On August 20 and 21, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, jointly held a discussion meeting for scientists and science journalists. The first of its kind in recent times, the meeting witnessed lively discussions on many subjects. Among the topics discussed were reports on sexual harassment within labs and research institutes.
Perhaps it was unsurprising that there were few responses to the introduction of this topic by journalists, as the issue is shrouded in silence not just within the scientific establishment but in several other sectors as well. There have been multiple reports of sexual harassment cases in the regional media and news portals — admirably thorough at times — such as recently on cases at S.N. Bose Centre, Kolkata, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
Seeking to collect data and analyse the problem in an article, The Hindu sent out a questionnaire to nearly half of the 19 autonomous research institutes under the Department of Science and Technology, and the 44 CSIR labs, on sexual harassment. The questions were worded carefully and did not ask the institute to reveal the identities of any person. It was also suggested that questions that respondents considered difficult or impossible to answer be left out. The result was worse than expected. Despite repeated phone calls and prompts, only five institutions responded, and that too in such an obscure manner as to make the reply useless. For instance, to the question “Were the members of the Internal Complaints Committee elected or nominated?” the reply was, “As per the government rules.” The intention of the survey was not to place any institution in a spot — it was to get a holistic understanding of the problem and write an analytical piece on it. But the response put paid to this intention.
There is a clause in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which says that the numbers must be reported in the annual report of institutions and handed over to the district officer. It is doubtful whether this is being done, especially because many people are unaware of this clause. At a broad level there is little doubt that the Act needs to be debated in greater depth so that legal experts can express thoughts on potential improvements. Without more discussion, the backlash on victims is likely to continue, and this distinctly favours the perpetrator.
There is an urgent need for scientists to think about this problem holistically and not just as isolated cases that happen in their own institutes or elsewhere. This is because, despite the problem’s wide reach, scientists have not yet recognised it as a systemic hazard. Greater involvement of those outside the scientific fraternity, including the media, can also help substantiate the conversation.
The writer covers science for The Hindu