SC directs Centre, state govts to ensure formation of sexual harassment committee

SC directs Centre, state govts to ensure formation of sexual harassment committee

New Delhi, May 12:  The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Centre, all state governments and Union Territories (UTs) to verify as to whether all the concerned ministries, departments, government bodies, authorities, public sector undertakings, institutions etc. have constituted sexual harassment committees.

The top court stressed that it is disquieting to note that there are serious lapses in the enforcement of the 2013 Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act even after such a long passage of time.

A bench comprising justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli said if the working environment continues to remain hostile, insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of women employees, the 2013 Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act will remain an empty formality.

"If the authorities/managements/employers cannot assure them a safe and secure work place, they will fear stepping out of their homes to make a dignified living and exploit their talent and skills to the hilt. It is, therefore, time for the Union government and the state governments to take affirmative action and make sure that the altruistic object behind enacting the PoSH Act is achieved in real terms," said Justice Kohli, who authored the 61-page judgment on behalf of the bench.

The top court stressed that however salutary this enactment may be, it will never succeed in providing dignity and respect that women deserve at the workplace unless and until there is strict adherence to the enforcement regime and a proactive approach by all the state and non-state actors.

The bench said all the state functionaries, public authorities, private undertakings, organisations and institutions are duty-bound to implement the PoSH Act in letter and spirit.

"Being a victim of such a deplorable act not only dents the self-esteem of a woman, it also takes a toll on her emotional, mental and physical health. It is often seen that when women face sexual harassment at the workplace, they are reluctant to report such misconduct. Many of them even drop out from their job. One of the reasons for this reluctance to report is that there is an uncertainty about who to approach under the Act for redressal of their grievance," said the bench.

Justice Kohli said it is disquieting to note that there are serious lapses in the enforcement of the Act even after such a long passage of time. This glaring lacuna has been recently brought to the fore by a national daily that has conducted and published a survey of 30 national sports federations in the country and reported that 16 out of them have not constituted an Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) till date, Justice Kohli said.

She added: "An improperly constituted ICC/LC/IC, would be an impediment in conducting an inquiry into a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace, as envisaged under the statute and the rules. It will be equally counterproductive to have an ill-prepared committee conduct a half-baked inquiry that can lead to serious consequences, namely, imposition of major penalties on the delinquent employee, to the point of termination of service."

The bench said: "The Union of India, all state governments and UTs are directed to undertake a time-bound exercise to verify as to whether all the concerned ministries, departments, government organisations, authorities, public sector undertakings, institutions, bodies etc. have constituted ICCs/LCs/ICs, as the case may be and that the composition of the said Committees are strictly in terms of the provisions of the PoSH Act."

The bench directed that necessary information regarding the constitution and composition of the ICCs/LCs/ICs, details of the e-mail IDs and contact numbers of the designated person(s), the procedure prescribed for submitting an online complaint, as also the relevant rules, regulations and internal policies are made readily available on the website of the concerned authority/functionary/ organisation/institution/body.

The apex court said: "A similar exercise shall be undertaken by all the Statutory bodies of professionals at the apex level and the State level (including those regulating doctors, lawyers, architects, chartered accountants, cost accountants, engineers, bankers and other professionals), by universities, colleges, training centres and educational institutions and by government and private hospitals/nursing homes."

The top court issued a slew of directions while hearing a plea by Aureliano Fernandes, a former head of department at Goa University, against a Bombay High Court order in connection with sexual harassment allegations levelled against him.

The high court had dismissed his plea challenging the order by the Executive Council of Goa University (disciplinary authority), dismissing him from service and disqualifying him from future employment. The apex court set aside the high court order noting procedural lapses in inquiry proceedings and violation of principles of natural justice.

Passing a slew of directions in the matter, the bench said: "The authorities/management/employers shall regularly conduct orientation programmes, workshops, seminars and awareness programmes to upskill members of the ICCs/LCs/ICs and to educate women employees and women's groups about the provisions of the Act, the rules and relevant regulations."

The apex court directed the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) to develop modules to conduct workshops and organise awareness programmes to sensitise authorities/managements/employers, employees and adolescent groups with the provisions of the Act.

The bench said: "A copy of this judgment shall be transmitted to the secretaries of all the ministries who shall ensure implementation of the directions by all the concerned departments, statutory authorities, institutions, organisations etc. under the control of the respective ministries. A copy of the judgment shall also be transmitted to the chief secretaries of all the states and Union Territories who shall ensure strict compliance of these directions by all the concerned departments."

The apex court also directed Centre and states to file their affidavits within eight weeks for reporting compliance.

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