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#MeToo panel set up to re-examine laws of workplace sexual harassment has been quietly dismantled by the new government, and this came to light only after The Quint filed an application under RTI.
Following MJ Akbar’s resignation last year, Prime Minister Modi’s government had set up a division called the “Group of Ministers” (GoM) comprising Nitin Gadkari, Nirmala Sitharaman, Maneka Gandhi, and Rajnath Singh, with the promise that they would re-examine the legal framework addressing workplace sexual harassment. This group was to then make appropriate recommendations within three months of their establishment and ensure their implementation in a time-bound manner.
Recently, The Quint filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 to find out about the status of this group, and was told that the group has been “dissolved.”
In their statement, The Quint also shared that they had spoken to a group of women who had shared that the government’s response and acknowledgment had held out room for hope and anticipation – but that has now turned into anger at their inaction. In the nine months since the announcement of the GoM’s existence, there has been no record whatsoever of what they did. They were supposed to submit recommendations within three months of their establishment – but there isn’t any record of any recommendations having been made.
In its RTI application, the Quint asked the following questions:
In response to this application, the government suggested that the committee was no longer in existence following the Constitution of the 17th Lok Sabha and the formation of a new government, the GoM was no longer in existence.
The response also added that the “required information is exempted from disclosure under Section 8(i) of the RTI Act 2005,” specifically with reference to the specific RTI queries regarding the deliberations of the GoM. Section 8(i) of the RTI Act 2005 states that “There shall be no obligation to give any citizen details of cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers.”
While on the one hand, it is understandable that the government is under no obligation by law to disclose details sought, it is also important to understand that the GoM came into existence with a view to restructuring extant legal frameworks to address a citizen grievance under #MeToo.
Its constitution was in the public eye, its goals were placed in the public eye, and its establishment was announced alongside details of what it was set to do.
Given the pressing need for action to appropriately respond to complaints of workplace sexual harassment, this silence and stonewalling is problematic. When power structures keep complaints from coming to fore, keep systems in place that serve their interests, and do precious little to safeguard workplaces, the danger lies in the apathy towards the issue itself.
While the government is still within its right to refuse to disclose the finer details, it could well have put up some information on the progress of the GoM.
Several citizens continue to face or remain vulnerable to sexual harassment at the workplace. Several more have faced harassment and have had no redress, or have had piecemeal redress that has favoured the powerful and not the victim. A mention of where the GoM stands, whether there will be a reconstitution now that the former version stands dissolved, what the former version achieved or did not achieve in brief, can still be helpful.
Had they done this, it would have gone a long way by setting a precedent for action. But the stonewalling and silencing is effectively a reaffirmation of the very struggles that survivors of harassment face ahead of them in reportage.
When I was still wet around the ears as a law student, I came across an interesting concept one balmy afternoon: The Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation. It sounded fancy.
In simple terms, it meant that a person may have a reasonable or legitimate expectation of being treated in a certain manner by administrative authorities either on account of their past practice, or, on account of an explicit promise made by the authority in question. By this token, then, a citizen has a legitimate expectation of a government that they vote into power, to act in fairness and with respect for the rights of its citizens.
By this doctrine, I, as a citizen, have a legitimate expectation that the government will deliver on what it said it would: and among the many other things that you and I may both have on our lists, the one thing that stands out is its attention to workplace sexual harassment.
Dissolving this panel violates that.
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