Pankaj Sharma: Are Indian workplaces ready for the sexual harassment law?

pankaj-sharma-441The case of the beleaguered editor of TehelkaTarun Tejpal, the allegations by law interns against two retired Supreme Court judges and scores of others that followed in private and public workplaces have, for the first time, brought the topic of workplace sexual harassment on to the front pages of the print media and on the wider debating platforms of the electronic media.

All these incidents have suddenly gained unparalleled potency and created what many see as a highly volatile challenge forIndian workplaces.

The issue of workplace sexual harassment is a grey area even in western economies that have a potentially large and assimilated female workforce compared with India. However, unlike western countries where organisations accept workplace harassment in normal parlance, in India it was always frowned upon as a non-issue.

According due importance and bringing in much-needed constitutional sanctity to this important topic, the Union government promulgated the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013. The Act borrowed heavily from the Vishakha guidelines of the Supreme Court, in words if not entirely in spirit.

While the sceptics see the issue going the 498-A way (the anti-dowry section, which many, even in the justice system, believed to have been widely misused) and doom-mongers predicting scepticism about hiring women in workplaces, the supporters feel it provides women workers with their much-needed constitutional right to work.

However, a confused law and an utter lack of operational systems within the Indian workplaces themselves pose a serious challenge, as well as defeating the very purpose of the law, which could have played an important role in incrementing gender assimilation in the Indian workforce.

Much in line with similar occurrence-based jurisprudence, the sexual harassment Act comes into play in situations of purported occurrence of workplace sexual harassment. As such, there can only be two situations; the occurrence or non-occurrence of the incident. No matter what the situation, the law clearly states that either of the two situations be handled according to the defined service rules of the organisation.

An interesting paradigm is that none of the organisations with which I interacted have or ever thought of including workplace sexual harassment in their service rules and are still clueless about this. This leaves a massive gap in the effective methodology of closing the justice and system loop.

In India, the human resources function had remained confined to transactional issues such as hiring and firing, salaries, promotions, statutory compliances and so on, but not those pertaining to harassment issues, which is a newer area.

Assuming that service rules were set in place, the next issue of importance is ensuring the sanctity and neutrality of the complaint investigation process. The law mandates forming an internal complaints committee (ICC) to manage any workplace harassment complaints. Failure to do so could lead to the closure of the company’s business operations.

As the name suggests, an ICC largely constitutes internal employees who may be subjected to or be influenced in real case scenarios, especially if the perpetrator is a person from the top or higher hierarchy. Justice J S Verma, the author of the Vishakha guidelines, had expressed scepticism on this suggested structure, not to mention the absence of protection for the ICC members themselves for any potential victimisation in case of an adverse decision against a powerful boss.

However, the rights and duties of the employees and the organisations remain the most important issues of all. It is pertinent to mention that according to the law, the first point of resolution is within the organisation and not outside of it.

Thus, the resolution largely depends on robust internal systems, privacy and the ability to safeguard the reputations of the aggrieved, the accused and the organisation. A fair and neutral investigation system, the right and opportunity to express, better and equitable work conditions and suggested exceptions, as the case might be, are other important components of a robust system.

All of the above underline the need for a robust rights and duties system, that did not appear to exist in any of the organisations that I came across in India, nor are these issues on their prospective radar.

This, even though the absence of these components poses an utter risk of loss of reputation and enforcement actions that might be compounded since the complaints can then be treated in multiple enforcement regimes, even to the extent of moving it outside the purview of workplace harassment.

It is, thus, pertinent to say that even if we overlook the other shortcomings of the law or workplace systems, these points are enough to derail not just the creation of an equitable workplace in India, but deeply impact the Indian economy since the organisation would need to spend more time managing workplace sexual harassment issues than on revenue generation activities.

Till then, Indian workplaces will witness either false cases or not provide fair justice in real cases of workplace sexual harassment, ultimately defeating the larger issue of positive gender assimilation.

Children urge residents to kick the butt

Ahead of World No-Tobacco Day on May 31, schoolchildren and members of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) held a protest rally outside the office of a cigarette manufacturing company here on Saturday to protest tobacco sale among children.

Nearly 7 lakh people die every year due to consumption of tobacco products.

“The idea is to draw the government’s attention to the cigarette manufacturers’ lobby against whom it stands weak when it comes to stronger pictorial warnings on cigarette packets and the warning message that is ineffective,” said Pankaj Sharma from the NGO, Centre for Transforming India.

 “The pictorial warnings on cigarette packets are almost invisible, and the elite manufacturers place warnings in English which is again ignored by most smokers,” added Sharma.

The rally saw participation from over 100 children and school teachers who had gathered outside the office of Indian Tobacco Company (ITC).

According to the guidelines issued to educational institutions by the Delhi High Court, schools and colleges must take steps to prohibit sale of tobacco products inside the premises of the institutions. They must display signs on the main gate and on boundary walls and ban smoking or chewing of tobacco or tobacco products inside the campus.

