Prime Minister Narendra Modi runs a tight ship. Hardly any minister in his cabinet speaks out of turn. Except one. Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare Maneka Gandhi appears to have no hesitation in voicing her unhappiness with some of the decisions of her government.
So while she is already on record asking that marital rape be criminalised even though her government thinks otherwise, in May this year she objected to the cutback in central funds allocated to programmes under her ministry. She was particularly upset that the allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services, a programme that has been crucial to improving nutritional levels of the most vulnerable children and women, has been cut by almost half. Furthermore, even the National Nutrition Mission launched in December 2014 by her government has been given short shrift. Far from the Rs.28,000 crores over five years that it was expecting, it has been allocated only Rs.100 crores so far.
In the recently released Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, India’s maternal mortality figure of 190 (number of women who die for every 100,000 live births) is substantially higher than even war-torn Syria (49) and Iraq (67). Its child mortality figures are equally depressing as compared to many other countries.
Her latest missive to her own government is equally significant. In a letter to Union Finance and Corporate Affairs minister Arun Jaitley, Gandhi has asked him to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as required under the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2013. This is a reasonable request. Yet, Jaitley has dismissed it saying that such an additional demand on companies is “undesirable”.
How does the question of whether it is “desirable” or not enter the picture? The law has mandated that all companies and organisations must have an ICC. It also requires companies to inform employees about provisions of the law and train members of the ICC on the law and what constitutes an offence.
The non-compliance levels of Indian companies underline why Ms. Gandhi’s request is not unreasonable. According to a report titled “Fostering Safe Workplaces” by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Ernst and Young, one in every three Indian companies, or 31 per cent, has not set up ICCs. Of those who have, 40 per cent have not begun training the members in the provisions of the law, 35 per cent are unaware of the penal consequences of not complying with the law and 44 per cent have not circulated information about the law to their employees. FICCI has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UN Women to advance “gender equality and women’s empowerment”. A good start would be to get its members to comply with provisions of the sexual harassment law.
According to the National Commission on Women, the complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace have doubled from 249 in 2013 to 526 in 2014. These represent a sliver of the reality. For every one case reported, there are likely to be dozens that remain hidden, with the women too afraid to raise their voices for fear of losing their jobs or being further victimised.
We know from the recent sexual harassment case at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) how difficult it is for a woman to pursue a case against a powerful individual. When the TERI employee first complained against the head of the institute, Dr. R.K. Pachauri, TERI did not even have an ICC. Once constituted, the ICC upheld the woman’s complaint. Dr. Pachauri was asked to go on leave and the board (after some pressure from the media, one might add) appointed his successor. Yet, Dr. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Meanwhile, the affected woman has resigned. In her resignation letter, she states: “TERI failed to uphold my interests as an employee, let alone protecting them. The organisation has instead protected R.K. Pachauri and provided him full immunity, despite being held guilty of sexual harassment by your own inquiry committee.” This case is as clear an illustration as any of the skewed power equations in sexual harassment cases.
Compliance with the law is obviously only the first step. The minimum requirement is an ICC. Yet, as is clear from the TERI case, it is not enough. Organisations must support those women who find the courage to speak up. Instead, in their desire to avoid any slur on their reputations, many organisations end up protecting the harasser and literally hounding the complainant to leave. So, Maneka Gandhi is right. Insisting that registered companies (and other organisations) comply with this minimum requirement is not asking for too much.
The writer is independent journalist and columnist.
The views expressed here are personal.