The Vishakha laws, which stipulate the need to convene internal complaints committees for institutions, do not deal with this issue adequately. Under the Act, each district in India is required to set up a Local Complaints Committee. According to a Parliamentary reply, 29 states and all Union Territories have set up local complaints committees, and Ms Gandhi introduced the SHe box for registering sexual harassment complaints online.
On paper, this sounds great. In practice, the process is so clunky as to be ineffectual. One basic problem: Few working women are aware of these committees and how to access them — so much so that one law firm even advised clients to submit Right to Information applications to find them, which defeats the purpose.
Part of the problem is that the processes laid out for institutional complaints committees and district-level ones are identical. It is possible for those procedures to work within an office set-up — and even that is problematic when men dominate the organisation set-up. In a district-level committee, assuming it functions at all, there is little recourse if the accused declines to appear before it, or if the complaint involves, say, a politically powerful man.
The key difficulty in my view is that considerable responsibility is vested in the district officer to implement the findings of a local complaints committee. Given the de-facto quasi-political nature of this post, where transfers can be frequent and punitive, the laws need to seek some other solution to insulate local complaints committees from the political process. Vesting the powers in fast-track courts on the lines of the consumer courts, which have developed a reputation for being reasonably efficient, may be one solution. This is not so unthinkable since the law vests internal complaints committees with the powers of civil courts.
Finally, at the cost of attracting much opprobrium in these febrile times, may I suggest that the sexual harassment laws become gender-neutral. Although it is true that women remain the chief victims of sexual harassment, it is worth remembering that the #metoo movement in the US, from which we draw our inspiration, included men who complained about sexual harassment from other men. denouement would be Exhibit A.
In India, as long as homosexuality was deemed an “unnatural offence”, the opportunities for men to complain of harassment by male bosses or colleagues were non-existent (a problem that would apply to gay women as well). The Supreme Court ruling of September this year alters the situation. Extending the ambit of the law across the gender divide would also mark an acknowledgment that women are beginning to acquire roles of power in the workplace, and employees need to be protected from their possible predatory sexual attentions too.
Renaming the law “The Sexual Harassment of Employees in the Workplace (Prevention and Redressal Act), therefore, would introduce an element of fairness and, most importantly, greater credibility to the eternally vexed issue of handling gender relations in the workplace.