Crying out for implementation
In August 1997, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgment, which provided the basic definitions for sexual harassment at the work place. The landmark ‘Vishaka Judgment’ recognised the urgent need for laws that would protect women from sexual harassment at the work place. However, 16 years have passed since the judgment and there has been no serious improvement in working women’s environment. This is despite the passage of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in both Houses of Parliament, early this year. The ‘Vishaka Judgment’ is available in law classes and law journals across the country.
The apex court had directed all educational institutions and statutory bodies to follow this legal judgment. However, a recent case at Bhim Rao Ambedkar College, Delhi University (DU) raises questions on how eagerly educational institutions are following up on the guidelines and decisions set by the judgment and the following Act. In the above incident, a lab assistant, Pavitra Bharadwaj, died from self-immolation, after she alleged constant sexual and mental harassment by the college principal and another staff member.
Vijay Sharma, principal of Ram Lal Anand College, DU, said, ‘College complaints committees, meant to be independent of the principal, are there in every college at the varsity, as complaints and redressal bodies. But how effectively they work is very difficult to evaluate. The judgment has become the foundation for orientation programmes for government officers and staff members. Complaints committees have been constituted in accordance with the Vishaka Judgment.’
The protection of women from sexual harassment at the workplace bill was tabled in Lok Sabha on December 2010 and was thereafter referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Human Resource Development, headed by Oscar Fernandes, for deeper examination. Ashok Aggarwal, lawyer and social activist, said, ‘In April 2013, India enacted its own law on sexual harassment in the workplaces — The Sexual Harassment of Women at WorkplaceAct, 2013. The act includes all women employees,including those employed in the unorganised sector. This judgment identified sexual harassment as a violation of Article 14, 15 and 21 of the constitution, which includes the fundamental right to equality, life and to live it with dignity.’
Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) executives, at their meeting in October, condemned the delay in the decision over a sexual harassment complaint by Aruna Kumar, SPA, Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma (ARSD) College, against the Officer on Special Duty (OSD). The DUTA executive demanded a proper statutory inquiry in consonance with Ordinance XV-D be constituted by the University Apex Committee to enquire into the complaint of sexual harassment against OSD. Later in the month, the governing body of BR Ambedkar College suspended the principal, till the probe looking into allegations of sexual and mental harassment against him were completed.
In 1997, the Supreme Court, addressing a Public Interest Litigation, defined sexual harassment at the workplace and issued preventive measures and redressal mechanisms. However, besides the judgment, there are other impressive ways in which various organisationshave reached out to all kinds of informal workplaces. For instance, films like Ab Khamoshi Kyon, produced by India Centre for Human Rights and Law, and a four-minute documentary Jor Se Bol (Speak aloud) produced by Akshara on sexual harassment, have brought such discussions on to the public forum.
The ‘Vishaka Judgment’ before implementation, referred to many studies and surveys that looked at measures dealing with sexual harassment. Some prominent studies included those from the National Commission for Women. Other women’s organisations such as Sakshi in from Delhi and Hengasarra Hakina Sangha from Bangalore,also studied the prevalence of sexual harassment at the workplace, knowledge and implementation of the guidelines provided by the apex court.