A dummy cigarette of ten-foot height was also set up and people were told about the hazardous effects of smoking. Pankaj Sharma, chief trustee of the NGO, said that for every rupee earned by the tobacco industry, the government has to spend R5 on health care, besides several lives lost.

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IT sector failed to develop skills: Panel

BANGALORE: An industry whose very foundations are built on ‘skill’ has been accused of being tardy in identifying and nurturing it with ruinous implication for the future.

A recent Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resources (HR) has made critical observations on talent and skill development initiatives taken by IT companies and industry bodies. However, these comments elicited strong reaction from the software industry which said enough and more is being done to enhance the skill sets of its labour force though the primary responsibility lies with the government in this area.

The committee said that the existing skill development activities carried out by enterprises and industry bodies are slow, directionless and it might have serious consequences for the overall growth of the IT sector, said the committee.

The committee was surprised to note that in spite of several initiatives taken for meaningful interaction between industry and academia for mutual benefits specific to technical education system, linkages between industry and technical institutions continue to remain weak. The committee has been given to understand that anticipated response from the industry is simply missing. The variety of initiatives has failed to evolve the desired level of participation of the industry, said the committee.

The committee observed that tieup with industry associations such as CII, FICCI, Assocham , Nasscom and with entrepreneurship promoting agencies such as NSTEDB-DST , EDI, NISIET, NIESBUD have failed to take off.

According to Pankaj Sharma, chief trustee, Centre for Transforming India, an independent body focused on skill development and education, the basic problem is that there is no skill mapping done for IT industry either by companies or by trade bodies. The industry is also marred with a massive attrition problem which leaves little time for actual investment in skills. The government is spending a lot of amount through National Skill Development Mission but that too is going waste. Industry bodies that are supposed to do such activities are merely busy conducting seminars and tall-talks and doing little towards skill development for the industry, the report said.

The response from the industry was the opposite. Responding to the committee observations, Nasscom president Som Mittal said, “We were not part of the committee report. IT is a highly peoplecentric industry. We are working independently and we also have strong partnerships with the industry, academia and universities to ensure capacity development and skill development.”

Mittal said training/skilling is happening at multiple-levels . There are several independent training outfits; companies have their own training and skill development facilities, plus Nasscom has a Sector Skill Council and Nasscom Foundation runs an Animation & Gaming Academy.

Per annum, the government spends Rs 11 lakh crore, how much of it is going into education and skill development? Where are the tax money collections diverted asks Mohandas Pai, chairman, Manipal Universal Learning.

“It’s the job of the education sector, both vocational and higher, to focus on skill development. The government has started the journey, but has a long way to go. The committee’s criticism is misplaced as the primary agent has failed in its task and the industry cannot be blamed for the ills of society,” added Pai.

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Memorials for Delhi rape victim a year on


MS ANKITA Thapliyal skipped college yesterday to attend one of the scores of memorials held for the physiotherapy student whose gang rape in a moving bus in New Delhi exactly one year ago shocked the world, and released a raft of measures including tightening of the rape law.

The sad thing, Ms Thapliyal said, is that women in India are no safer today.

“I used to come home at 10pm and even later, and my parents would not say anything. Now I have to be home by 6pm. The restrictions are on women. Nothing changes; instead, the pressure is on me,” the 21-year- old said.

“But then I don’t feel safe in Delhi either.”

Across the country, people lit candles, prayed and sang songs in memory of the victim.

At another event in New Delhi, the victim’s parents held a prayer meeting attended by politicians, social activists and police officials, who all came to pay their respects to the young woman whose rape and death triggered protests.

On Dec 16 last year, the student was gang-raped and brutally assaulted. She died two weeks later at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, where she had been sent for treatment.

Four men are currently appealing against a death sentence while a fifth killed himself in prison. A sixth accused, a 17-year- old, is serving a maximum sentence of three years for rape and murder in a reform home.

Since the rape, the government has made stalking and voyeurism a crime and set up a fast-track court for rape cases. It also made rape that leaves a victim dead or in a vegetative state a capital offence.

Women activists said the biggest change is breaking the silence surrounding sexual violence against women in India.

So far this year, more than 1,300 rapes have been reported in New Delhi, up from 706 last year. Similarly, 2,844 assault cases were reported there this year, compared with 727 last year.

Last month, a young journalist accused powerful editor Tarun Tejpal, 50, of molesting and raping her in the lift of a five-star hotel. Mr Tejpal is currently in police custody.

In another high-profile case last month, a lawyer wrote about being sexually harassed last year by now retired justice A.K. Ganguly. She was then a law intern and he had allegedly invited her to his hotel room.

Those cases came after a photojournalist who was gang- raped in August went directly to the police, leading to the arrest of her assailants.

Yet gang rapes continue. In October, a minor was gang- raped in the state of Uttar Pradesh and then set on fire after she threatened to go to the police.

“You can only control crime when (the) criminal gets punishment and (the) victim gets justice,” said Mr Pankaj Sharma of non-profit Centre for Transforming India. “There is no evidence of that happening.”

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