimed to want to figure out ways to ensure justice was being delivered with “time bound implementation.”
Sushmita Dev on behalf of the Congress responded to the dissolution with a letter ending on: This begs the question – Will Smriti Irani rise up to the occasion and reconstitute a multi- party committee that includes social activists and members of other political parties or will she continue to work against the very grain of human dignity and women of this country?
Recently, the news about the reconstitution of the Group of Ministers on sexual harassment surfaced on social media and it was endorsed by The Hindu. It was possibly done to curb the backlash the dissolution of earlier panel received from working professionals pan India. Now the GoM shall be headed by Amit Shah.
India’s law to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace was hailed as a major step but in time it is becoming clear that the laws have several 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 meanwhile, barred from talking about her case, even after the inquiry committee has finished its inquiry.
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 the committee’s members is also dependent upon the discretion of those who run the company making it a faulty one at best.